Last September, I was very lucky to be invited by Merrell to participate in the New York Barefoot Run.  The aim of the weekend was for a group of bloggers, sports doctors, shoe manufacturers, journalists and generally every one of my idols in the barefoot and minimalist running community to get together and talk about barefoot running.

Many topics were discussed and there were many ‘light-bulb’ moments, but the one comment I still remember was this:

“It is very rare that you get a group of runners together in a room that ALL know the meaning of the term proprioception”

Proprioception. Do you know what it means? Be honest.  Did you just use ‘Google’?

We all have seven senses. The first five are used daily to describe everything on the planet: Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight and Hearing. We also have two additional senses. These missing senses are rarely mentioned unless you are an occupational therapist. They are the proprioception sense and the vestibular sense. Barefoot runners spend a lot of time discussing proprioception.

According to the on-line dictionary, proprioception is defined as:

“The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.”

Still confused?  Proprioception is how your body takes information from your muscles, joints, nerves and the balance functions in the ears and tells you where you are in the world.  In turn it creates your bodies instinctive reaction to the stimuli.  This is the sense that enables you to catch yourself when you slip on ice. It’s why we limp when we have an injury. It’s how we stand up straight.

So why do barefoot runners talk about proprioception so much?

Most of our proprioception is gained from the soles of our feet. For a barefoot or minimalist runner, it’s the sense that allows us to tread lightly when we run. This is how we are able to run barefoot or with no cushioning in our shoes.

Barefoot runners rely heavily on this sense. Without this sense we could force every step into the ground — we would break most of the bones in our feet in a matter of weeks.

The problem is that as soon as we cover the soles of our feet we lose the vital sense of proprioception. The more between the soles of our feet and the ground, the less proprioception we have. If you walk or run barefoot you have the maximum level of proprioception. If you have a conventional running shoe on your feet, you most likely have zero proprioception. Any covering on your feet, be it socks or minimalist shoes, will limit your level of proprioception.

The famous article by Dan Lieberman in Nature,  showed the impact forces between a runner in a conventional running shoe (with a heel strike) and a runner who was running barefoot (with a forefoot landing). I highlighted these two types of runners because these are the most common landings for the aforementioned runners.

The impact forces were less with the barefoot runner, but the amount of time the foot was in contact with the ground was also less.

To clarify, the study did show that a barefoot runner using a heel-strike had the most impact forces.  If you heel-strike as you run, you will need some cushioning.

The study didn’t show the impact forces with a runner in conventional shoes using a fore-foot strike, but I would take an educated guess and say, that the impact forces and duration would be less than a heel-striking runner in conventional shoes but more than a barefoot runner with a fore-foot landing.  As I have mentioned before in a previous article, good running form is important regardless what you have on your feet.

Why would the contact time and impact be less with the barefoot runner?

Some of this would be due to stride-length and cadence.  The main reason however, is that as soon as the barefoot runner landed, the foot sent signals to the brain telling it to “lift the foot”. This was immediate and wasn’t delayed by a rubber sole.

The heel of a running shoe allows you to run with a harder strike because it transfers the larger impact on landing over a larger period of time. This doesn’t necessarily mean that cushioning is a good thing – it may be minimizing the impact forces, but in a bizarre turn of events it is also creating larger impact forces due to the lack of proprioception.  Thus, negating the reason you have the cushioning in the first place.

So if you are a runner, you need to start examining a medical dictionary. You need to learn about proprioception, because if you ignore this sense and your bodies’ reaction to it, you are heading towards an injury.

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  • Greg lehman says:

    I’m sorry to be such a downer but there are several errors in this piece. Primarily, that last paragraph should be completely ignored…there is no research to su

  • Greg lehman says:

    Bloody ipad glitch, continued rant below. support this paragraph. The research done on proprioception by Dr. Irene Davis (Lieberman’s colleague) has not attempted to draw an injury link between slight decreases in proprio when wearing shoes and when barefoot. To make a suggestion about injury causation appears a little rash.

    In terms of impact loading and the shoe lengthening the time that impact load occurs that can very well be a good thing. This means that the RATE of impact loading is less (and libermans work has shown it is the same as barefoot forefoot runners) and it is the rate of impact loading that is related to injury.

    Last, the idea that you have no proprioception with a shoe on is absurd. Wiggle your toes in shoes, did you feel it? Lean forward with your eyes closed, did you fall over? No? Amazing, your proprioceptive system is still intact.

    This is all very interesting and academic research but we are far from letting it guide us in terms of running injury management, prevention and optimal running choices.

