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Casting Doubt on New Study Questioning Benefits of Barefoot-Style Running

Posted on 12 June 2013

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So what should we make of the latest footwear study that suggests that barefoot-style running isn’t really the best or most economical?  With it attention-getting headline, “Is Barefoot-Style Running Best? New Studies Cast Doubt,” New York Times health and fitness writer Gretchen Reynolds recently pounced on a report that was published last month in The Journal of Applied Physiology.

“{The study} looked into whether landing near the front of the foot when you run is more physiologically efficient than striking the ground first with the heel…  Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recruited 37 experienced runners, 19 of whom were habitual heel-strikers and 18 of whom landed first near the front of the foot.”

And their findings? “In the end, this data showed that heel-striking was the more physiologically economical running form, by a considerable margin. Heel strikers used less oxygen to run at the same pace as forefoot strikers, and many of the forefoot strikers used less oxygen — meaning they were more economical — when they switched form to land first with their heels.”

Does this mean natural running is unnatural, and we have to go back wearing our rigid, cushiony-sole, monster-heel running shoes that have taken up permanent residence in the rear of our closets?  Or is this study too limited in its scope, application, and number of participants to mean much of anything? Yet judging from the media’s reaction to the Times piece and study, one can easily assume that barefoot/minimalism is well, on the way out, or at least, not 100 percent recommended for almost all runners. But this has little to do with facts, and is a consequence of typical media hype.

Dr. Mark’s take on all this?  “One cannot focus on a single variable, and yes barefoot/minimal running is not about fast or some other measurable.  It is like acquiring the taste for good quality coffee. Once you go there you will not go back.  Not sure why but it is true.  One builds a resiliency for injury.  I ran 5 miles with Zola Budd 2 days after Comrades  Marathon and felt fine.  I employed every running style I could think of besides over-striding to get through that race.”

This is directly from the abstract: “The results suggest that the FF pattern is not more economical than the RF pattern”.
If you read the study the researchers found NO DIFFERENCE between the two.
The NYT interpretation: “In the end, this data showed that heel-striking was the more physiologically economical running form, by a considerable margin. Heel strikers used less oxygen to run at the same pace as forefoot strikers”.  Not sure how they came to this conclusion.

Another expert on footwear and lead co-author of my book, Tread Lightly: Form, Footwear, and the Quest for Injury-Free Running, is Pete Larson, who wrote the following on his blog about the study:

How would I interpret all of this?

1. If you are a heel striker, switching to a forefoot strike will likely lead to reduced economy, at least until you become used to the new pattern… Economy is probably not a great reason heel strikers to mess around with their foot strike.

2. If you are a midfoot striker, as were most in this study, it probably doesn’t matter much what your foot is doing. Forefoot and heel strikes are equally economical…

3. There was a tendency for forefoot strikers to burn more carbs… 

4. This study was conducted on a treadmill, so we do have to be careful about extrapolating the results to a non-compliant, harder surface like a road...

To expose additional light (I mean flaws) of the study, here’s two more viewpoints, both from regular contributors to the Natural Running Center. First up at bat is Jim Hixson, who worked for 15 years at a specialty running store in St. Louis. Then, we have Steven Sashen, co-founder of Xero Shoes (his piece in a more expanded context originally appeared as a blog post on his company’s site.)   — Bill Katovsky

***

Jim Hixson:

I haven’t heard that barefoot runners claim that they run without shoes because it is more efficient, although runners in minimal shoes often feel that way.  With the latter group I think the claim is justified, as long as the switch to minimal shoes includes a change to or reinforcement of natural running form.

I’ve tried to determine why so many people have this reflex reaction to minimal shoes, barefoot, and natural running and I’ve arrived at the conclusion that most are opposed to these specific changes because they have difficulty accepting the idea of change in general.  Although not all change is good, but the general population is opposed to any change when ideas or behavior that has become normalized is concerned.  Just ask Galileo!

