Results of Daniel Lieberman Barefoot Running Research

Daniel Lieberman’s research into impact forces experienced while forefoot-striking or heel-striking, full round-up coverage of all the press surrounding the research release.

Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, has been conducting a great deal of research into barefoot running. That research has been under peer review for some time now, but is (finally) beginning to see the light of day. What’s the verdict? Here’s one takeaway: Barefoot running requires a forefoot strike which brings down the impact force to 60% of one’s bodyweight.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me kick this off with some video goodness discussing Lieberman’s study courtesy of Nature:

There is a lot of press surfacing about Lieberman’s research, and I am tracking all of those articles here (see links below). Also, you must take a look at the barefoot running website Lieberman has set up. It covers a great deal of information, from background research, differences between heel strike and forefoot strike running (similar to the graphic above), and even has tips on getting started running barefoot or in minimalist footwear. Check it out.

Now, as for some of the hullabaloo surrounding the research of this ground-breaking research, check out this quote from Nature‘s initial write-up, A Softer Ride for Barefoot Runners:

Lieberman found that long-distance runners who usually wear shoes, in both the United States and in Kenya, tend to land directly on their heels, abruptly bearing the full force of the impact. The force of the collision, even with a cushioned sole, was the equivalent to up to three times their bodyweight. The force could be linked to common running injuries such as stress fractures and plantar fasciitis, although this has yet to be demonstrated.

Americans and Kenyans accustomed to running barefoot, however, tend to strike the ground with the ball of their feet before touching down the heel — a fore-foot strike — allowing the tendons and muscles in the foot and lower leg to act as shock absorbers, bringing the impact force down to 60% of their bodyweight. The team’s research is published in Nature.

“The ankle is a very compliant, springy joint, and barefoot runners use it a lot,” says Lieberman. “It isn’t available to you when you rear-foot strike. Then you’re relying solely on the spring on the heel of the shoe.”

The research conducted by Lieberman and also Madhusudhan Venkadesan and Dennis Bramble is described further in a separate Associated Press write-up, Barefoot runners ease into low-impact landings Study shows how humans ran comfortably and safely before the invention of shoes:

Working with populations of runners in the United States and Kenya, Lieberman and his colleagues at Harvard, the University of Glasgow, and Moi University looked at the running gaits of three groups: those who had always run barefoot, those who had always worn shoes, and those who had converted to barefoot running from shod running. The researchers found a striking pattern.

Most shod runners — more than 75 percent of Americans — heel-strike, experiencing a very large and sudden collision force about 1,000 times per mile run. People who run barefoot, however, tend to land with a springy step towards the middle or front of the foot.

“Heel-striking is painful when barefoot or in minimal shoes because it causes a large collisional force each time a foot lands on the ground,” says co-author Madhusudhan Venkadesan, a postdoctoral researcher in applied mathematics and human evolutionary biology at Harvard. “Barefoot runners point their toes more at landing, avoiding this collision by decreasing the effective mass of the foot that comes to a sudden stop when you land, and by having a more compliant, or springy, leg.”

Though none of this may come as a surprise to readers of Birthday Shoes, the importance of Lieberman’s work here is that it further calls into question the prevailing paradigm that you must wear heavily cushioned shoes in order to run safely and injury free. Though there are no studies proving that barefoot running results in fewer injuries than shod-running, I have little trouble jumping from “reduced impact from barefoot running” and “how we evolved to run” to “running barefoot is a safer and more injury-free way to run.”

It will be fascinating to learn more about Lieberman’s research as it emerges from the ivory tower. If I recall correctly, Lieberman’s studies also looked at Vibram FiveFingers-shod runners, so it will be informative to see what we learn there, as well.

Below are additional links or material covering the Lieberman barefoot running research release. Sit back, click around, and geek out on barefoot running:

Links to press on the Lieberman Barefoot Running research release:

Here’s an NPR’s All Things Considered on the study:

H/T to Tuck!

By Justin

Justin Owings is a deadlifting dad of three, working from Atlanta. When he's not chasing his three kids around, you'll find him trying to understand systems, risk, and human behavior.

3 replies on “Results of Daniel Lieberman Barefoot Running Research”

Saw the posting about this by vibram five fingers then went and read it. Really good stuff! Then went to grocery store and heard it on NPR!

This certainly isn’t the first time we’ve come to realize that everything marketing and “common knowledge” has been telling us about someting being good for us is completely wrong. The milk industry has been doing this for years and there are now as many research studies telling us milk is bad for us as there are on tobacco. Shoe sales are no different.

I’ve been wearing VFFs for over 6 months now and I hope they never stop making them. 7 years ago I had an accident and severely fractured my left ankle. The ankle was fused (it no longer flexes up and down, only the forefoot) and I was told I’d never run again. 4 years ago through trial and error I figured out how to run again (and it would have been sooner had I been introduced to Chi running – that is the basic form I found on my own that works). Then I ventured to try the VFF KSO last fall and discovered it felt wonderful. I was regularly running at this point in “running shoes” and had to try VFF while running to compare. I found that an ache I normally got on my lateral knee in regular running shoes which was obviously associated with a stiff ankle disappeared with the VFFs. More than likely this was a result of the over padded sole of regular running shoes caused my foot to give and torque. The VFF’s on the otherhand allow me to feel the forces upon striking the ground and correct to run properly for my biomechanics rather than try to foregive me for a bad though correctable (given the chance with feedback to the brain) running form.

I wear VFF’s every day. KSO at work and Flow running, except for today, I ran in my new pair of Bikila.

I hope quality minimalist shoes continue to grow in popularity such as the Vibram FiveFingers!

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