Vibram Fivefingers and Barefoot Running: Does Removing Heel Cushion Change Footstrike?

In my previous post, I posed the following question to Ian Adamson, director of product development and education for the Newton Running Company:

Me: Available data indicate that most people are heel-strikers. Is it your belief that the presence of extensive heel cushion (i.e., a heel wedge/lift) essentially forces a heel strike in most people?

Ian’s response to this question was as follows:

More accurately the data shows people running in traditional shoes are forced to engage the ground with heel of the shoe. Remove the heel and you remove the heel strike. Professor Daniel E. Lieberman from the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University has been studying running gait in humans and concluded that no one heel strikes naturally. He looked at (among other groups), people who have never worn shoes. Dr. Lieberman’s study should be appear shortly in a major scientific publication.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to seeing Dr. Lieberman’s forthcoming paper (I’ve previously written an extensive post about some of Lieberman’s earlier work), but in the interim I thought I’d contribute a little personal insight into Ian’s answer to this question. My interest in footstrike stems from a study I am conducting with my students looking at footstrike patterns in runners recorded during the recent Manchester City Marathon in Manchester, NH.  Regardless of what we find, we will be unable to tease apart the question of whether the footstrikes we observed are the “natural” gait of each runner or patterns that are induced by the shoes that they have on their feet.  To do this would require that we film each runner in shoes, and then barefoot under identical conditions.  While this is doable in a controlled laboratory situation, it is impossible to do this in a “real-world” racing situation.

Given this difficulty, I, along with one of my students, have decided to address this question in the simplest way possible – by looking at ourselves.  Although the sample size is very small, simple studies like this are great for hypothesis development, and hopefully this will serve as a springboard for more complex studies with larger samples in the future.

A quick word about Ryan, who is the student that I’m working with.  Like me, Ryan was an early reader of the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. Also like me, “Born to Run” heavily influenced Ryan’s thinking about footwear and its relation to running. Ryan is a Junior runner on the cross-country team at our college, and since early this year he has been running almost exclusively in Vibram Fivefingers, homemade huarache sandals, or barefoot. He has accumulated approximately 1500 miles in Vibrams (and if I’m not mistaken, all of those miles have been on only a single pair), and he has been known to run barefoot in temperatures down into the 30′s.  He’s worn his Vibrams so much that the cinching strap has worn off, and in its place he used a long strip of leather. Needless to say, although I have also put in some miles in Vibrams, Ryan is a far more dedicated minimalist runner than I.  Currently, he is a captain of our track club, and is averaging running about 50 miles per week.

Filming conditions were similar to those in my previous post on treadmill running in various shoe types (in fact, videos of me below were pulled from that post).  For each of us, videos show our footstrike in stability shoes (Brooks Adrenaline for me, Asics 2130′s for Ryan), Vibram Fivefingers KSO’s, and barefoot. All were recorded while running steadily at 7mph.

First me:

Brooks Adrenaline GTS 8 from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Brooks Adrenaline GTS 8′s – definite heel strike here. Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.

Running in Vibram Fivefingers KSO from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Vibram Fivefingers KSO’s – appears to be a midfoot strike. Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.

Barefoot Running on Treadmill from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of barefoot treadmill running – appears to be a nice midfoot strike (this was my first ever attempt at running barefoot on a treadmill). Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.

In me, what you can see is a progression from a clear heel-strike in the stability shoes with a big heel cushion to a more midfoot strike in Vibrams and in the unshod (barefoot) condition.

And now for Ryan:

Ryan – Asics 2130 from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Asics 2130′s – clear heel strike. Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.

Ryan – Vibram Fivefingers KSO on Treadmill from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Vibram Fivefingers KSO’s – clear forefoot strike. Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.

Ryan – Barefoot Running on Treadmill from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of barefoot treadmill running – clearly a forefoot strike. Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.

