Chi Running's perspective on Harvard barefoot study - Chi Running

Chi Running’s perspective on Harvard barefoot study

Posted by Danny Dreyer on Thu Jan 28th, 2010, 13 comments

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.




  • barefoot,
  • harvard,
  • midfoot,
  • npr,
  • youtube

13 CommentsLeave a comment below

Mary Ann Anderson Jan 28th, 2010 08:30pm


I was curious what you thought about some comments in recent barefoot running articles that your calves have to get used to a midfoot stride? Any idea what they are doing differently?

Mary Ann

Grahame Price Jan 29th, 2010 08:56am

It’s great to see something so worthwhile and beneficial starting to hit a tipping point. ChiRunning and midfoot strike just makes sense. I heard about it through a cycling club from a triathlete. The word is spreading like wildfire.
Information like this is really what ‘Healthcare Reform’ is all about.
What a great way to get moving !
Keep up the great work.

Great post, Danny! It’s crazy, but I just read that study about an hour ago and then noticed you had a post on the am thing.  It is a very intereting study and it truly validates what you have been teaching for a while now.  I am currently reading “Born To Run” and for you Chi Runners, or anyone for that matter, you MUST pick this up and devour it. It is a fantastic read and I cant help but notice alot of the principles you teach (core, posture,foot strike) are talked about in the book.  Im currently on my 4th week of Chi Running, focusing on Gradual Progress and once I have a very good grasp of the technique it will be time for some minimal shoes. Ive seen and read about the Vivobarefoot “Evo” which is coming out in March and am leaning toward getting those.

Thrilled to see your comments on the barefoot “phenomenon”.  I’m in the middle of reading ChiRunning right now, and am starting to do “barefoot” in minimalist footwear (specifically Vibram FiveFingers).  Between the form changes and the switch to the new footwear, I’ve noticed a huge difference in my running, and I certainly credit both.  I’m still a little ways away from being up to the distance that I want, but I don’t doubt for a second that I’ll be able to do it this time.

Thanks for making this post!

Thanks for addressing this Danny. This is a hot issue for a lot of runners I know, and I will be referring them to this blog. I did read Born to Run, and really liked it, but I"m not ready to jump in with both feet smile. Since theChi Running lessons at the Death Valley camp, I’ve gradually moved to training flats. Although it has taken some time and a bit of tendinitis, the effect on my ability to run has been nice. But not as important as the techniques you taught me.

Charlie chork Jan 30th, 2010 04:06am

Maybe we should all buy Dunlop green flash trainers!

Barefoot Ken Bob Jan 30th, 2010 02:05pm

Hi Danny,
I think people are missing the point in this research - yes the media is pointing to the footstrike, and that’s obviously what most people think of when they think of running, especially when they think of running barefoot. But, as you say it’s so much more, it’s how you get to that footstrike, or as us barefoot runners say, foot touch, or landing (never “STRIKE” the earth - it always strikes back, just as hard).

But, for me, and I think what should be noted for others too, is that the way most people learned to run gently, was barefooted. That is, in the study, Lieberman talks about 75% of those who learned to run in shoes land with more impact. But, that’s just of those who still consider themselves runners. You and I both know, since we’ve both seen many, many, so-called “non-runners” discover that they could run well, just not so well until they learned to run.

And one of the keys is that we all have our own personal research lab built into our body, with a much more precise sensory system in the bare soles of our feet, than in all of Dr. Lieberman’s equipment put together. Of the people who learned how to walk and run barefoot, virtually all of them learned to run with a much gentler technique. And we all have the equipment to re-learn this technique, built into our soles…

And that’s the reason Dr. Lieberman had to try running barefoot in order to understand the full implications of his work!

Bob Schroer "IEBOB" Feb 2nd, 2010 07:42am

Danny - Key secret in all this new knowledge is it will take TIME to transission to barefoot running but is worth the time!!! - Bob Newsletter guy, Mansfield Area Y Running Club, Mansfield, OH PS What do you think of Feelmax Panka’s as a minimal shoe?

Danny, I had a question about barefoot running and nay injuries you might have heard of.  I have been running in Vibrams exclusively for about 10 months and truly enjoyed every minute of it.  I have been practicing Chi running techniques for about 6 years and find these two elements are truly in harmony and in line with each other.  My problem is that I have been increasing my mileage in the past months in preparation for an ultra this spring and recently have encountered significant pain in in the top right front of my foot.  I am not sure if I have caused a stress fracture or some other damage.  Have you heard or read of any injuries of this type for Mid and Fore foot strikers?

Hi Andrew,
Yes, i have heard of this sort of injury in forefoot runners. When increasing your mileage on your VFF’s be sure you’re not doing any forefoot landing because the relatively small bones of the foot are not designed to catch the weight of the entire body. Running downhill on VFF’s is where the most damage potential exists because you can’t land on your heels and you can’t land on your forefoot either. On downhills be sure to shorten your stride and pick up your feet quickly to reduce the amount of impact to your feet as you descend. Also, make sure when you run uphill that you don’t overuse your forefoot to propel you up the hill or the same danger could exist. Run and land on your fullfoot as much as possible and you’ll keep yourself away from overusing those forefoot bones.


If I remember correctly, you ran over a force plate at the University of Virginia some time ago.  Would you please post the force X time tracings so we can see how Chi running compares with the groups studied at Harvard?

Why not run barefoot on grass? Seems like that is more like the surfaces that humans ran on before we paved roads.

Hi Alex,
The main reason why I don’t recommend people run on grass is because on soft grass you could be over-striding, heel striking, dorsiflexing, over-pronating…and never feel what you’re doing wrong. But if you run on dirt, a track, or any other soft but firm surface your body will quickly sense what you’re doing wrong because the harder surface is much less forgiving of less-than-optimal running form. It would be like trying to correct your posture by sleeping on a water bed.

All the best,

Clifford Guest Jan 17th, 2012 10:20am


I have been learning to Chi run over the last two years and have just finished “Born to Run”. A key difference in the running styles which does not seem to come up in the discussion boards is the question of lean. Incorporating a lean into your running syle is a central part of Chi running, however suggestions made in “Born to Run” and associated videos seem to recommend an “upright” posture. Can you comment on this.  Clifford

Danny Dreyer Jan 19th, 2012 09:52am

Hi Clifford,
I’m not sure why the videos and photos surrounding Born to Run show an upright position rather than a lean. I know that some people prefer to rely on their calves to do the work, which will eventually lead to exhaustion and overuse of the calf muscles - or a muscle pull. Leaning puts gravity in your favor because you are falling forward instead of your legs having to push you, which can be tiring. When you are standing upright, gravity is pulling straight down on your body along your centerline. As soon as you allow your body to fall forward, your center of mass moves in front of your point of contact with the ground. Gravity will then pull downward on your center of mass, making you fall forward, with your ankles acting as hinges as your body tips forward. Your job then is to lean to balance yourself in a very slight forward lean so you’re always falling (but not on your face!). Also - the lean is your gas pedal. Want to go faster? Lean more, in small increments. Hope this helps, Clifford.

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