Biomechanics of Foot Strikes
Applications to Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear
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Running Before the Modern Running Shoe

Many people think modern running shoes are necessary in order to run safely and comfortably, but they were invented only in the 1970s. Before then, running shoes were just simple running flats that had little cushioning, no arch support, and no built-up heel. Humans were running for millions of years, apparently safely, in running flats, in thin sandals or mocassins, or in no shoes at all. Our research indicates that they may have been able to do so by forefoot or midfoot striking.

There are three major classifications of how a runner's foot strikes the ground:

Heel Striking Heel lands first, then the forefoot comes down (heel-toe running) Barefoot Heel Strike
lateral view, barefoot
Shod Heel Strike
lateral view, shod
Midfoot Striking Heel and ball of the foot land simultaneously Vibram FiveFingers Midfoot Strike
lateral view, FiveFingers®
Vibram FiveFingers Midfoot Strike
medial view, FiveFingers®
Forefoot Striking* Ball of the foot lands first (usually below the 4th and 5th metatarsals) before the heel comes down (toe-heel-toe running) Barefoot Forefoot Strike
lateral view, barefoot
Vibram FiveFingers Forefoot Strike
medial view, FiveFingers®
*Forefoot striking as used here is distinct from forefoot striking in sprinters, in which the runner stays on the ball of the foot and the heel never comes down.
Note: some researchers classify foot strikes by the initial center of pressure. A rearfoot strike (heel strike) is an initial center of pressure in the back third of the shoe, less than 33% of the shoe's length; a midfoot strike is in the middle third, 34-67%; and a forefoot strike is in the front third, greater than 67%. We do not use this classification because it is designed mostly for shod running.

Shod Runners & Heel Striking

Elite Kenyan Forefoot StrikingBarefoot Runners & Forefoot and Midfoot Striking

  • Try running barefoot on a hard, natural surface, you’ll notice almost instantly that it hurts to heel strike! This is because the human heel pad cannot cushion much of the impact force (Ker et al., 1995; Chi and Schmitt, 2005) and this force is concentrated on a small area of the heel. Many shod runners asked to run barefoot in laboratory conditions (a treadmill or trackway) switch to a midfoot or forefoot strike.
  • Our research (Lieberman et al., 2010) indicates that habitual barefoot runners use all kinds of landings, but predominantly forefoot strike, even when going downhill. This is true of:
    • Runners who grew up without shoes or who wear thin rubber or leather sandals (e.g. Tarahumara ultrarunners, some Kenyan runners, and so on).
    • American barefoot runners who switched from wearing shoes to running barefoot or in minimal footwear.
    • Most western runners before the invention of the thick-heeled running shoe.

Adolescent Barefoot Kenyan Forefoot Strike

Our hypothesis is that until recently most humans had much more varied gaits; sometimes they landed on their heel, but more often they were midfoot or forefoot striking. We suspect that forefoot striking was most common.

Kenyan Adolescent
This individual has never worn shoes in his life

Adolescent Kenyan Running
Click the image to watch video

Elite Kenyan Runner
This individual grew up running barefoot, but now wears shoes
Running Barefoot
Running in Shoes
Elite Kenyan Running Barefoot   Elite Kenyran Running in Shoes
Click the images to watch the videos

Note that this runner's leg is positioned in the same way at foot strike whether running barefoot or in shoes. When running barefoot this runner forefoot strikes. When running in shoes he has a midfoot strike. Without any apparent changes in the positioning of the runner's leg or foot, the wedged shape midsole of the shoe affects how the runner's foot contacts the ground.

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FUNDING DISCLAIMER:  Research presented on this site was funded by Harvard University and, in part, by Vibram USA®.

Creative Commons License

Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear by Daniel Lieberman et al. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on the research published in the scientific journal Nature.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Daniel Lieberman.