Physician Studies Barefoot Running Benefits

Barefoot runners may offer important insight into running form, according to research led by E. Bruce Toby, MD, orthopedic surgery chair and medical director of the Sports Medicine and Performance Center.

Dr. Toby’s research was inspired by barefoot runners who tend to strike the ground with a flat foot or forefoot rather than the heel.

"The idea is, if athletes run in this fashion, the foot absorbs more impact and decreases force placed on the knees, hips and back," says Dr. Toby. In three studies, Dr. Toby and Scott Mullen, MD, orthopedic surgery resident, looked at the running strides of athletes who switch from standard running shoes to bare feet or minimal shoes for a period of time.

For the first study, published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics, elite young athletes ran on treadmills, first in running shoes and then with bare feet or track flats. These athletes easily reverted to a more natural mid-foot strike when they wore no shoes or minimal shoes.

When doctors repeated the study with experienced runners over age 35, however, the athletes did not revert to a natural barefoot running style during the course of the study, likely because their running habits were so well established.

In the third study, published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, the doctors placed adult athletes in an 8-week barefoot running program to see if running habits could be altered with formal training. The result? The changes were minimal, indicating that barefoot running may need to be practiced over a longer period of time to become a beneficial habit.

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