16 April 2010

Barefoot running: Part 1

As the debate around the benefits of running barefoot heats up, FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker, applies some sound scientific reasoning and gives us his take on the issue.

As the debate around the benefits of running barefoot heats up, FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker, applies some sound scientific reasoning and gives us his take on the issue. This is part one of a five-part series Tucker is writing.

Barefoot running: Part one

With the exception of the Caster Semenya controversy, what generates the most chat in athletics is the subject of barefoot running.

When the debate starts on running shoes, it quickly switches to running technique. Here, I’m speaking specifically about the foot strike. Though there is a lot more to running style than how the foot hits the ground – the head, shoulders, arms, hips, knee drive etc are all part of it, and I certainly don’t mean to dismiss their importance – the real debate is around how the foot lands, and whether we should run in shoes.

These two questions are interlinked thanks to the philosophy of how one affects the other, and the advent of commercialised running techniques based on this link.

We aim to have the first word in the debate, not the last. And so your feedback is most welcome,

Q: What does the term ‘natural running’ mean? Clearly this term by itself is already marketing. It positions running with shoes with little cushioning as ‘natural’ vs ‘unnatural running’.

A: Simple question, very complex answer! The short answer is that “natural” seems to be whatever you wish it to be. Those who start from the point of believing that we need to change our technique will define natural running in a way that is similar to barefoot running.

On the other hand, if you start out of the opinion that our default technique is better, then natural means ‘without intervention’.

Since we’re talking shoes vs barefoot, and the resultant changes in running technique, I’ll limit my definition to that.

To some, the concept of teaching running form is already unnatural. If someone goes out for a run and without any intellectual input, falls into a particular stride and footstrike, that is “natural”. Taught technique would thus be unnatural.

However, the argument is a little more complex that that – we look at the Kenyan running champions as “natural” because they run without the technical analysis that we subject ourselves to, and they also run without shoes. And I guess this forms the basis for what is defined as “natural” within the context of the current argument. Here, people are looking at these athletes who often learn to run without shoes, and they observe a number of things:

1. Fewer injuries
2. Faster running
3. Apparently “smoother” running

Note that all three are somewhat subjective. There is no causal link between their being barefoot and running faster, and while it may be true, I haven’t seen evidence of fewer injuries, let alone the association with how they run.

In any event, people then create in this picture the definition of the term “natural” running. In the hands of marketers, natural becomes better (perhaps given added fuel by the current global trend towards going “green”), and the concept is born.

So the issue has been simplified right down to a very basic level, as you say – natural means running barefoot (or in lightweight shoes), whereas unnatural means following conventional wisdom and believing that shoes do have a role to play in preventing injury.

Those are the two extreme positions – which is correct? Hard to say, and the middle ground may be the ultimately safe destination.

Q: Is there ‘a natural way to run’? And if so, how would you describe it?

If I were pushed to commit to a definition, I would (rather conservatively and certainly more literally) say that natural running form is the form you adopt without any external input, or any conscious thoughts about how to run.

It is the way you run when you simply run, no cognitive thoughts of how to position your arms, how to land, how to lift the heel versus driving the knee forward – in the absence of all those instructions, we run ‘naturally’.

Note that I am not saying that this is better. I don’t subscribe to the view that natural is necessarily best; I believe there are a number of important and effective adjustments that can be made to the running technique. So the natural way to run is the unadjusted one, but the best way to run is the modified natural form. And of course, equipment will influence this.

While on that point, there is a significant logic problem in play here. If we define “natural” as how we run without shoes (refer to Q1), then the change in mechanics that occurs when we run with shoes has been deemed to be ‘unnatural’.

Yet the natural response to wearing shoes is to shift the landing to the heel. Now, this is defined as bad, according to the argument.

However, one must explain why the body, which is clever enough to ‘naturally’ force us to land on the front of the foot when we take shoes off, is suddenly “fooled” into landing badly (on the heel) when we wear the shoe. We could quite easily land on the forefoot when in shoes – plantar flex at the ankle, bend the knee, make the same kinematic changes as when we are barefoot.

But we don’t, we are either “fooled” into landing on the shoe’s elevated heel, or we allow the heel-strike because we know that forcing a forefoot landing may be equally bad (or a combination of the two).

This is why the argument that “natural is better” is flawed – either natural is not always better, or running in shoes combined with the change in mechanics is still optimal. So I think upfront, we must put behind us the marketing message that has convinced us that barefoot is better, and actually evaluate the evidence objectively.

Q: I believe the term ‘natural gait’ was used as early as the 80’s in running. Are we talking here about the same thing?

A: Those who used the term in the 1980s would have done so in a very specific context. I suspect, based on my reading of some books from that era, that their definition of ‘natural’ was a more global one, referring to the arms, the position of the head, the hips, the stride.

Part of it would have overlapped, but I think this is a slightly different argument.

The current debate around the footstrike and the influence of shoes will have been rather minor back then.

Watch this space for next week's installment on barefoot running
Next up:
changes in mechanics and shoes: changes in running technique caused by the shift from shoes to barefoot running, and whether it prevents injury and makes you a faster runner

Dr Ross Tucker, is Health24’s FitnessDoc and has a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from the University of Cape Town and a Post-Graduate degree in Sports Management from the UCT's Faculty of Commerce. He is currently employed at the University of Cape Town and Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and works as a consultant to various sporting teams, including South African Sevens, Canoeing, Rowing and Triathlon SA. He also blogs on


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