Of course the larger economic forces: the shoe companies, shoe retailers, orthotics companies, and much of the medical establishment are opposed because the proposed changes would affect them financially and question their  authority.  One of the reasons that minimal shoes, barefoot, and natural running have seemed so incendiary to many is the impulse for change has come from outside the accepted channels of authority and has upset those who have become comfortable being seen as the arbiters of all that is true and good and by those who have become accustomed to receiving their wisdom from these same forces.

Change has always fascinated me, especially substantive change.  For the running community and the economic forces that benefit from this community the changes we want are seen as dangerous and threatening.

Steven Sashen:

Imagine for a moment that you did extensive research into something, only to conclude that you need more research before you could make a meaningful statement about that something.

Is that news? I don’t think so.

Would any newspaper publish a headline: Scientists discover: We’re not sure yet!

Nope. No news is not news.

So, I’m once again dumbstruck by the latest article from the New York Times, “Is Barefoot-Style Running Best? New Studies Cast Doubt”

None of this new science, of course, proves that barefoot-style running is inadvisable or disadvantageous for all runners; it proves only that the question of whether barefoot is best is not easily answered.

In other words, “Studies show we need more studies!”

Who are barefoot runners hurting?

To be fair, I’m okay with “Studies show we need more studies.” It’s not news, but it’s accurate.

So let me ask this: Why take what is essentially a barefoot bashing tack in the headline with “New Studies Cast Doubt?”

Sure, some people will argue that the headline is simply saying “Hey, we’re not sure.” But, is it really?

The clear implication is that there was proof that barefoot was great for you, and now science says, Not so fast!

This is like asking, “Do you know if your neighbor is a thief?” It’s not saying that your neighbor is a thief, but it suddenly plants the doubt in your mind.

So, why the need for the mildly sensational and misleading headline?

Now before we jump to the end of the Times article, which says something I agree with — more study is necessary, let’s look at a couple of points in the article itself.

First, it comments on “the most definitive” of the new studies that says, in essence, “Landing on your forefoot is not as metabolically efficient as heel striking in is racing flats.

Where to begin? First, is the idea that barefoot running = landing on your forefoot.That’s a straw man argument. Talk to those of us who’ve worked with thousands of barefoot runners and we’ll tell you that:

1.    There are many ways to land when running barefoot. Forefoot landing is only one of them.

2.    There are many ways to land on your forefoot, and not all of them are the same. For example, how high is your heel off the ground when you land? Does your heel ever touch the ground? If so, when, and for how long?

3.    It’s possible to have your heel touch the ground first, but still be a “mid-foot striker” (that is, your heel makes contact, but there’s practically no force on the ground until your mid foot touches down).

In other words, how they’ve defined “barefoot-style” for the sake of research isn’t how “barefoot-style” is defined by most of us who actually run barefoot and teach barefoot running (and who’ve given it a lot of thought).

Next, the study has the runners switch from forefoot to heel striking, or vice versa, to compare efficiency… while wearing racing flats.

While this may be an interesting bit of info about heel-striking in shoes, vs. forefoot landing in shoes:

a) What does this have to do with barefoot running?

b) The argument from barefoot runners is not that heel-striking is more or less efficient, it’s that heel striking can injure you.

This was the thrust of Daniel Lieberman’s research at Harvard: landing on your heel, even in a padded shoe, sends an “impact transient” spike of force through your joints, whereas a forefoot landing eliminates that force through your joints…

…If it’s done correctly.

Once again, the study doesn’t mention whether the runners were over striding or not, regardless of whether they were heel-striking or forefoot striking.

In other words, not all heel striking is the same. It’s possible, as I mentioned above, to land heel-first, but with your foot properly positioned under your body in a way that doesn’t cause that impact transient force spike.

In short, the variables (heel-striking vs. forefoot striking) and the measurement of them were too limited to come to a definitive conclusion… oh, right, that’s what it says at the end of the article, after suggesting in this section that barefoot is bogus.

But wait, there’s more…

Next, the article  says that 5 studies showed that switching to minimalist, barefoot-style footwear did not improve efficiency.

