Chi Running’s perspective on Harvard barefoot study
Since Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run came out, there has been an increasing amount of press coverage around the question of running technique in general and especially with respect to barefoot running. Well, this week the discussion jumped to a new level when Dr. Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, published his recent comparative study of the gait patterns and subsequent impact for runners wearing shoes and running barefoot. You can see Lieberman actually running barefoot in a YouTube video interview. There was also an article in this week’s Time magazine about his study as well as a segment on NPR.
One of the findings in Dr. Lieberman’s study was that runners who run with shoes tend to hit harder than barefoot runners. This flies in the face of the marketing of the shoe companies saying that their high-heeled shoe designs reduce impact and therefore help to prevent impact injuries. Don’t be fooled, they don’t. The best way to reduce your impact with the ground is to run more softly along the ground, which has been our main message here at Chi Running for the past ten years.
Dr. Lieberman also found that runners who were used to running in shoes tended, almost exclusively to have a rearfoot strike and that most barefoot runners had either a forefoot or midfoot strike. (NOTE: I’d like to make a distinction here. Many people believe that midfoot and forefoot can be just combined to mean the same thing. I disagree. If your forefoot strikes the ground first [on the balls of your feet], you’re a forefoot striker regardless of whether or not you’re wearing shoes. If, on the other hand, you feel your entire foot touch the ground as you come down, you’re a midfoot striker. It has been suggested we change this term to “fullfoot strike” and I couldn’t agree more.)
The information from Lieberman’s study isn’t new information (see NPR story from 2006), but it is fabulous to finally have some scientific backup for our claims that a midfoot strike and minimal shoes can help you reduce or avoid many common running injuries. That’s why we’ve been doing all we can to teach runners how to transition to a midfoot (fullfoot) strike and it’s why we’re suggesting that runners try running in more minimal shoes. It’s all leading to the next phase in the evolution of modern day running, which is being aptly called “natural running” for a good reason. It’s how we all ran as kids and it’s how we all need to learn how to run as adults.
BUT, there’s a huge caveat here that I feel needs to be mentioned in the midst of all this hubbub around footstrike. The path to injury-free, efficient running is so much more than just being about the footstrike. It’s about body alignment, symmetry, looseness, biomechanics, and balance of the entire body.
Chi Running teaches you how to land with a midfoot (fullfoot) strike without necessarily having to go directly to running barefoot. We suggest running either barefoot (on a firm surface, not on grass) or in minimal shoes. Whichever way you decide to go, it is crucial that you increase your distance over a long period of time so that your body can make the adjustments in a healthy and natural way. The good news is that many new shoes aimed at fulfilling the needs of those wishing to move away from over-built shoes are beginning to show up in running stores everywhere.