“The Barefoot Professor”, a behind-the-scenes look at the new Nature paper.

Humans that had to escape from saber-toothed cats, giant hyenas, and charging mammoths did not wear Nike or Adidas sneakers. They ran barefoot, but don’t feel too bad that they did not have good running shoes to help them. As suggested by a team of researchers led by Daniel Lieberman in the latest issue of Nature, habitually shoeless runners have a unique step that may be better for our feet than even the most expensive, cushioned running shoe.

Whenever I go for a jog I run in the way that is most familiar to me. When my foot comes down to the ground I lead with my heel, after which my entire foot contacts the ground before the push off launched by the front of my foot. I do not think about it: it is just what comes naturally, and it is what many other joggers who wear sneakers do. But there are two other types of running steps. In a mid-foot-strike runners land with their feet almost flat on the ground, and in a fore-foot-strike the “ball” of the foot (where the toes meet the rest of the foot) hits the ground first.


A comparison of the vertical ground reaction forces and foot kinematics in the same runner using heel-strike (top) and front-foot-strike (bottom) techniques. Note the spike in the reaction force in the top illustration, marking the jarring effect of the heel hitting the ground.

It might be in my best interest to switch to one of these latter running styles. When Lieberman and his team looked at the way several different groups of people ran (including shod US athletes, shod runners from Kenya who started out running barefoot, US runners that switched from wearing sneakers to going barefoot, adolescents from Kenya that wore shoes, and another group of Kenyan adolescents that have never worn shoes) the differences between how shoes affect running became starkly apparent. Runners that had grown up wearing shoes struck the ground with their heel first, even when running shoeless, while those that had started running shoeless preferred the front-foot-strike. And, despite being barefoot, the runners who used the front-foot strike technique experienced less stress on their feet and legs than runners with thickly-cushioned shoes. It is less jarring to run barefoot using the front-foot-strike than to run in heel-strike fashion with even the best running shoes.

What this study suggests is that the front-foot-strike might be the most natural foot posture during running and therefore may be the way early members of our species ran long before the invention of shoes. In fact, our modern shoes might be encouraging us to run in a manner inconsistent with the way our feet were adapted, hence causing more injuries than would otherwise occur. Despite all the money that has been poured into reducing stress injuries caused by running by creating better shoes, the best way to reduce running injuries may be to simply toss the shoes and alter our foot posture. As the authors admit, more research is required to determine whether this is true, but if their hypothesis is correct then we would do better to run like our ancestors did.

Lieberman, D., Venkadesan, M., Werbel, W., Daoud, A., D’Andrea, S., Davis, I., Mang’Eni, R., & Pitsiladis, Y. (2010). Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners Nature, 463 (7280), 531-535 DOI: 10.1038/nature08723


  1. #1 Cuttlefish
    January 28, 2010

    I don’t enjoy the way it feels
    To run; I always bruise my heels.
    But running (so I hear) appeals
    To most of you, I know.
    The thing I did not understand
    Is, running, on the dirt or sand
    Is better if I try to land
    Not on my heel, but toe.

    This “running” that I’ve often cursed
    Is harmful, if you land heel first;
    Initial impact is the worst—
    Three times your weight, and Ouch!
    I’m thinking now, it might be fun
    To check this out, to take a run!
    Just one thing keeps me from the sun—
    I really love my couch!

  2. #2 darwinsdog
    January 28, 2010

    Bernard Rudofsky, in his 1971 book “The Unfashionable Human Body,” detailed the evils of wearing shoes. Photos of the deformed feet of lifelong shoe wearers next to those of Africans who had never worn shoes convinced me that I was lucky to have grown up barefooted as often as my mom would allow. My own feet are somewhere between the two extremes pictured in the book. It was bliss being a barefoot boy in the American Midwest. Relocating to the thorny Southwest kept me shod more often. I once dated a cowgirl who had the ugliest feet: deformed to an extreme by her pointy-toed cowgirl boots. Shoes are foot coffins. Liberate the feet!

  3. #3 The Ridger
    January 28, 2010

    Just watch out for that frostbite.

  4. #4 Katherine
    January 28, 2010

    Surely it should be possible to run the beter way with shoes on? I shall experiment. One certainly has to run without using ones heels if one is wearing heels.

  5. #5 Ahcuah
    January 28, 2010

    You alluded to this, but one of the points is that the heavy padding on the heel of a shoe makes it quite a bit harder for you to flex your ankle far enough to do a mid-foot or fore-foot landing.

    Shoes do even more: by holding your foot more-or-less rigid, they give all the muscles there a chance to atrophy (aside from the deformations noted by darwinsdog). But that also means that the average shod person should not expect to be able to run distances barefoot right off the bat without working their way into it than we would expect a couch potato to suddenly start playing tennis 5 hours a day.

    By the way, regarding frostbite, much of cold feet seems to come from the wearing of shoes (up to a point, of course). Lace-tightened shoes probably cut off blood that would otherwise, through cold-induced vasodilation, help keep the feet warm. But you body can adjust to cooler temperatures fairly easily: about 2 weeks ago I did a six mile hike, barefoot, on a snowy/icy trail, in 40 degree temperature without a bit of discomfort or problem. (The Hocking Hills Midwinter Hike–you can google it.) The worst part was standing around on the ice as the line of hikers backed up going through a narrow point.

    There is a limit to that, of course. But with a bit of training and the body getting adjusted, it is lower than most people realize. When it starts getting below freezing, I closely monitor the condition of my feet (pink is good–that means good blood flow; if it goes white, you’re
    in deep trouble). I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.