How many times do I have to say this: Barefoot-style and minimalist are not the same as barefoot!  Most of the minimalist/barefoot shoes that are available are about as close to barefoot as a pair of stilts. Just because a product says  it’s “barefoot” doesn’t mean it is.

Then the article adds, “The news on injury prevention and barefoot-style running is likewise sobering.”

Again, the implication is that here’s some big news that’s about to tell you that running barefoot will kill you in some way. But what’s the “sobering” news?

It’s the BYU study that we previously ripped apart, and an informal poll where 1/3 of the participants at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine had “tried barefoot-style shoes” and 1/3 of them had “suffered injuries” that they attributed to the new footwear.

So, now it’s not barefoot-style running, it’s the footwear itself that caused the problems? Make up your mind.

Or, better, consider the following: 50 percent of runners get injured every year. Almost 80 percent of marathoners get injured every year.

If only 1/3 of the people who went minimalist got injured… that’s better than the average!

And  what about the happy barefoot runners?

I’m the first one to say that anecdotes are not the same as data. A story is not the same as research. (Unless, of course, you’re at the American College of Sports Medicine meeting, where a poll of people who claim that barefoot running hurt them — even though most of them probably never put their bare skin on the ground — counts as something worth publishing)

But that doesn’t mean one should ignore the thousands of stories — at Xero Shoes, we get at least one every day — from people who took off their shoes and were able to run pain-free for the first time in years.

Further, there are many reasons to get out of your shoes beyond being able to run fast, or run efficiently, or even to run at all.


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8 Responses to “Casting Doubt on New Study Questioning Benefits of Barefoot-Style Running”

  1. Erik Horton says:

    The article came from the New York Times, that should be the first sign that the information being presented should be scrutinized. The New York Times lost all credibility a long time ago, not much good coming from them lately.

    For every study like this that comes out someone else will produce a study that shows the exact opposite, it is getting to the point where it is becoming difficult to trust “science”.

    The fact of the matter is that adopting a more natural running form reduces injury, period. If it were not for man made intervention i.e shoes, our body would not allow us to land on our heels.

    How anyone can say it is safer and more economical to land on a hard bone rather than an anatomical structure designed to absorb shock (the arch) is beyond me.

  2. Cody R. says:

    steven sashen nailed it with his third point

    heel striking and heel contact are completely different

    heel contact is still a natural…thing while still maintaining form, heck, even the forefoot strikers can potentially create heel first contact if under enough fatigue

  3. David G says:

    I’m no expert, but I understand that it’s the over-stride that causes efficiency loss and not the strike type. They are testing the wrong variable!!

    It’s also obvious that with natural running form your absorbing impact with your muscles and tendons rather than letting the impact shock your body. That eccentric muscle loading can’t be for free, it’s going to take some energy and be less efficient than letting the cartilage absorb the impact.

    Lastly, why does almost every high level runner midfoot/forefoot strike with the food under their CG and no over-stride?? Because it’s less efficient?? Somehow I doubt this to be the case.

    Sounds like a lame study to me.

  4. Mark says:

    It’s interesting that they had the participants change their form and tried to measure the efficiency from that. Anyone who has tried to change their form in any sport knows that it takes more energy in the short term until your body gets used to the new form. When I was changing over to a faster cadence my heart rate was much higher at the same pace than with a slower cadence, but then when my body got used to it (after a couple of months) I was faster at the same heart rate than before. Same thing when I started running barefoot.

    Regarding the ACSM poll, did they also ask if the folks who tried barefoot running eased into it or just went out and tried to do their usual miles with new or no shoes? I took several months to transition and though I didn’t get injured, some of my leg muscles did complain a bit.

  5. Miguel G says:

    Same as with wider matters such as food, health, education. Big media convey studies wich are taylor made to accomodate big corporation interests. They all start with “recent studies pointing to” or such.
    The message to implant into our minds is obvious: “barefoot is bad for you”. One should add “if you sell shoes or medical services”.
    That’s why it is so important to discuss these issues with our family, friends, the guy next door.
    Beware.

