Barefoot running is (sometimes) more efficient

Posted by Dave on July 6, 2011 | 16 Comments

ResearchBlogging.orgRunners around the world are currently engaged in an epic battle about the future of their sport: Whether running barefoot is better than running wearing shoes. I wrote an article about it last year, and despite the fact that Seed’s website doesn’t accept comments, I heard from a lot of runners on both sides of the issue.

That’s one reason I was surprised to find relatively little comment online about a study that was published a couple months back, which tested ten runners’ efficiency while running barefoot and wearing shoes. The surprising result: Runners are significantly more efficient when running barefoot versus wearing shoes. If this is the case, why don’t more racers run barefoot—it would seem to give them an advantage, wouldn’t it? This graph shows the results:

Barefoot running

It’s a small advantage: The difference is statistically significant only when the results for track running are combined with the results on a treadmill, but it’s a difference nonetheless, of about 3.8 percent. The researchers, led by N.J. Hanson, asked runners to run at 70 percent of their velocity at VO2 max (see this post for an explanation of VO2 max, basically the pace when you’re maxing out your lung/heart capacity), while attached to a device that measured how much oxygen they consumed.

On separate trials, runners either wore or did not wear shoes, on both an indoor track and a treadmill. They were instructed to maintain a steady pace, and had a device they could use to monitor their pace when they were running on the track. Only two of the runners (half men and half women) had previous experience running barefoot, although they were encouraged to try it out on their own before being tested. Not only was oxygen consumption lower, heart rate and the runners’ ratings of their own exertion were lower when running barefoot.

It’s a fascinating result, but I’m a little surprised that the researchers chose such a slow pace at which to measure running efficiency. 70% of velocity at VO2 max is by definition a pretty easy pace. The runners in this study averaged a 6:19 mile at VO2 max. Their 70% pace was a 9:01 mile—not exactly cooking for someone who’s able to run that fast. Indeed, a marathon pace for a runner like this would be closer to an 8-minute pace, so there’s really no competitive situation when they would be running this slowly.

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting study, and one that I hope is repeated at higher running speeds.

Hanson, N., Berg, K., Deka, P., Meendering, J., & Ryan, C. (2011). Oxygen Cost of Running Barefoot vs. Running Shod International Journal of Sports Medicine, 32 (06), 401-406 DOI: 10.1055/s-0030-1265203


16 Responses to “Barefoot running is (sometimes) more efficient”

  1. Flying « Sun Dappled Forest
    July 6th, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

    […] that this RunBare goofaloon trueDisciple is PeeWee…so I may be a bit biased. Dave Munger has a post up with some actual science over at his new blog project, Science Based Running so maybe we better review that first. Okay, I […]

  2. sethleon
    July 7th, 2011 @ 12:23 am

    I had not seen this study – Thanks for posting it.

    I think point regarding the easy pace is on target. While the study results are interesting the protocol doesn’t carry over to any race situation.

    If the race were a marathon of course fatigue might play a big role, and shoes could keep one from beating their legs up over time. As you mention the pace was slower than MP for these runners.

    Also I think the treadmill surface is more conducive (softer) to barefoot running than racing surfaces like tracks or roads.

    Interesting nevertheless.

  3. Skeet
    July 7th, 2011 @ 1:22 am

    “While the study results are interesting the protocol doesn’t carry over to any race situation.”

    Maybe so, but they are more likely to represent the average real life situation.

    Would be interesting if they had a third arm using shoes with minimal padding and no raised heel. ie Just a simple protective covering, with no intermediate structures that might alter the geometry of foot function.

  4. Roberto
    July 7th, 2011 @ 2:32 am

    The critical question in the barefoot running debate is whether or not you can train (and race) injury-free.

    Do you have access to a running environment that is safe for barefoot running? Can you train often enough in that environment to toughen and strengthen your feet and legs so you can train and race injury-free?

    Not so many urban runners can say yes, I think.

  5. rettals
    July 7th, 2011 @ 6:46 am

    did they wear socks?