Ryan’s shift in footstrike between the Asics stability shoes and the Vibram/barefoot conditions is truly a thing to behold. He goes from being a harder heel striker than me in the Asics, to being a clear forefoot striker in the Vibram Fivefingers and when barefoot. This is all the more compelling given that he hadn’t run in the Asics for quite some time (he’s pretty much as exclusive a minimalist runner as you’ll find at this point), and simply putting them on resulted in a reversion back to the heel-striking condition. We were both pretty amazed this afternoon when we first watched the videos, and he even reported that his shins were tight after running just over a mile in the Asics. Seems his body may have re-adapted to the unshod condition (he generally doesn’t even wear regular shoes when walking around campus or going to class), and the shod condition now seemed to be putting his legs under greater stress. I’ll re-emphaisize that we are still only a sample of two, but the pattern here is clear enough to me that it warrants additional investigation.

So, for at least me and Ryan, when wearing shoes with a big, cushioned heel we are both heel-strikers, and when that heel is removed, we convert into a midfoot striker (me) and a forefoot striker (Ryan). If humans evolved to run without shoes, then the lack of a heel cushion would seem to be the more natural condition for our bodies, and it makes one wonder why the heel cushion is necessary. I still don’t believe that there are solid data that conclusively show that one type of footstrike is necessarily better than another from a performance or injury-prevention standpoint, but I firmly believe that our footwear choices heavily influence the type of footstrike that we adopt. I see it in myself, and I see it in my student. I also see it in children – my son is a midfoot striker when barefoot. Now I just need to get him on a treadmill in his mini Asics 2130′s (yes, he does have them!), and hope that they come out with Vibram Fivefingers in childrens sizes!

If you have any questions for either Ryan or I, feel free to leave a comment. Stumble Upon Toolbar

About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.



Comments

  1. Notice that in the Asics there’s a lot of shock and energy going up Ryan’s leg. You can see the force. However, when you look at him running in the VFFs and barefoot – it is much smoother. There’s not near as much shock going up the the leg!

  2. Barefoot Benny says:

    Great post! The slow-mo videos are of excellent quality, but why not try moving the camera back a little bit so we can see the bend, or lack thereof, of the knee. When barefoot running, most the shock of the ground impact is absorbed by the ankles, calves, and knees, but when we run shod and heel strike, the impact is mainly taken by the knees and hips.

    Another good slo-mo video could be taken even further back, focusing on posture as you run. I tend to be more erect and have better posture when I run in my VFF’s, but seem to have a bend at the waist leading to lower back ache when I run in chunky sneakers.

    I look forward to seeing what else you come up with, and hope that future videos can be shot outside where the shock absorbers on the treadmill don’t influence the impact and stride.

    Keep up the great research!

    • Pete Larson says:

      Benny,

      I have a lot additional of clips a wider angles that I haven’t posted yet.
      I’m really in idea-gathering mode right now, and starting with the foot
      seemed manageable, but you’re right about the change likely occurring
      throughout the body posture-wise. I also have some outside shots, but those
      are more difficult to standardize, but I plan to work more on that in the
      future.

      Pete

  3. You may be overextending your stride. The foot should strike underneath the torso.

    • I’d suggest that ryan barefoot is very close to catching his full weight directly under his torso and centre of gravity.

      His foot is extended forward but is already returning before even hitting the ground and doesn’t take weight in the heel until almost directly underneath (allowing for intertia).

      Vibrams don’t fit me but I run barefoot. I find striding ahead and making contact with the ground without full body weight critical. It allows your foot to make contact and match the ground below before putting power through the stride all of which reduce’s the friction on your skin.

      The process tends to get worse as you fatigue and its almost always towards the end of long runs that I get blisters and I think its primarily due to laziness matching my foot speed to the ground :o)

  4. Anytime, Pete! I’ve been doing a bit of barefooting here at home on the treadmill… When’s you’re next race, btw? I’m doing the Hampton Half in February, then Boston in April…

  5. Really nice work. Thanks for posting this.

  6. Love the information. It is amazing how it just speaks for itself. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. As soon as you tape someone and play it back it can be drastic on how much running natural can strengthen us and improve our posture and form. Thank you for advocating the revolution!

    http://alterarunning.com

  7. Swollen Feet Shoes says:

    That’s very interesting. I have been running once or twice a week in my FiveFingers, and the rest of the time with shoes. I thought that some of the technique that is gained by running barefoot would be transferred to running with shoes, but I should probably evaluate that more carefully now.