    All the best,

    Greg lehman
    Running injury physio and chiropractor

    • Kate Kift says:

      I appreciate your comments and your input.

      The cushioning of the shoe lengthening the time the impact load occurs is a good thing, which is why many heel-strikers use and prefer heeled cushioned trainers. As many barefoot and minimal runners what happens when they put on shoes with cushioning and they will tell you that they land with greater force than if they were barefoot. Hence my comment that perhaps the cushioning is negating it’s own benefit.

      Apart from the spine the feet has the most proprioceptive sensors in the body.
      If you wear conventional trainers are you able to perceive the difference in terrain and subtle gradient as well as if you were say, wearing socks? Your proprioception is fine, but all you are feeling is the inside of your shoe.

      As to shoes not limiting proprioception there are many studies and recommendations showing that the elderly should be advised to use shoes with little/no heel and thin soles. This is to enhance their proprioception and prevent injury. It is commonly shown that footwear inhibits proprioception. By reducing the amount between the soles of their feet and the ground their balance and co-ordination is improved and their reaction to changes in terrain/gradient has improved. If this works for the elderly, why shouldn’t it improve everyone else.

      Why when you practise yoga are you asked to do it barefoot? If your level of proprioception is the same as if you are wearing shoes, then why are you not asked to wear shoes when you do that yoga pose?

      I think the most telling test is if you ask a runner to remove their conventional shoes and run in their bare feet. What happens? Do they have the same form and cadence as if they were wearing shoes? The likelihood is no. Why? Without teaching one element of good form, you discover their cadence quickened and their stride shortened? Why is it when a barefoot runner hits a gravel trail, they will a have shorter stride length and a higher cadence, than if they were running on smooth asphalt?

      As to the fact that if you want to prevent injury you should investigate your bodies proprioception, I still stand by that as valid. You should investigate all of the articles written by various running magazines that show lower leg proprioception exercises for athletes and in turn cite that many lower leg injuries are down to a lack of proprioception.

  • Greg lehman says:

    Thanks for your reply Kate,

    The fact that many articles in running magazines have been written attesting to the benefits of proprioception gleaned from barefoot training does not prove that it is beneficial. There are more articles telling people what shoes to wear to prevent injuries and we can both agree that this is also not true.

    All i am saying is that there is no research supporting your injury prevention claims. This work has not been done and it is premature to conclude that a decrease in proprioception will cause injuries. And remember, it is a decrease in specific way that proprioception was measured. We still have a kinesthetic sense and still receive feedback from our feet with shoes on.

    I we probably agree a great deal in this topic. I advise my patients to use barefoot training in both running and strength exercises as an adjunct to other training. I am only suggesting a little bit of caution in taking some research in its infancy in making very bold statements that are not well supported…yet?

    Do you have any prediictive, prospective studies that find that decrements in proprioception are linked to future injuries? I recognize that decrements in proprioception (usually measured as joint position sense, centre of gravity sway and muscle onset timing associated with perturbations) are linked with current injuries but this is most likely a result of injuries rather than a cause. There is also some wobble board training showing preventive influence for ankle sprains. Despite this i still think its premature to conclude that shoes cause you to lose all your proprioception and that a running injury will naturally occur.

    In respect to runners changing their form without shoes this is because of pain…it hurts to heel strike so they increase stride rate. The change in form is not due to proprioception but rather nociception. We are still having the debate on the best way to run so i will leave that one alone for now

    If you want any of the research papers i mentioned please shoot me an email.

    And keep up the blog posts, i always like reading them.


    • Kate Kift says:

      Barefoot Runners have come from a very zealous beginning — us against the world — and although we are tempering our attitude a lot these days, perhaps we still have a tendency to be over-enthusiastic. I do try to moderate myself, but maybe I am better at it some days than others.

      I promise to be less enthusiastic in the future, deal? 😉

      Thank you for you constructive criticism. I always welcome when people have differing points of view or information – especially if it is placed in a careful and considered manner.

      It’s how I learn more and I am always open to changing my mind on topics (Just ask my husband). *cough* actually maybe not.

      If you have any resources and information you are willing to share, I will always welcome them.

      I do agree that the discussion regarding running form/running shoes/barefoot running and injury rates is still a quagmire. Unfortunately there are many (if any) definitive studies that closes the case for good. There probably never will be – that’s the problem with science it’s hard to have a proven theory for long.

      Thanks again and feel free to email me and let me know what I am doing wrong 🙂


  • Daniel says:

    Interesting that a chiropractor (Greg) is asking for more scientific and in-depth research before claims are made, when chiropractic is based on pseudoscience and historical concepts unsupported by any clinical research.

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