Understanding the surprising new research on barefoot running

A new study says that barefoot runners don't always land on their forefoot. We checked in with master run coach and exercise physiologist Jonathan Cane for his thoughts on how runners can interpret these results.
barefoot running
(Photo: Berkelyrunningcompany.com)


The “barefoot running” debate is one that continues on at a slow burn, and a new study just added more fuel to the fire.

The study, published this month in PLOS ONE by researchers at George Washington University, found that foot strike patterns among habitually barefoot people in Kenya vary, with most runners in the population studied using a rearfoot strike when running at endurance speeds. This finding is super important, since barefoot running advocates claim (and previous studies have shown) that shedding shoes will help runners naturally land on their forefoot, creating a safer, more efficient stride.

“These results indicate that not all habitually barefoot people prefer running with a forefoot strike, and suggest that other factors such as running speed, training level, substrate mechanical properties, running distance, and running frequency, influence the selection of foot strike patterns,” the researchers wrote.

running coach Jonathan Cane
City Coach founder, Jonathan Cane

We checked in with master run coach and exercise physiologist Jonathan Cane, the co-founder of City Coach MultiSport, for his thoughts on how runners can interpret these new findings:

First, are you surprised by the study’s results? No, this study is reinforcing much of what I’ve been saying to anyone who’s willing to listen. (And some who aren’t.) Far too many people are focusing on one variable (footwear) and ignoring a multitude of others (running history, weight, speed, etc.). The notion that footwear is the biggest difference between a 180 pound American who runs a few miles a day a few days a week, and works a desk job, and a 120 runner from the African desert who runs every day at speeds that the American can only imagine is ludicrous. Simply running barefoot isn’t going to change any of those other variables, and isn’t going to magically transform the middle-of-the-pack runner into a race winner.

As the study participants ran faster, they landed on their forefoot more often. Could runners who are able to maintain a certain speed, then, benefit from minimalist shoes? What this study points out, is that many minimalist advocates are trying to have the tail wag the dog. Everyone’s form changes when they go from 10:00/mile to 5:00/mile. But few have the physiology to support that pace for more than a few seconds. And trying to emulate 5:00/mile biomechanics won’t transform the runner’s physiology.

So, should runners stop focusing on landing on their forefoot? When I do form work with my athletes, I never tell them to focus on what part of their foot they’re landing on. In many cases I tell them to increase their cadence. In most cases I tell them to focus on having their foot land beneath their center of gravity rather than out in front of them. And I stress that as their stride length increases, it should come from greater hip extension rather than their foot landing farther in front.

What do you hope is the major take away for runners? To be certain, minimalist shoes can be a viable tool for some runners. But the notion that it’s the best or only way to train is an outrageous claim. Many have fallen in love with the notion due to Born to Run. The book is a great read and a nice story. But treating it as an instruction manual is misguided. —Lisa Elaine Held

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