  8. Djalma Ribeiro says:

    The step should be shorter when using the VFF!

  9. Barefoot Benny says:

    Check out a brief writeup on Pose:
    link to barefootbenny.com

  10. Is there any chance that we could get videos of you wearing a racing flat (like the Saucony Grid Type A4) while running on the treadmill? Thanks for a great blog!

  11. POSE Trainee says:

    I’d recommend to everyone especially running enthusiast to google POSE running or youtube it. It is a relatively new, and much better method of running focusing on a slightly aggressive forward stance, front foot strike and using gravity to work for, not against you when running. Plus it seems to increase ease, distance and reduce effort and lactate threshold/HR etc

  12. Steven Sashen says:

    When I switched to Vivo Barefoots, I definitely got off my heels, compared to my regular running shoes. But it wasn’t until I switched to huaraches that I realized how much I was still using my heels.

    In fact, WALKING in huaraches changed my stride almost instantly because, well, it really hurt to land on my heel. Now I find it incredibly uncomfortable to walk in regular shoes… oh, I can do it, it just doesn’t feel right.

    BTW, I ended up making huaraches for many of the Boulder Barefoot Running Club members, who then inspired me to put up a site with instructions about making huaraches, DIY kits and custom-huaraches — http://www.invisibleshoe.com

  13. Sister Mary Agnes says:

    This is fascinating and I am following your foot strike studies with great interest.

  14. David W says:

    I’m an eighth grader and I run 30 miles per week in Vibram Fivefingers KSO’s (training and competition). I got them at the beginning of the track season, and my mile time went from 5:55 to 5:04 (I’m looking to go below five this month). I find that when I run a mile I strike midfoot, when I do anything less I strike forefoot, and when I do anything MORE I strike forefoot as well. I think this is pretty bizarre considering all of the 3 distances were run in the same pair of shoes. Any clue why this might be happening? Also, I found the arch support in the Patagonia Specters that I wear every day to school so uncomfortable after a month of running in my KSO’s that I cut a section out of the footbed inserts. Does anybody else who runs in minimalist footwear find this same problem? By the way, Ryan, I notice the same shin pain that you mentioned when I run in a “normal” shoe, and my minimalist experience is limited to mediocre middle school track meets (by mediocre I mean that I lapped a second place runner during a 3200 and my mile splits were slow, only 5:30, 5:28)!

    Thanks for all of these great articles! I read Born To Run and had similar realizations as you had above. I did tests similar to what you did above long before reading this article, having the same findings. I immediately bought KSO’s and didn’t turn back! Thank you!

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks for the comment – that is strange about your footstrike changing,
      especially since it switched the same way both faster and slower. No sure
      why. I thin you’ll find that many who go fully minimalist start getting
      irritated by arch support in shoes, so your feeling is pretty common.

      Impressive running you are doing, keep it up!

      Pete

      • David W says:

        Thanks! It is very strange, though. Going faster makes sense because you naturally do that when you sprint. Going VERY slow, like trotting pace, also makes sense because I did that even in Air Pegasus with their big heel. But it seems like anything from a 5:00 mile pace up to about 6:00 will make me heel strike, and I don’t force any of my strikes into my form, I just let things play out naturally. This is not a good time for that to happen because when I run 5K’s I run right about 6 minutes per mile, so I wind up starting midfoot and ending the race forefoot. It isn’t annoying at all, I can run with either strike, but it’s pretty interesting anyway.

  15. fredbros says:

    Nice article. Thanks for sharing with us.

  16. I find it interesting that changing shoes didn’t seem to modify either yours or Ryan’s landing position. It’s more biomechanically efficient to land with your foot close to your center of gravity, and shod heel-strikers tend to land farther out which impedes momentum and adds impact stress. Though Ryan’s foot strike did change significantly, he still seems to be landing far in front of his center of gravity. I wonder if this would change over time.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Daniel – I’m wondering if there is also a difference between where we land relative to center of gravity on a treadmill vs. overground. Interesting thought. The biggest challenge with filming overground running is getting a natural stride, which is why race filming works well. We should have the ability to measure footplant position relative to center of gravity.

    • Runryrorun says:

      While I am a less than impartial observer, it does seem that the distance between my foot strike and my mid-line has decreased when comparing this video with the one taken earlier in the year in my huaraches ( link to runblogger.com… ). There are many reasons this may be the case though; the huarache video was taken in the middle of cross country season when we were working on speed which may have elongated my stride, or may have been a result of trying to land right in frame for the camera. Conversely, the treadmill videos were taken right before finals week and the lack of sleep might be getting to me. I’m hoping to be able to continue this research with Dr. Larson next year as a senior, so it would be interesting to monitor stride length and relative position to the mid-line over a longer period.

  17. Amazing work on this Pete, very cool video. Watching it makes me wonder though – it almost looks like based on the trajectory of the foot that even the barefoot stride could also be a heel strike stride if the heel were, well, bigger, as it is in a shoe. Do you think the gait is changing dramatically or just subtly, or is just having that extra inch and a half of material is causing the heel to hit first on the same gait? It would be interesting to see slow-mo video of the calf, knee and even thighs and hips under the same conditions to see other impacts on the gait?

    • Pete Larson says:

      I’m not sure, but my suspicion is that at least in me, the gait is similar,
      but the heel catches the ground in the Adrenalines and causes the
      heel-strike. In Ryan, the difference is more pronounced, and it almost
      looks like a biomechanically different gait to me. I will have the ability
      to look at all of the joints as you suggest, but starting small for now. We
      should get you up to the lab sometime for a shod/barefoot trial run!

      Pete

      • Daniel McCafferty says:

        The most striking difference (sorry about that :D) is what Ryan does with his trailing foot immediatley before it leaves the ground – he pushes up on the ball which provides greater height and propels him on to the ball of his leading foot. It’s clear that he has developed a great technique over his many ‘barefoot’ miles

  18. Interesting videos. Like a comment you have here, I tend to believe that the existence of a heel causes your foot to catch the ground earlier than it would without the heel, forcing you to heel-strike even when you’re not trying.

    I really started noticing this as my walking gait transitioned closer to a midfoot strike. This midfoot-walking-gait was easy to do barefoot or in VFFs but it becomes increasingly difficult with *any* addition of heel. I even notice a difference in walking gait in the KSO Treks as compared to Classic VFFs. It’s not huge, mind you, but it’s perceptible.

    Meanwhile, even a half-inch heel will push me towards heel-striking.

    I think what is going on here is that our natural biomechanics are efficient enough that our feet are supposed to glide over the ground with a very low clearance whereby when the mid- or fore- part of the foot hits the ground (as when you’re unshod), the rest of the foot is very close to the ground as well so the compression distance isn’t particularly great. Thus *any* amount of heel can make it impossible to get the forefoot far enough forward without the heel of the shoe striking first.

    Over time, this unavoidable heel-striking caused by shoes is adopted by the body and the body tries to work within the (IMO) less optimal conditions.

    One thing I really liked about Ryan’s vid is how clear it is he’s flexing his feet to stretch the fascia/coil it up like a spring before the foot hits the ground and compresses.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Justin,

      I’m pretty much in complete agreement with you about the heel. If clearance
      between the foot and the ground is small, a big heel will clip the ground
      and force a heel-strike. What I find most interesting is that in a really
      hard heel-striker, the front end of the foot comes down really fast after
      the heel catches, and you can actually see reverberations through the
      forefoot from the impact. Gives a really good feel for the shock involved -
      I’ll have to see if I have a good video of it.

      Pete

  19. wow! That was really neat to see.. You have me sold, I need to get some vibrams this year!

  20. barefootmike says:

    I found the videos to be very, very helpful. I tried barefoot running for the first time a 3 days ago on a treadmill at my gym. I had to stop after < 9 minutes because my lower calves (from the top of my heels to the bottom of my calves) seized up. Today they are still sore but are on the mend. The pain was quite intense; walking is difficult and further barefoot running is impossible at this time. However, I am not too concerned as I chalked it up to those muscles not being used very often during my regular exercises. I rode my bike to work today and didn’t notice any issue with my calves. I also tried a few yards of heel strike running and didn’t have a problem. It was only during forefoot running that I felt pain. I think it is amazing that in all my life I have hardly used those muscles. In addition, I also feel that my technique could have been better. One thing I remember doing was trying to keep my heel from strking at all. I think the extra effort to keep my heel off the ground cause extra strain on the calf. A barefoot running co-worker of mine states my heels should lightly “kiss” the ground. That being said, the 9 minutes I was running felt effortless and fun. With heel strike running I always felt stiff and my legs felt like lead weights. I experienced far greater ease and lightness with forefoot striking. Does anyone have any thoughts I about how best to get started with barefoot running.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Mike,

      Lower calf pain is almost universally experienced by anyone transitioning to
      barefoot or Vibram running – it will go away in a few days as the muscles
      repair and in most cases will not be a problem again. It hit me initially,
      and I haven’t felt it since. The key with barefooting is to build very
      slowly, and give your legs/feet time to adapt to the new stresses being
      placed on them – don’t do too much too soon or you risk an injury. Also,
      don’t force a forefoot strike, just let your barefoot stride work its way in
      naturally – concentrate on relaxing and you’ll likely adapt naturally quite
      quickly. The more you try to force things, the more likely you’ll do some
      damage. I’m definitely not an expert on barefoot running, but this is what
      I have learned from running in Vibrams so far.

      Pete

      • barefootmike says:

        Thanks for the reponse Pete. I will definitely take that into consideration. Thanks for the great blog.

        Regards,

        Michael

  21. I switched to KSOs about 5 weeks ago. I have a mid-foot strike in them. As far as injury goes, I could not run more than 2 miles per month in “running shoes” without knee pain. I had a heel strike in the running shoes. I just finished my 2nd 5K on Sunday in the KSOs.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Ray,

      Great to hear – love that the Vibrams seem to be helping people who were
      having issues with other shoes. I tend to mix them into a rotation with
      other shoes, but I’ve enjoyed using them so far.

      Pete

  22. Vibrams are unnecessary. Make your kid some homemade invisible shoes or luna-type sandals.

    As hard as learning correct running form is for us adults, don´t ruin his by putting him in shoes! Give him the gift of natural gait by not letting shoe companies rob him of it.

  23. Pete, I love this study. I’ve been interested in doing some research on barefoot running vs shod running too, but time constraints don’t allow me.

    I think it would be interesting to see if barefoot running affects pronation. I am very flat footed and therefore have extreme pronation, and I believe that it causes my chronic IT Band Syndrome. I hypothesize that running barefoot decreases pronation due to greater awareness of your feet. It would be great to see slow motion video from behind that analyzes the pronation angle of running barefoot vs shod. Just a thought.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Matt,

      Thanks for the comments – it’s been a lot of fun. I actually have those
      rear-view videos on my computer right now – except only for barefoot and
      Vibrams. Maybe I’ll upload them to Vimeo/YouTube tonight – if you’re right,
      that be really interesting. Need to do a few more rear-view shots with
      shoes.

      Pete

  24. I’m getting a treadmill for Christmas, and I’m looking forward to ditching the shoes and running barefoot on it. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel comfortable running barefoot on the roads, but I’m looking into buying some racing flats that fairly minimal. It really is amazing how running shoes change the natural foot strike

  25. First, this is the best video comparison, I have seen yet. That said, there are probably more controls needed to really get at what is happening here.

