New study challenges the barefoot running, forefoot striking relationship

Recent research of a group of Kenyan runners suggests that many heel-strike.

The relationship between barefoot running and forefoot striking has become a truism in recent years.

But a new study of a group of African “early adopters” of the barefoot running technique is calling that widely held belief into question.

A group of researchers from George Washington University in the United States studied the Daasanach, a Kenyan people who run barefoot. “The Daasanach people grow up without shoes and continue to spend most of their lives barefoot,” said Kevin Hatala, the studies’ co-author from the school’s department of Hominid Paleobiology.

This new research has revealed that the majority of the Daasanach are in fact not fore-foot strikers. “We were surprised to see that the majority of Daasanach people ran by landing on their heels first,” Hatala indicated in a statement. “This contradicts the hypothesis that a forefoot strike characterizes the ‘typical’ running gait of habitually barefoot people.”

The research that Hatala is referring to is that of noted evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman. His well-known paper, published three years ago in Nature magazine, illustrated that the majority of Kenyan runners were forefoot strikers. That paper has become one of the key drivers in the barefoot movement. Lieberman himself has talked publicly about the virtues of barefoot runner. He is featured in a CBC “The Nature of Things” documentary on the subject.

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This most recent study had 19 female and 19 male Daasanach adults, all of whom have been running barefoot since childhood, to run along a track at a rate they felt was comfortable for an endurance oriented effort, as well as a faster sprint pace.

The track was rigged with a sensor pad mid-way through to detect the runner’s foot-strike.

During the endurance phase of the study, 72% of the foot-strikes were on the rear of the runner’s feet. And even more surprisingly, only 4% of the strikes were with the forefoot.

It was only when the pace increased significantly to a sprint that a significant number of the runners began to shift off their heels. But even then most of the runners only landed on their mid-foot, whereas just 14% became forefoot runners.

There are a two key differences in the two studies that may explain the discrepancy in the results. For one, the Kalenjin were generally faster, more experienced runners. Also, they tended to run on harder surfaces, which perhaps had them adapt to the forefoot technique in order to avoid the shock of heel striking.

What this means for Western recreational runners and those participating in the barefoot or minimal movement is still unclear. But this research does suggest that not all experienced barefoot runners are naturally forefoot strikers, and that it may be possible to run barefoot for long periods of time as a heel-striker.