  6. #6 Dave Town
    January 28, 2010

    I expect the advent of running shoes coincided witht the advent of paved roads and sidewalks. It seems intuitive to me that running on pavement sans shoes, regardless of the gait, would be harder on the feet/knees/hips/low back than running in shoes. Our feet adapted to jog across savannahs and through forests, the soft ground of which absorbed a great part of the shock of impact. Am I wrong?

  7. #7 Linea
    January 28, 2010

    Thanks for this post! Nice to see some science behind the vibram 5-finger shoe trend. As bizarre as those shoes look, between this and the fervent advocacy of friends who have discovered these, I might just have to break down and try them. Just replaced my shoes though and am wondering if I can just consciously change my strike pattern with similar benefit.

  8. #8 natural cynic
    January 28, 2010

    Our feet adapted to jog across savannahs and through forests, the soft ground of which absorbed a great part of the shock of impact. Am I wrong?

    Yes. Look at the graphs above – no real difference in the pressures developed on a solid force plate. And our ancestors had to deal with running over rocky terrain on the savanna.

  9. #9 tj
    January 28, 2010

    I have tried running barefoot and running with the Vibram 5 fingers model which is similar to barefoot. I have the same conclusion as the Nature article. I think barefoot running is superior. But still, it is not fun to me to run barefoot in the city or on trails. I have found a compromise. Running barefoot has trained me to run differently, hitting the ground with the midsole rather than the heel. I still run that way even with running shoes. This new way means I don’t care if my shoe is “worn out.” My old shoe provides all the support I need.

  10. #10 Boesse
    January 28, 2010

    Interestingly, when sprinting in track and field, your heels almost never touch the ground anyway (hence why on track cleats there are only spikes on the front of the foot). Then again, anyone who’s ever worn track cleats knows it’s not so much a shoe or cleat rather than a sock just rigid enough to allow the spikes to be useful.

    When you get up to top speed after a dozen or so strides, your feet are meeting the ground so fast that pretty much only the spikes and perhaps a little of the tread from the front of the cleat even meets the ground. At least, if you’re running fast enough to be competitive, that’s what happens…

  11. #11 Joshua
    January 28, 2010

    What’s interesting — not indicative of anything, I’m sure, but simply interesting — is that the front-foot-strike is similar to what Latin-style ballroom dancers are trained to do. Pretty much all of the Latin steps land ball-first.

  12. #12 José
    January 29, 2010

    I’d recommend wearing competition high jump shoes if you can find them. They have no heel and are usually wearable spikeless. They’re also designed to react well to lateral stress, which is important if you plan on wearing shoes in the real world. The downside with most competition track shoes is that they’re not very durable, but that’s nothing a little duct tape can’t fix*. Plus, you get to be the only bad-ass on the block wearing high jump shoes.

    *You’re an idiot if you try and fix your shoes with duct tape.

  13. #13 stripey_cat
    January 29, 2010

    I suspect this is why all the army guys I knew in my childhood were so anti-jogging, on the grounds it trashed knees and ankles. Proper running is something I learned spontaneously, along with most of my friends, because that’s how the adults ran. Now, the only time I’ll land flat-footed is if I’m running in town-shoes that don’t give enough grip to run on the ball of the foot. A heel-first landing (if I’ve slipped or tripped) has me hopping up and down and cursing, just from one step.

  14. #14 Jed
    January 29, 2010

    I work at a store that sells outdoor gear, clothing, shoes, etc and a lot of our business during the summer especially is running clothing and shoes. In the last year we’ve seen a drop in sales in conventional running shoes and a corresponding increase in thin-soled and heal-less shoes like the Vibram Five Fingers. As more studies and articles like this come out I’d expect to see that trend continue and a wider variety of thin-soled shoes become available;, we’re looking at several potential new additions to our store already.

    In the meantime, if you do decide to go with the Vibrams we recommend going with the KSO or one of their other newer models that has a strap to hold it on since the originals were never intended as running shoes (they were meant to be water shoes for boating) and so there’s a bit more movement on the back end against the heal which can result in blisters and other unpleasantness.

  15. #15 Kaiser quotes
    January 30, 2010

    When you get up to top speed after a dozen or so strides, your feet are meeting the ground so fast that pretty much only the spikes and perhaps a little of the tread from the front of the cleat even meets the ground. At least, if you’re running fast enough to be competitive, that’s what happens…

  16. #16 Mishal
    January 31, 2010

    If I’ve understood the article correctly, the study suggests that walking/running with the toe striking first is the preferred method of walking/running; it’s easier on the joints. However, the OP, nor the study mentioned Idiopathic Toe Walking, which, as far as I know is usually seen as undesirable (it sure was for me as a child, my parents corrected it by constantly reminding me to walk “heel-first” until it stuck). Is this a similar movement pattern to the one the study followed, or something completely different?

  17. #17 DDeden
    February 4, 2010

    Bare foot beach running!d

  18. #18 Lee
    March 12, 2010

    You mean that everyone else runs different?

    I’ve always been in shoes but learned to run ball first.

    I wasn’t ever good at basketball, but I could steal the ball from the other players because running on the ball of my feet made me faster and because I would collapse my knee and foot when I struck ground, I never made a sound and had very low impact.

    I figured that by leaning forward, my leg pushed me forward faster, I didn’t have to use as much strength. Since I was leaning forward, I never extended my legs forward.

    However, it took a lot of strength from the feet and my feet got sore.

    If you look at the tendons on the feet, they represent rubber bands that absorb impact. So there’s no mechanical reason for hitting the ground with your heel unless you’re going up stairs.

  19. #19 sağlık haberleri
    November 5, 2010

    soo good page.. me too

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