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Study: Running Barefoot May Increase Injury Risk in Older, Experienced Athletes

The debate about barefoot running drums on with a new study that found a significant number of experienced runners age 30 and older maintain a heel-first running pattern, which naturally occurs when wearing a shoe, even while running barefoot. According to the study, presented Tuesday at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, maintaining a heel-toe pattern while running barefoot or in minimalist footwear may lead to more injuries.

Researchers from the University of Kansas Department of Orthopedic and Sports Medicine measured the heel-to-toe drop of 26 runners 30 years and older with at least 10 years of running experience. Each participant ran in traditional running shoes and again barefoot. The heel and forefoot thickness were measured at running speeds of 6, 7 and 8 mph for women, and 7, 8 and 9 mph for men. A motion capture system was used to analyze foot strikes by a single blinded examiner skilled in the use of the camera system and running mechanics.

Heel-to-toe thickness of the running shoe did not significantly correlate with a change in heel strike or speed. Running barefoot resulted in a significant drop in percent heel strike at all speeds. However, 40 percent of the men and 20 percent of the women persisted with consistent strike patterns across all speeds with and without shoes.

Orthopaedic surgeon Scott Mullen, MD, explained that previous studies have shown an adolescent runner’s foot strike is influenced by their running shoes, and that they can easily adapt to a forefoot strike pattern when running barefoot. He said that adaptability wanes with age. “Our study indicates that older runners (age 30 and older) are not able to adapt as quickly to running barefoot. The inability to adapt the foot strike to the change in shoe type may put these runners at increased risk of injury. Older runners should be cautious when transitioning to a more minimalist type of shoe.”