Why Runners Injure: The Wrong Running Form

Heel strike running is not the correct running form humans evolved for and is why most runners injure, not because of gender, not because of muscle strength imbalances, or arch height, but by how the foot strikes the ground at touchdown.

Generally speaking, the first part of the foot that makes initial ground-contact during running determines injury.

Why We Run Bad? Blame the Shoes

Improper running technique and injury derives from high-tech running shoes with thickly cushioned heels, causing runners to strike the ground on the heel first and with more force compared to habitual barefoot runners who are mostly forefoot strikers. Below is a video that describes what I mean:

My Experience

My name is Bretta Riches, founder of Run Forefoot. I research biomechanics, specifically foot strike mechanics of forefoot running, the correct running form.

Bretta Riches author of Run Forefoot

Bretta Riches, founder of Run Forefoot. From chronically injured heel striker, on the verge of giving up on running, until I saw Tirunesh Dibaba, and noticed she was a forefoot striker, who ran barefoot.

I am an avid minimalist, forefoot runner who was once a heel striker. I launched Run Forefoot to help others understand and learn forefoot running.

Learning from Ethiopian Runners

Ethiopian runners forefoot strike running technique

Tirunesh Dibaba and her sisters, as well as Haile Gebrselassie ran barefoot as youngsters and run with a forefoot strike.

Most Ethiopian distance runners display the correct running form which why I base most of my forefoot running content on Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele.

Why?

Because these Ethiopian runners ran barefoot for more than a decade during their earlier years before becoming elite runners. Barefoot running from day 1, shapes the reflexive nature of forefoot running and molds proper landing behavior. What do I mean by this?

Their forefoot running mechanics are pure, left un-touched by the conventional running shoe, until they score sponsorship’s later in life, but the critical components of safe, efficient running was already developed via barefoot running.

Their biomechanical parameters reflect that of how our ancestors ran, the natural way. Such biomechanical parameters of proper forefoot running observed in most Ethiopian distance runners includes:

With regards to foot strike, I have been on both sides of the fence. When I began running, I was a heel striker, always sore, battling injuries to the point where I had difficulty walking.

After intensive research on biomechanics, I found that the scientific literature painted a grim picture of heel striking running, implicating that this style of running is the underlying cause of most running-related injuries.

Statistically speaking, running injuries in habitually forefoot strike running populations were either very low, or rare, demonstrating that a forefoot strike provides better impact protection than a heel strike when running.

Lastly, I became inspired by Dibaba’s forefoot running style which motivated me to learn forefoot running.

Run Safer

Although my transition to forefoot running certainly did not happen over night, as a forefoot striker, my landings are softer, regardless of surface hardness, running feels easier, more natural, I flow.

Though I am far from elite status, having adopted a forefoot strike allows me to run consistently with great results, without discomfort and injury.

Bretta-Riches-Run-Forefoot

My Goal at Run Forefoot

I want to share my past transition process with you and provide key information from the scientific literature that helped me along the way.  And, I want aspiring forefoot runners to learn from my mistakes by avoiding the ‘too much, too soon’ pitfall.

Nevertheless, my goal is to advocate the importance of running with a forefoot strike and raise awareness on the potential health harming effects of  heel strike running.

Finally, by showing that forefoot running is safe and easy to learn, I hope to inspire more people to run and banish the false perception that running is ‘dangerous’. Less pain, more gain with forefoot running.

If It’s not Broke, Don’t Fix it

Do whatever works for you. In my opinion, I believe the human form was designed to run with a forefoot strike, not a heel strike. Again, that is just my opinion which is certainly biased based on my bad experience with heel striking.

Many runners believe runners aren’t built for ‘this and that’ and that is fine, to each their own. However, I also believe that if you are a heel striker, or a midfoot striker who has never been injured, keep doing what you are doing. But, for those who are chronically injured, adopting a forefoot strike might be a sensible alternative to consider.

So What About You?

What are your thoughts on this post? Were you impacted? Looking forward to hearing from you!

More From Run Forefoot:


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References:

Harrison, PC and Davis, IS. Gait retraining to reduce lower extremity loading in runners. Clin Biomech (2010); 26: 74-83.

Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

BSc (HONS) Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, running geek, founder of Run Forefoot.com. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, running feels natural,easier, and I'm injury free.I launched Run Forefoot.com to advocate the potential benefits of forefoot running and raise awareness on the potential dangers of heel striking.
m4s0n501

25 Comments on Correct Running Form is Forefoot Running

  1. silver fox // 29/07/2014 at 9:01 pm // Reply

    very well written BUT need personal training , do u give private lessons?

  2. Yes,I do! But, I like to do a video analysis for free as well!

  3. Jimmy Montgomery // 06/11/2014 at 11:55 am // Reply

    Hi Bretta. I wanted to ask if when your forefoot lands, do you contract the calf muscles (if that’s the right word to use) to soften your landing and lower your heel to the ground? Or do you keep the calf muscles relaxed, thus allowing your foot to fully compress when it lands?

    My foot doesn’t fully compress when it lands as my heel just kisses the ground lightly, due to me using my calf muscles to lower my heel down and I’m not sure if this is correct. Could you please advise me on this. Thanks. Jimmy.

    • Hi Jimmy!

      To soften my landing I actually bend my knees more and fully relax my calves. I make it a point to do nothing with my calves because when engaging the calves too much, engages the soleus muscles too, which eventually strains the Achilles.

      Sometimes the solution is in the knees because the more you bend the knees or sink into your stride as I call it, the more likely you will land forefoot first and heel last. If you watch Farah and Dibaba, both of them really bend their knees and have longer strides too -this doesn’t mean they’re over-striding, they just ‘open’ their stride a bit more rather than taking short, choppy steps like some Pose Runners do. No offense to Pose, I learned a lot from it. But, Dibaba, Farah, Rupp etc. have different stride characteristics that allow for a much softer landing when running at any speed.

      When I bend my knee’s more, not too much, you will know the right amount of bend at the knee because the ground will feel softer on your legs, coupled with opening up my stride a little, really helped soften my landing.

      Do you mean that your heel catches the ground before your forefoot?

      I appreciate your question! Hope this helps!
      -Bretta

  4. Jimmy Montgomery // 09/11/2014 at 5:24 pm // Reply

    Thanks Bretta, that’s a great answer and very helpful. Thanks for taking the time to reply, it’s very much appreciated.

    • No problem! Thanks for the question and good luck!!

      • Graham Aldrich // 02/02/2015 at 6:44 pm // Reply

        Hi Bretta, I can associate with Jimmy’s question above. I am currently a heel striker but I know I need to change as I’ve had a stress fracture in the past and I’ve currently got a little tenderness in that area again now. I am a believer in forefoot striking, I just need to transition to it. In the past it has put a lot of strain on my calves. I think this is because I was tensing the calf muscles too early to try to ensure my forefoot was lower than my heel at the time of landing (like pointing my toes). I then impacted with an already tense calf – not good. I think that’s called eccentric contraction. Therefore I value your comments about knee flexion and I’ll try to incorporate this.

        • Hey Graham,

          Thanks for your comment and question! Calf strain is by far the most common soreness related to transitioning of forefoot running, and in the beginning, your calves will feel blow-torched.

          Most of the calf pain is directly related to how the foot interacts with the ground, primarily, what you do with your toes during footfall. As you said, you pointed your toes too much. The best way to overcome calf pain is to forget about what your feet are doing -remove all focus from your feet and let them instinctively fall to the ground. This mostly involves trusting your body to land properly on the forefoot which will happen properly because a forefoot landing is reflexive and happens naturally anyway.

          Another mistake that causes calf soreness is using your toes to propel your body forward, and heel strikers are notorious for this. In heel striking, at the end of the foot-rollover phase, the toes are used to push, or propel the body forward. Many heel strikers carry this action over when they switch to forefoot running. For me, this was my problem -I maintained the habit of using my toes/forefoot for propulsion.

          To correct for this, Pose Running suggests removing the foot from the ground by tuning into the feeling of your ankle and let the ankle pull the foot up off the ground. This removes all conscious thought about what your feet are doing, allowing the feet to have a more passive role which spares the calves of strain. Sometimes tuning into your knees, such as bending them more, helps add more spring to your step thereby allowing the foot to pop-off the ground better. The ultimate goal is to get your feet relaxed at all times when forefoot running by not over-controlling their movement.

          Hope this helps, let me know if you need some more help!
          Bretta.

  5. Bruce Scholz // 25/11/2014 at 5:35 am // Reply

    Does running uphill or downhill effect your foot strike in a negative way where it just can’t be avoided?

    • In forefoot running, uphill is easier than downhill. It’s easier to maintain a forefoot strike when running uphill because the incline allows you to make initial contact on your forefoot easier as you can imagine heel striking uphill would be very challenging mechanically.

      Downhill running is the problem because it affects global biomechanics, in addition to footstrike.

      Runners have the habit of leaning back with their torso and lifting the toes back upon footstrike to avoid speeding up. However, this increases braking.

      There really is no way around avoiding speeding up when running downhill. Its best just to go with the hill and surge until you reach ground level.

      Ultimately, downhill running causes you to lift your forefoot back upon footstrike, so at footstrike, your forefoot slaps the ground harder and the slapping of the forefoot with the ground increases intramuscular pressures of the lower leg, causing leg pain or shin splints. And lifting the forefoot may also encourage a heel strike landing!

      To avoid this, don’t lift your forefoot back upon footstrike when running downhill. Instead, do nothing with your forefoot and let it fall down to the ground. Many runners don’t realize they are lifting their forefoot back before they strike the ground because it is such a simple action, however it can cause leg pain over time if it becomes habituated.

      Hope this helps! Thanks for the question.

      Bretta.

  6. Bruce Scholz // 26/11/2014 at 6:37 am // Reply

    Thanks Miss Bretta…

  7. Hello Miss Riches

    I’m from Brazil and I just want to comment that I saw a video which showed Ryan Hall and Meb Keflezighi running’s technique.

    I was surprised to see that Keflezighi is a heel strike runner, because he came from Africa, and all african runners (or most of all) are forefoot strikers.

    Hall has a better technique and, if I’m not wrong, he is faster than Keflezighi. But his results are not as good as Keflezighi’s. Can anyone explain that?

    • Hi Mauricio!

      Im also very surprised that Meb was/is a heel striker having been born in Africa. But of course, his heel strike style has negatively impacted his career because he struggled a great deal with injuries when he was with Nike. His performance suffered as a result, even though he did do well in the New York City Marathon(s), but performance wise, he still came up short and unfortunately was dropped by Nike.

      At least now with Skechers, Meb promotes a non-heel strike (midfoot) style -sometimes he heel strikes, but I don’t think his heel strike is as pronounced as it was when he was with Nike. Meb’s stride is much shorter now and I think because he eliminated some of the heel strike-related mechanics, allows him to injure less and he can train more, and when he can train more, he can train harder and produce better results, consistently.

      Hall definitely has a better, more finesse technique simply because he didn’t start off as a heel striker and therefore, I don’t think Hall has endured the high amount of injuries as Meb.

      But when comparing performance between the two, I think for Hall, his recent ‘under-performances’ was/is in the coaching, or lack thereof because he was coachless for a long time.

      When Hall was at the top of his game, he was a 2:04 marathoner and Meb is still 4 minutes behind Hall. Even though Meb has changed his technique a little, he is still a 2:08 marathoner compared to Hall.

      I know that Hall disappeared for a while, training in Kenya without a coach, and at the elite level, in my opinion, you need all the coaching you can get!!!

