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Summary of Responses on Performance Aspects of Barefoot Running

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  • Summary of Responses on Performance Aspects of Barefoot Running

    Thank you to everyone that responded to my question of why there are so few elite barefoot runners.   From the answers I received, much more research is obviously required on this topic before we can make more informed conclusions about the performance effects of barefoot running.  


    In the hundreds of races I competed in during the 1970s and 1980s as a high school, college and post-collegiate distance runner, neither I, nor any my fellow runners ever raced barefoot that I was aware of.   The reason I would never have raced barefoot was that I simply didn’t want to risk injuring my feet on the multitude of surfaces I competed on in cross-country, track and on roads.   I simply didn’t want to risk having my foot lacerated, punctured or abraded by odd surfaces or sharp objects.   However, my personal experience of training as a collegiate distance runner back in the late 1970s was that running mile intervals on a grassy field while barefoot allowed me to run about 5 seconds per mile faster than running in shoes for an equivalent effort(my average was 5:10 /mile in shoes, 5:05 /mile without shoes).  


    Certainly this apparent increase in running speed with “lighter feet” impressed upon me at an early age the effects of added mass to the foot on running economy.   The normal routine of every competitive long distance runner I competed against in the 1970s and 1980s seemed to be to train in thicker-soled shoes and then race in racing flats that had minimum mass and minimum midsole/outersole thickness.   The apparent reason behind this ritual was that the feet were protected more during training so that when race day arrived, we would wear the lightest and fastest shoe we could find to “make us faster” for race day.   I believe this is still standard practice among competitive distance runners today.


    My subjective impression of why the vast majority of competitive distance runners do not choose to race barefoot is not because of being worried about losing lucrative endorsement contracts from shoe companies.   Rather, my impression is that these more talented runners are worried that when they are racing, the increased impact forces and speeds during the race may injure their foot if they were to run the race while barefoot.  


    Research has clearly shown that the majority of runners choose to shorten their stride and avoid heel striking while barefoot versus when they run with shoes.   Could this also be the reason why so few elite runners race while barefoot?   Could it be that racing in a thin-soled racing flat offers just enough protection to the plantar foot that the shod runner is now not limited to the shorter stride restrictions that barefoot runners seem to choose to protect their feet from harder surfaces? Maybe the added stride length capability of running in a shoe with some heel cushion more than makes up for the added mass of the racing flat?  


    Thanks again for the answers to my questions and for an entertaining discussion about the sport I love.




    ************************************************** **************************
    Kevin A. Kirby, DPM
    Clinical Associate Professor
    Department of Applied Biomechanics
    California School of Podiatric Medicine at Samuel Merritt University

    Private Practice:
    107 Scripps Drive, Suite 200
    Sacramento, CA  95825  USA

    Voice:  (916) 925-8111     Fax:  (916) 925-8136
    ************************************************** **************************




    Hi Kevin,


    I suspect there is a large sponsorship funding effect (or requirement) at the professional level.  Maybe there is a psychological effect?  Some motivational benefit to having a special pair of "racing" shoes?


    Ross Miller


    ************************************************** ***




    Have a look at Nigg's article in Footwear Science (Nigg BM:   Biomechanical considerations on barefoot movement and barefoot shoe concepts.   Footwear Science, 1:73-79, 2009).


    Hope you are well.






    Chris MacLean, PhD


    ************************************************** ***


    Coming from a background in track and triathlons, I would suggest  

    that it is a combination of factors.  Certainly elite runners wear  

    very light shoes, or even racing spikes, for competition.  A simple  

    lightweight shoe protects the athlete from any debris that may be on  

    the road and can help keep their feet warm during cold or wet weather.


    And that is just for road racing.  Once races move to the track,  

    having spikes to aid in traction may certainly help.  Looking at  

    sprint spikes, they offer a rigid platform designed to minimize flex,  

    maximize energy return, and maintain a forefoot running style towards  

    the end of the race when even elite sprinters begin to "dip".  The  

    extra traction, comfort, and support of a racing spike may mitigate  

    many of the disadvantages of putting extra weight on the feet.  

    However I would expect this effect to diminish as distances increase.


    Finally, there is most  certainly a financial element to this.  Elite  

    athletes rely on sponsorship money, and the brands want the best  

    wearing their stuff (I have seen Puma sprint spikes become much more  

    popular since Usain Bolt started winning in them).   Clearly brand  

    awareness is important, otherwise companies would eschew large logos  

    on sub-5 oz. shoes to save further weight.


    Again, these are just thoughts and musings from someone interested in  

    biomechanics and with ten years of serious track/triathlon  

    competition, so take what I've said for what it's worth.


    Andrew Engbretson

    MASc Candidate

    Mechanical and Materials Engineering

    Queen's University, Kingston, ON Canada



    ************************************************** *****


    Your last point is the obvious answer. Nike doesn't pay them to run

    barefoot! And lets face it, corporate sponsorship is the only

    consistent way for pro runners to make money since the prize money

    isn't fantastic. But also, when running barefoot, at least part of your

    attention must be placed on where and how your feet are landing to

    avoid injury. No longer a worry in a shoe. This is a very complex

    debate that has few answers and the correct answer may be contextually








    Ken Learman,PT,PhD,OCS, COMT ,FAAOMPT

    Associate Professor of Physical Therapy

    Youngstown State University

    One University Plaza

    Youngstown , OH 44555

    (330) 941-7125


    ************************************************** ********


    Dear Biomechanician:


    What you talked about barefoot running is correct but only from the point of

    view  of additional weight. Thats one aspect, what about impact forces with

    the ground. By using the the softer shoe you are reducing the bearing

    pressure on the fingers and keeping it less fatigued and giving the runner

     a chance to run longer and efficiently..He is carrying a little more weight

    in his feet but it is better for him from safety aspect aswell , which is

    paramount in any sports.



    Prof S.Pal

    Jadavpur University

    Kolkata-32, India


    Prof. Dr. Subrata Pal

    Emeritus Professor, Biomed. Engg.

    Jadavpur University , Kolkata - 700032



    ************************************************** ****

    Dear All,


    Here is a sidelight on Michael Orendurff's interesting comments on the

    disadvantages of wearing shoes.  In his recent book ("The Brain That

    Changes Itself", 2007) Norman Doidge provided a relevant insight. He

    mentioned that according to Merzenich if shoes are worn for many years

    this limit the sensory feedback from the feet to the brain and this

    reduces the brain's ability to process sensations from the soles of the

    feet unless one gets used to barefoot walking.


    Merzenich also mentioned that wearing shoes leads to a loss of "gross

    motor control" as we age, hence barefoot walking in childhood and

    adolescence (on beaches for instance) might be crucial to the success of

    particular athletes in barefoot running programs. He noted that this

    deficit can lead to loss of mobility and confidence in older walkers.

    Perhaps this factor also de-motivates young athletes. See page 20 of

    this excerpt from Doidge's book:


    Foot arch muscles might not be crucial after all. Maybe it's all in the





    David McFarlane MAppSc (Ergonomics)

    Ergonomist, WorkCover NSW




    Norman Doidge, (2007), "The Brain That Changes Itself", [Scribe

    Publications, Melbourne ]. See: