Rebecca Bryce is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist with extensive experience in run analysis at Olympic Park Sports Medicine Centre.
In this article, Rebecca provides her perspective on barefoot running in relation to running biomechanics and musculoskeletal injury, explaining the difference between 'heel strike' and 'mid foot strike'.
As with every "trend" (be it legitimate or passing) aimed at improving one's sporting performance, inevitably a cohort of opposition will follow. As barefoot running gains momentum in running circles across the nation, this concept too brings with it the avid "fors" versus the avid "against".
For runners considering whether or not this style of running is appropriate and or necessary to improve their own running performance, personal research into the topic may very well create confusion.
I wish to add my two cents worth, in an effort to clarify some of the confusion. As an Exercise Physiologist at Olypmic Park Sports Medicine Center it is my job to acertain faulty biomechanics in movement bouts which may lead to and / or excerbate musculoskeletal injury. I work with runners (and sports people) of all ilks assisting them in understanding and implemeting strength and condition as well as movement strategies to stave off injury. In my experience this is what I have found;
Heel Strike vs Mid Foot Strike
Biomechanically and ergonomically, it makes sense that, in running we should land through the mid foot". In simplistic terms, here are a few reasons why:
- Heel striking displaces our limbs and trunk in relation to our center of mass. This creates extra limb movement and postural sway, ultimately costing a runner in energy and potential repitious movement stress leading to injury
- Heel striking allows for excessive ground reaction force to travel up the lead leg, putting tremoundous stress through the structures
- That ground reaction force is traveling in the opposite direction to which a runner is moving, causing greater energy expenditure in "fighting their momentum
- Our stabilising (back) leg is often well behind our torso. Again, requiring greater energy expenditure through getting the back leg through to the lead leg position, only to repeat the cycle.
Perhaps the most notable issue I have found in working with the heel strikers is the absence of glute firing. Article after article has been written regarding the causes of weak glutes (the butt muscles) in runners. Whilst I am unsure of whether running with the extended front leg causes runners to switch off their glutes (as they are not required) therefore causing, over time, the glutes to become weak and ineffective it is certainly a norm in the heel strikers domain. Experts across the health practioner fields agree strong glutes and appropriate glute recruitment sequences are a very necessary part of productive running and injury prevention.
Another necessary consideration in the bare foot running debate is this; barefoot running is just one technique used in changing a runner's style from heel strike to mid foot strike. It is effective! If a runner doesn't have shoes on they will not land on their heels. However, to alter / change one's running style, running must be broken down into it's finer components. Running is a skill. Like every skill we learn such as swimming or kicking a football, strategies must be implemeted to correct faulty movement, create the appropriate strength and loading protocols and build the skill appropriately. Therefore barefoot running is one of many techniques used to build the skill of running. Engaging in barefoot running on it's own with no structured program is likely to lead to more issues than it will solve, especially as the body is likely to be lacking in condition to run this way.
Lastly, I will note that the majority of sports people I work with in relation to running biomechanics and injury are heel strikers. I rarely if ever have worked with a runner who lands through the ball (mid foot strike) unless it's for upper limb injuries. This leads me to believe, mid foot runners are not in need of my assistance (necessarily) in terms of injury. For my own most recent research bout (!) I went to watch the Run for the Kids in the last weekend in March. I observed the first 100+ runners, male and female. ALL of these lead runners were landing through the mid-foot.
If you require more information or a run analysis consultation, please contact Rebecca Bryce at Olympic Park Sports Medicine Centre.