Study: No "Natural" Foot Technique?

Study of Kenyan tribe finds no evidence that barefoot running encourages a single ideal foot strike

What’s the correct way to run barefoot?

That’s a big question for many runners exploring the barefoot running craze, and a new study of one Kenyan tribe suggests the answer is even more complicated than previously thought.

A research team from George Washington University studied the foot strikes of 38 members of the “habitually barefoot” Daasanach tribe of northern Kenya as a possible window into the running technique of our unshod ancestors. What they discovered was shocking—the Daasanach subjects, running at a self-selected endurance pace, overwhelmingly landed on their heels.

So the heel strike wins, right? Not so fast.

When running at a faster clip, the Daasanach weren’t as consistent, with 43 percent performing heel strikes, 43 percent striking with flat feet, and only 14 percent running forefooted.

At the sprint pace, flat feet dominated with 60 percent of the tally, and no runner used the forefoot strike method.

GWU Study, 2013: Percent Rearfoot Strikers (All Barefoot)

 

Rearfoot %

Speed, range (pace per mile)

Daasanach

83

8:56-13:24

Daasanach

68

6:42-8:56

Daasanach

73

5:21-6:42

Daasanach

43

4:28-5:21

 

These findings complicate the picture painted by a well-known Harvard study from 2010, which studied a different Kenyan tribe known for producing world-class runners. That study, led by biologist Daniel Lieberman, found that the barefoot runners of the Kalenjin tribe tended to land either on the balls of their feet and roll backwards—a forefoot strike—or struck midfoot, i.e. flat.

Almost none struck with the heel.

Lieberman’s subjects, however, were running sub-5-minute miles on average, compared to the newer study’s graded approach to speed.

So, what's the verdict, ball or heel?

More study is needed. The different running styles of the two Kenyan tribes point to other factors than mere barefootedness in influencing “natural” foot strike, including speed, running surface and skill level.

In short, those minimalist, five-toed shoes may improve your running economy, but they won't tell your foot the correct way to land.

Harvard Study, 2010: Percent Rearfoot Strikers (All Kenyans barefoot)

 

Rearfoot %

Speed, average (pace per mile)

Kenyan adults

9

4:32

Kenyan teens

25

4:52

U.S. barefoot

12

6:52

U.S. shod

83

6:42

Via Runner's World.

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