Event Report: Running footwear - can changing your shoes really improve performance and reduce injury

Event Report: Running footwear - can changing your shoes really improve performance and reduce injury

Young children showing (maybe) how it's done. Photo from my travels, Thailand 2007.

Young children showing (maybe) how it's done. Photo from my travels, Thailand 2007.

I was out at the next event organised by South Dublin County Sports Partnership last week, December 12th 2016 for a very interesting talk by Joe Warne, a 'World expert in transitioning to barefoot running'

Presenter Slide-Deck

Linked here is the slide-deck as shown by Joe, the presenter.


Notes from the Talk

My own reflections on the event are at the bottom of this post.

I've pasted my notes below from the event directly as I recorded them (with only minor editing for formatting). In short, the message was that yes, running barefoot has a lower rate of injury but the injury rate during the transition period is very high. It's essential to make a slow transition to mitigate this issue (description is below), and also important that this message is also passed down to youth to save them having to make the transition back! 

(Amazon) Links to two books below also if you're interested in some related stories. They're good reads, whatever your opinion on barefoot running.



  • Transition from hunched monkeys to standing mammals. We've all seen the slide of standing tall to hunched over a desktop computer (Neal note: this has now been replaced by us standing up again and hunched over the screen of a mobile phone - I'm optimistic wrist wearables and ear pieces will remove this issue in time!)
    • 2 million years of steady evolution, only recent history where society has dramatically changed. obesity issues, eyesight issues from staring at screens.
    • Almost de-evolution back to hunched person/monkey.
    • Wall-E image: sitting in seats, lazy is becoming the norm.


Current runners

  • The amount of runners has Increased 10% since 2010, excess of 35 million.
    • Between 19.4 and 79.3% are injured annually
    • 90% of marathon runners. Recent stats.
  • How to combat injury: Ice baths, compression clothing, foam rollers.
  • And modern running shoe: Pronation, elevated heel, cushioned heels (PCECH). Conventional running shoe was invented in 1970 - a blip in history.


Human Evolution

  • Early bipedal ancestors ran barefoot, 4.4 million years ago.
  • Earliest recorded footwaears 300,000 - 30,000 years ago. Protection for heat, cold. Still in evidence in Africa.
  • First rubber shoe 1830, plimsoll. Protect for rough stony surfaces.
  • First running shoe, 1895, JW Foster - Adidas
  • Cushioned running shoe, 1950's and what is the conventional running shoe was invented in 1970's.


  • How does a sudden change in footwear characteristics actually influence our running mechanics 
  • Understanding conscious and unconscious movement
    • Removing sensory feedback. How much is governed by instinct.
    • Babies intuitively knows to adapt by feel - adults know easily to step up, etc.


  • Videos of guy in trainers on gravel and then barefoot on gravel.
    • In trainers: individual lands on heel with locked/straight knee. Knee flexes briefly once senses heel landing in trainers and then flexes to reduce force. But sharp force just before.
    • Barefoot landing towards front of foot and with a bent knee.
    • Video analysis, runner flexes knee when barefoot to protect heel bone. Posture very different when runners on - in trainers, weight back until foot landed, where as barefoot, weight over body as landing. Theory shows reduction of injuries.
  • Kenyan studies. Studies show major changes in running styles. Same results as previous. 
  • Impact has little to no correlation to injury. Fractures directly correlate to injury.
  • If land sharply (trainers onto heel), sharp force. Barefoot is slower, more spread force.


"76% of runners had an interest in BF running"


2014 study on Barefoot Running

  • Decrease in foot atrophy and increased function
    • Increase foot muscles functional capacity
    • Higher dynamic arch characteristics and foot strength
    • "Footwear fails to respect natural foot shape and function and will ultimately alter morphology and biomechanics of foot"
    • Reduced prevalence of flat foot in children when more often bare-footed.
    • Toes spread out from being more bare-footed.
  • Increased proprieceptive feedback
    • Impaired feedback impact attenuation tactics
    • Reduced sensory feedback and movement control
    • Induce hypothermia test showed increase in sway.
    • More joint variability when barefoot due to constant minor adaptions based on surface interactions.
    • Reduction of repetitive strain injury From more barefoot.
    • Change running style and may have more chance of reducing impact to same location.
  • More natural running gait
    • Less harmful impacts and movements - injury
    • Early running shoe theories suggested cushioning reduce these impacts. Used impact dynamometer. Adidas Boost - 'propoganda': dropping a ball onto cushion against competitors.
    • Newer studies showing the increased cushioning, it increases load - and higher impacts.
    • Lots of studies: over-the-counter (cheaper) shoes showed better results for impacts/injuries.
    • Knee injury is 20-30% higher in cushioned shoes.
    • Initially, Achilles and calf injuries with barefoot runners if too quickly started.
  • Study: Increase in running injuries with insoles/orthotics. 1990 and repeated in 2015
  • Healthier feet in barefoot condition.

6-week barefoot intervention to athletes prescribed surgery, ended up pain free.


Less pronation when starting to run barefoot.





  • Hard to study for performance as can't do a blind test.
  • Running economy: gold standard predictor of endurance performance.
  • 150-300grams average weight of a running shoe.
    • -1% per 100g: decrease in running economy.
  • 'Free energy' theory: evidence shows better economy. Does take training though and not consistent to all.
  • Cost of cushioning theory: evidence of very height speeds, mechanical cost of landing on hard surface (blame modern tarmac!).
  • Actual running performance:Fuller at al, 2016
    • Improved time performance in both groups, but significantly greater for reduced footwear group (45 sec improvement versus 24 second improvement in cushioned running shoes).
  • Nike Free is not minimal shoe. Vibram is.
  • Warne and Warrington, 2014 - 8% improvement in running economy for barefooted runners.
  • No evidence from 2008 to justify/evidence for running shoes.
  • Athletic footwear market valued at 84.4billion dollars in 2014.
  • No evidence of negative result from transition to barefoot running in race performance.


Injury Rate for runners, transition to barefoot, and barefoot running

  • Shod: 12.7 per 10,000km
  • Barefoot: 5.6 per 10,000km
  • Transitioning: 33 per 10,000km. The transition is a huge problem.


  • Metatarsal stress fractures
  • Achilles tendinopathies
  • Two most common transition injuries.
  • Is it worth it? Major companies have reduced production of barefoot shoes.
  • Due to transition injury rate, worth considering deeply whether to move back to barefoot. However, should be prioritised for youth to stay as close to barefoot as possible (plimsoles were used for PE classes until 60's).


Questions at the end from attendees:

  • 5% of your run on 3 days, but not more than 5 minutes per run.
  • Reduce training volume by 10-20% initially in migration to barefoot runners.
  • Nike Free's are "Nike Knee's" - puts you on a bed of jelly.
  • No loyalty to brands - get a range of shoes.
  • Running shoe replacement times: rubbish. The elastic property is gone within an hour. Wear till they die.
  • 2,500 army USA study. Put 50% into neutral shoes (after measuring/assessing for pronation) and no detrimental effects recorded by any at end of study




My own personal thought? I do notice that if I run flat out I land very hard onto the heel loading the knee and spine in the incorrect method, however a more gentle run has me landing onto a softer knee and stride. Is there something to it that people's technique/form decreases as they increase the intensity and that one method to reduce injury rates for shoe-runners would be to improve their form at higher speeds? I.e. get a coach who knows good technique to work with you on this. (Of course, this ties in with my love of coaching as well... :)

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