  6. Michael Smith
    July 7th, 2011 @ 7:24 am

    If barefoot running is supposed to make muscles stronger, then why does that happen? It must happen as the muscles are working harder. Surely muscles working harder is a sign of an inefficient form and higher metabolic cost?

  7. Robin Judice
    July 7th, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

    Thanks for the post, Dave.

    In the end I don’t think it’s going to be an ‘either/or’ situation for barefoot v. shod. It depends upon the situation, the runner, injury history, form, etc. I do all my running specific strength training and warmups barefoot. I alternate my running barefoot, in zero-drop shoes and in ‘racing flat-type shoes’. Which shoe I use depends upon the surface I’m training on (gravel doesn’t work for me barefoot, nor do beat up roads with trash and broken glass, etc).

    The best researchers and most experienced runners in this field have just launched a new website:
    This site is great a ‘go-to’ for people looking for RELIABLE information on minimalist/barefoot running.

    Thanks for your great blog, Dave…keep it coming!

  8. Dave
    July 7th, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

    Sethleon: Great points — it may be that running in a race, fatigue and wear are bigger issues than efficient use of oxygen.

    Skeet: Good point — for slower “easy runs” it might be better to go barefoot/minimalist. I wonder, though, if simply making improvements to cadence/stride might achieve similar results.

    Roberto: Right, barefoot isn’t for everyone. That said, I have a great friend who runs barefoot year-round in my suburban town. He says there’s less broken glass in the world than you might think.

    Rettals: Nope, they were truly bare.

    Michael: I haven’t seen the research on strength. One plausible explanation is that barefoot running strengthens smaller muscles, while larger muscles (those consuming the most oxygen) are taxed less.

    Robin: I’m afraid you’re not going to like my latest post. I think that site is probably earnest, but I give it low marks on using scientific evidence.

  9. Tuck
    July 8th, 2011 @ 12:10 am

    “I was surprised to find relatively little comment online”

    We had a discussion at Barefoot Ted’s Minimalist Running Group when this came out:

    Didn’t get much comment either. I think people on the minimalist side of things don’t find it too surprising, and the running magazines aren’t exactly going to put it on their covers. ;) With a Nike ad on the back, right?

  10. Keyne
    July 10th, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    This study is deeply flawed. I switched to running shoeless 2.5 years ago, and have continued to watched my arch change dramatically, along with the musculature in my feet, ankles, and legs. I am still learning to run barefoot properly (and more efficiently) myself, so that what I find remarkable is that even these runners with negligible barefoot experience proved more efficient without shoes! I would not have guessed that these “fish out of water” could have done so well, and I hope they didn’t hurt themselves in such a poorly conceived experiment. I wonder how much more efficient they might be once they actually learned HOW to run shoeless.

  11. Lance
    July 10th, 2011 @ 11:07 pm

    Background: I went to VFFs about two years ago. I did a little barefooting last year, and I have not run in shoes since February of this year and am up to about 40 miles per week (long of 20 last Thursday). I am not an elite runner.

    My experience is that minimalist/barefoot running is great for strengthening everything from the knee on down.

    I believe the efficiency increase comes because when you run in shoes the padding absorbs energy – and unlike muscles and tendons, that energy is not returned to the muscles, so the body has to burn extra energy to make up for it.

    I don’t know if barefooting makes me faster, but I can certainly run farther than before with relative ease. In particular my lower legs and feet don’t fatigue the way they used to. I believe this is because unlike shoes (that wear out), muscles become stronger and more efficient when they are used.

    I’m still learning to run barefoot. I’m just now starting to run up on the balls of my feet. I am still unlearning how to run in shoes, but at this point I don’t even like wearing VFFs because they separate me from the road.

    Oh, and I call bullshit on those who say you can’t barefoot in an urban environment. I run on pavement almost all the time. Once a week I try to run on a rocky trail to toughen my feet up, but running on asphalt or sidewalks is great. I love it.