    I’m not a scientist nor a doctor, however, I can give some anecdotal running in Vibram insights that might help.

    My feet strike differently when I run based on several factors:

    1. If I’m running up hill
    2. If I’m running down hill
    3. If I’m running on a slick surface (like rainy streets or sidewalks)
    4. If I’m running on a soft surface, like grass, mud, dirt, sand
    5. What phase of a run I am in (beginning of the run, intermediate phase of the run, where I’m in my stride, later stages of the run when my legs/feet are becoming fatigued

    Number 2, 3, & 5 are probably the most important areas to consider, especially number 5 as it can occur on any surface/incline.

    The phase is very important because when a person first starts running they will run differently than once they have their breathing and stride at a level they might settle in to. If they are sprinting, or running faster at the outset, that will likely be a different stride than someone running the 2nd, 3rd, 6th 10th kilometer of a longer race.

    Finally, I’d point out that the nature of running in vibrams or barefoot, essentially provides tactile feedback that will drive a runner to make changes in their strides as they are running, with almost every step.

    So if you view someone on a streadmill, as opposed to any other area, you are not going to be able to witness their feedback to changes in environment.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Brett,

      I agree with you on all accounts – this kind of feedback is why working
      through this on-line is so much more fun than hiding it in the lab until a
      finished project is ready. One need not be a trained scientist to be well
      informed about running mechanics, and the feedback I have gotten from
      experienced runners is great. We did warm up before filming these videos -
      both of us did 5-10 minutes on the treadmill before filming anything. We
      also have a project where we filmed footstrikes at miles 6 and 20 of a
      marathon to begin getting at exactly what you suggest (fatigue effects).
      Looking at incline/decline is also certainly of interest. Lots of
      interesting questions to pursue, and we are on the very ground floor…

      Pete

  26. Boston-runner says:

    Is it possible to focus on a mid foot strike while wearing normal running shoes? I have been trying to do that in my recent runs and it fells pretty comfortable.

    • Pete Larson says:

      I would say that yes, you can, but it will take more effort given the raised
      heel. The heel tends to clip the ground and makes it harder to achieve
      midfoot.

      Pete

  27. Matt McAllen says:

    I have never run more than half a mile in my life and I have recently just started my marathon training. A friend of mine recommend the VFF KSO’S which I purchased and started running in from the the word go.

    My calf’s where killing me after my first couple of runs and are still a bit stiff after each run now, but on my last run I came across a lot pain in my shins and had to stop half way through, I could just about walk.

    For some reason I had it in my head that barefoot running meant running on the ball of your feet, and I’ve been forcing a on the ball foot strike.

    Thanks to your great video’s, it has opened my eye’s to a more natural foot strike and to relax more when I’m running.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks for the comment Matt. Forcing anything is unwise and will likely
      stress your feet/legs. Relax and let things come naturally – your body know
      what to do, just give it time.

      Pete

  28. Thanks for putting this info up, Peter. Very interesting. It would be good to see the whole body in the shots, as I’m curious how form might change with different shoes / going barefoot. While you guys were heel-striking in the “Full” or “Reduced” shoes, at least you were landing with bent knees.

    I do have to say that, while there aren’t numerous studies to show how heel-striking can cause injury, I am convinced based on observable bio-mechanics and personal experience. I used to land on my heel, foot out in front of my body, with a straight leg (Asics Gel Kayano’s kind of force you to land that way with such a huge heel). This caused a terrible back injury (herniated disc) that ultimately required surgery.

    3 weeks after surgery, though, I was able to run a little bit, but only because I was wearing VFFs and landing with bent knees, under my center of gravity. The arches of my feet and bent legs took all the shock out of the landing (which was much softer to begin with, now).

    It still hurts more to sit than to run! Landing on my forefoot saves me so much pain and misery.

Speak Your Mind

*