German running biomechanics researcher calls barefoot running a 'fad’

An national class gymnast turned biomechanics professor, Gert-Peter Brüggemann, Ph.D., began taking a harder look at running more than 25 years ago. As a professor of biomechanics now, he's consulted with companies such as Nike and, most recently, Brooks on its PureProject. SNEWS talked to him and found out he has a lot to say about barefoot running: It’ll hurt people. SNEWS listened.

A national class gymnast turned biomechanics professor, Gert-Peter Brüggemann, Ph.D., began taking a harder look at running with his athletic and scientifically-inclined eyes more than 25 years ago. Competitive life as a high bar and tumbling gymnast was over after the 1972 Munich Olympics and, to stay in shape and blow off steam, he became a recreational runner. But can an analytical type just do something without pondering every step? Brüggemann is now the director and a professor of biomechanics at the Institute of Biomechanics and Orthopaedics at the German Sport University, Cologne. And he was the consulting researcher behind the Brooks Running PureProject running shoes, which debuted at the 2011 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market. 


To Brüggemann, natural motion is the key to staying injury free, and that research has put his stamp on other companies’ footwear over the years, too. Ask him about the barefoot running trend, though, and you’re sure to get an earful. SNEWS asked him about just that and more to gain insights about where he thinks running footwear is headed. In the end, however, what does Brüggemann really enjoy about his work? Making a difference, he said. So forget all the technical chatter, he wants to make your running safer and more comfortable.

SNEWS: How does a biomechanist and former top-flight gymnast become THE running shoe researcher globally?

Brüggemann: Working with gymnasts and gymnastics skills — the most difficult movements in sports or in general — built a perfect basis to understand human motion and locomotion and to do research on the most natural movement: running. My experience with recreational running began three decades ago and since then I have personally enjoyed the development of technical footwear and running shoes. My interest in running is based on my own practical experience, but is mainly driven by increasing the understanding of this cyclic movement in general and the relationship of musculoskeletal loading and biological tissue response in more detail.

How do you feel about the trend of barefoot running?

Barefoot running on artificial surfaces is nothing more than a strange fad. In a population that lives in footwear and on artificial surfaces, running barefoot is not at all the habitual or “natural” way of locomotion. The biological system in modern society is habituated and adapted to using shoes that offer an interface with some cushioning to the artificial ground, and offer load distribution and support. Especially in running, the barefoot trend will increase the frequency of overloading and serious overuse injuries.

What then is the future of barefoot or minimalist running?

Barefoot running on an artificial surface has no future. It is a short-term trend and will disappear soon. What will survive is the additional training for the foot through barefoot workouts on natural surfaces or in specially designed footwear. Running increases the potential and the strength of the cardiovascular system, and barefoot training trains the structure and functional capacity of the musculoskeletal system. Barefoot training – not barefoot running – will be an add-on for the runner to make him or her stronger.

How has your research and recommendations changed over the years?

In 1995, I was part of a team that published the first critical paper on impact forces and its possible relation to injuries. This was – from my point of view – the start for a great change in footwear technology. The cushioning concept was replaced by motion concepts. We focused on motion control and especially on the control of rearfoot eversion or pronation. Some years later, we began to switch the focus to the new paradigm of natural joint motion that was first discussed in 2006. Each phase of research from cushioning to motion control to natural motion has increased our understanding of running motion and had an impact on recommendations for running shoe technologies.

What do you see as the benefits of the Brooks PureProject footwear, on which you most recently consulted?

PureProject and PureProject technology is closely related to and based on our concept of the natural joint motion or, in other words, the preferred motion path of the joints with least resistance. Increased joint frictional resistance and additional muscle work increases the energy demand and makes running less comfortable and enjoyable. The PureProject concept does not interfere with an individual’s motion. Therefore, the runner can feel his or her interaction with the physical environment and the ground, and can enjoy a comfortable stride.

Before Brooks, you worked with Ecco and Nike. Can you explain the differences and how they have affected the path of running shoe development?

The designers of Ecco listened to the natural motion discussion carefully and from this, derived the main ideas of their Biom concept – that is, low to ground, more or less artificial heel cushioning, and energy dissipation. Nike Free was a completely different story. From the experience of athletic training and the experience of barefoot movement on natural grass, they derived the concept of mimicking the foot’s motion barefoot on grass while using footwear on an artificial surface. The purpose of Free was to train the foot structures and especially the intrinsic foot muscles. Free was originally not designed as a running tool, but a training device mimicking a biomechanical situation for the development of the foot.

What makes your work exciting and interesting for you every day?

We started years ago extremely mechanically, then added the muscles to the understanding, and finally learned of the tissue behavior and its response to loading. Research on humans is now the major challenge of our work. Every day is exciting because every day gives deeper insights. The most challenging work is when you can contribute to changes and innovations, for example through sporting goods or – like in our case – running shoes.

-- Therese Iknoian


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