Individual Responses to a Barefoot Running Program: Insight Into Risk of Injury

Nicholas Tam, Ross Tucker, Janie L Astephen Wilson
American Journal of Sports Medicine 2016, 44 (3): 777-84

BACKGROUND: Barefoot running is of popular interest because of its alleged benefits for runners, including reduced injury risk and increased economy of running. There is a dearth in understanding whether all runners can gain the proposed benefits of barefoot running and how barefoot running may affect long-term injury risk.

PURPOSE/HYPOTHESIS: The purpose of this study was to determine whether runners can achieve the proposed favorable kinematic changes and reduction in loading rate after a progressive training program that included barefoot running. It was hypothesized that not all individuals would experience a decrease in initial loading rate facilitated by increased ankle plantar flexion after a progressive barefoot running program; it was further hypothesized that relationships exist between changes in initial loading rate and sagittal ankle angle.

STUDY DESIGN: Descriptive laboratory study.

METHODS: A total of 26 habitually shod runners completed an 8-week, progressively introduced barefoot running program. Pre- and postintervention barefoot and shod kinematics, electromyography, and ground-reaction force data of the lower limb were collected. Ankle and knee kinematics and kinetics, initial loading rates, spatiotemporal variables, muscle activity during preactivation, and ground contact were assessed in both conditions before and after the intervention. Individual responses were analyzed by separating runners into nonresponders, negative responders, and positive responders based on no change, increase, and decrease in barefoot initial loading rate, respectively.

RESULTS: No biomechanical changes were found in the group after the intervention. However, condition differences did persist during both preactivation and ground contact. The positive-responder group had greater plantar flexion, increased biceps femoris and gluteus medius preactivation, and decreased rectus femoris muscle activity between testing periods. The negative responders landed in greater barefoot dorsiflexion after the intervention, and the nonresponders did not change. An overall change in ankle flexion angle was associated with a change in initial loading rate (r(2) = 0.345, P = .002) in the barefoot but not shod condition.

CONCLUSION: Eight weeks of progressive barefoot running did not change overall group biomechanics, but subgroups of responders (25% of the entire group) were identified who had specific changes that reduced the initial loading rate. It appears that changes in initial loading rate are explained by changes in ankle flexion angle at initial ground contact.

CLINICAL RELEVANCE: Uninstructed barefoot running training does not reduce initial loading rate in all runners transitioning from shod to barefoot conditions. Some factors have been identified that may assist sports medicine professionals in the evaluation and management of runners at risk of injury. Conscious instruction to runners may be required for them to acquire habitual barefoot running characteristics and to reduce risk of injury.

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