  6. Alessio says:

    I’m a barefooter, I’m interested about anything that has something to do with barefooting and about science.
    I have many doubts about the reliability of this study;
    when we land on our forefoot, we perfectly use the energy recovering capability of our arches, that work like a spring, together with our calves and Achilles tendons, to re-convert the kinetic energy of the impact for the next step. Thus, I would bet that a forefoot landing is better in terms of recovering energy.
    Trying to analyse the issue from another perspective, it could be possible that we use more oxygen in FFS because more muscles are involved, feet muscles, calves, etc…, but I don’t know if this is a reliable explanation. The important thing is also consider if people are barefoot or shod, because there’s still a difference even between barefoot running and minimal running, in terms of connections between our brain and the receptors under our feet.
    Then, we also have to see if the samples involved in the the study have a correct running form; if we take an habitual shod runner, I hardly believe that he’s able to run using a forefoot landing in the proper and most economcal way.
    In the end, there also are many other variables involved…
    Anyway, we all know, also from Lieberman & Co., that a forefoot landing prevents injuries, avoiding a very high impact that arises from heel striding, which starts from the heel and goes up along our body, till our head.

  7. b says:

    Too many variables, and not enough focus on running background, physiology, goals, and limiting variable changes when assessing impacts.

    Yes heel striking is efficient – I did it for years, I was good at it, I had a long beautiful stride, and I endured decades of impact-related injuries. Cycling with a cadence less than 85 RPM is more efficient as well (especially if measured solely in muscle flex frequency or oxygen use), but no one out there would recommend it (too hard on the knees). If we’re talking recreational running, and the goal is to run longer and/or injury free, a shorter, mid foot landing stride is more appropriate for most people.

    A forefoot strike, zero drop shoes, and barefoot running are all things that will work for some people, but probably not most people. Whether they’re appropriate for an individual depends largely in that person’s physiology, goals, environment, and running and injury history.

    Personally, I found great relief from impact/compression-related injuries (knee, hip, and back pain) when adopting a natural running form. However, I’ve suffered for years from calf muscle cramping issues, and minimal or zero drop shoes compounded this problem (even with a natural stride), because they put undue strain (additional stretching of the calf muscles and Achilles during each stride) on my problem area. Yes, I tried to transition slowly…

    35 years of running, 4:33 mile, 15:54 5k, 33:54 10k, Pikes Peak Marathon … all heel striking (at least until I dropped much below a 6:30 min/mile pace, where heel striking typically gave way to something much closer to a natural stride). 7 yrs of calf muscle pain, and I’d switched almost exclusively to cycling. Started natural running about 9 months ago and, after switching back to a 10-12 mm drop shoe and retaining the natural running form, I couldn’t be happier.

    Someone out there will say, give it time, work on stretching, and you’ll adjust to lower drop shoes. My reply: You can’t imagine how debilitating my cramping issues were. After 35 years of running at many different paces, with many different strides, I have a pretty dialed-in sense of what does and doesn’t work for me. I’d rather move forward with what works for me and enjoy running injury free than attempt the change again.

    Don’t confuse the use of minimal or zero drop shoes with natural running form. The extra padding under the heel can do more than soften the impact when heel striking. If you wanted to make the argument that what I’m describing is near-natural, because you can’t do it (stop your heel that high off the ground while landing on the mid foot) effectively when barefooted, I’d accept that.

    Find what works for you.

    For anyone suffering with cramping issues…here are a few nuggets, each of which I wish I’d found years earlier…bananas daily, Endurolytes, massage stick, arnica, rest days, slow increases in long run and weekly distance, and learning to enjoy running slowly (7:30+/mile in my case).

    Happy running.

    • MarkC says:

      Great advice on sensing what is right for you and working on the form first. shoes do not fix it. congrats on Pikes Peak. Ran that every year when living in Colorado….but only the Ascent. Mark


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