    But if you want to transition to barefooting give it time. I was only running every other day, doing maybe 10 or 15 miles a week at the start of the year. My long run of the year in the middle of February was FIVE MILES, and that was only once a week. Now in July I’m running about 9 days out of 10, 40+ miles per week, and my long run is up to 20 miles. My feet have not been injured yet this year, not even running last week’s 5K that had more than a mile of gravel (and I mean ALL gravel) trail in it.

    But give it time. Barefooting is a lifestyle change. If you try to transition too quickly you will get hurt, almost guaranteed. The muscles and tendons in your lower leg and feet are smaller. They have less bloodflow and will take longer to recover from years of atrophying from wearing shoes. Act as though you are injured because, from the standpoint of your lower legs, you are.

    If you are fine running in shoes, then don’t worry about it. Running barefoot takes effort and commitment, especially at first. It’s not for everyone. But the transition has definitely been worth it for me. I hope I never have to run in shoes again.

  12. D patterson
    July 12th, 2011 @ 7:02 pm

    Nike did a study similar to this way back in the late 80’s when they used to distribute a science / technology newsletter. What would be interesting would eb look at the economy of locomotion between a normall shod versus an unshod runner, as well as take a traditionally unshod person and add 250g to their feet to simulate shoe weight. This might give a better indication as to the consumption required at the level of the msucles to deal with cushioning, support and guidance. It would also be interesting to look at a shod runner before using a product like Barefoot Science and after

  13. Kenth Pedersen
    July 21st, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

    I have been running barefoot for a while now, and the first thing I noticed when I started, was indeed the efficiency of it.

    Straight away, you could tell the human form had evolved precisely for this type of movement.

    In fact, I noticed it was indeed harder to break a sweat and get the same workout over a comparable time and distance as when wearing shoes.

    Next (and I suspect this is the reason not more people do this), the hardest part of running barefoot has been conditioning my feet. And what I would say to this is, let your kids go barefoot.

    It has taken almost a year of hard and at times painful work to begin to develop the dog pads one develops as a barefoot runner.

    You actually add a layer of flesh to the bottom of your feet, very much like a dog’s paw, and perhaps almost as much eventually.

    I’ve developed about 1/8th of an inch of additional flesh, not including the much thicker skin I now have. Still, you need to be very vigilant of “bone crusher” pebbles.

    My business partner and I are working up to a point where we can attempt a persistence hunt with the Tarahumara or the San.

    However, there is a very intimate relationship between runner and road as a barefoot runner, and I am worried about running across a hot desert.

    We run barefoot in Park City, as well as up in the mountains, and I have noticed there is strong correlation between how far and fast we can run, and the conditions of the road or trail, in terms of humidity and temperature.

    When the air is cool and road is still a bit warm after a day of sun, we can run forever. On a cold, rainy day, we are in considerable pain after 5 miles.

    Lastly, the body responds very quickly to the correctness of running barefoot.

    My business partner had a running injury earlier in the year, where his ankle developed quite a bit of swelling and scaring, which prevented him from running with shoes.

    Though he could run barefoot, and after a month of doing so, his ankle was completely healed and there were no visible signs of swelling, adhesion or fibrosis.

    Also, the occasional hip, knee and lower back pains associated with running are no more. Lactic acid formation also seems to be reduced with this method of movement.

    As such, I highly recommend trying barefoot running, though give yourself a year before you make a final assessment.

  14. Plyometric Total-Body Workout « Sun Touch Skin
    December 2nd, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

    […] Barefoot Running is (sometimes) More Efficient. […]

  15. Frank
    January 31st, 2014 @ 4:20 am

    The elephant in the room is the fact that Kenyans and other top African runners who grew up running barefoot race in shoes. The argument that they do this because they have sponsors, etc. is nonsense: sponsors would be equally happy to have a barefoot runner wear their logos on a shirt or hat — as long as they win a lot. Clearly, if barefoot running made for better performance, these runners who grew up running barefoot would race barefoot. But they don’t!

  16. Andrew Turner
    February 8th, 2014 @ 8:49 am

    All sports “science ” is deeply flawed in that every athlete is completely different. For science to be science you have to compare like with like. All leading scientists at one time thought the world was flat!