      Between 2011 and 2014, Hall went back-and-forth with being self-coached and he referred to it as faith-based coaching -this probably set him for his 2:17 at Boston this year. That’s my opinion on Hall and Meb.

      I hope Hall can get to a better place with his performance because his form is solid and theoretically, he is more efficient than Meb, but Hall’s performance output seemed to decline when he was coachless. Either way, a 2:04 for a non-African is pretty solid and is reflected in how Hall runs for sure.

      Thanks for your comment and question!

      Bretta

  8. Rubens Levy Francisco // 16/12/2014 at 3:18 pm // Reply

    Bretta, I should like to take this opportunity to thank you in public, so that other readers of your blog can appreciate as much as I do how wonderful a person you are! Your support and useful information are helping me become the great runner I am supposed to be !! Thank you from the core of my heart ! Rubens, 47, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

  9. Hello Bretta

    I didn’t realize that Ryan Hall was training by himself, I think that tells a lot about his performance.

    I’d like to say that since I started running I allways had been a heel strike and now I’m changing to be a forefoot strike, because of my coach’s advices. He also introduced me to your blog.

    To make a forefoot run, I realised that shoes’ choice have a great influence. We tend to a heel stride when we use shoes with higher drops. And those kind of shoes is what we find the most.

    Other thing I realised is that the faster I run, more difficult is to control my stride, and then I tend to make a heel stride.

    Thanks for your answer. You’re doing a great job.

    • Hi Maricio,

      Yeah, pretty shocking about Ryan Hall, no coaching = no performance gains.

      That’s great you decided to switch to forefoot running and your coach encourages it too.

      And you are completely right, it is the shoe that heavily influences foot strike! And of course, running barefoot a little bit per day can be the best way to ‘reset’ and reprogram the body to run properly by avoiding heel strike.

      As for controlling your stride at faster speeds when forefoot running, running fast with a new technique will feel very new to the body and is why you have these difficulties controlling and maintaining good form. But eventually with practice, forefoot running at faster speeds will feel more familiar, helping you gain better control over your stride.

      Thanks for your reply and good luck with your training. I wish you all the best!!!!

      Happy forefoot running,

      Bretta

  10. I’m a forefoot runner, after learning to run right this past year.
    I am wondering what the the wear making on my shoe’s should look like.

  11. Kevin Purvis // 24/01/2015 at 7:45 am // Reply

    Here is a more recent position by Dr. Lieberman along with different a perspective on improving performance and minimizing injury. Check paragraph 5. I enjoyed your blog and continue to look at all positions and research concerning run form.

    http://www.runnersworld.com/injury-prevention-recovery/its-all-in-the-hips

  12. Khaled Ghellal // 04/02/2015 at 5:32 am // Reply

    Hi Bretta,

    Just discovered your excellent website!
    I have been a natural forefoot/midfoot runner for decades
    and also love barefoot training sessions in summer.
    I read your piece about downhill running and would like to share some thoughts and insights that I have gathered!
    I engage my lower abs more and contact the ground with a soft midfoot strike, keeping ground/ support time very short and also rotate my hips from T12-L1!
    This allows for a smooth ride, letting gravity lead you down any slope almost effortlessly.
    It sure takes some amount of practice and body awareness, but I think that’s exactly what makes running so satisfying and special!

    Cheers from Germany, KG

  13. Great site! Quick question – I recenly had a cheilectomy on both feet. I’ve been reading how to get back into running and have read mostly to look for shoes with stiff insoles or forefoot rockers. Any tips on this front? I love running barefoot, but think that using Vibrams was one of the main culprits of my injuries. Thanks for any advice!

    • Hi Bori,
      Thanks for your comment and question! As for shoes, you want a zero-drop shoe that ‘feels’ hard and not soft and squishy. At the same time, the shoe needs to be flexible: Vibram (sorry to hear you had trouble with VFF), Merrell’s barefoot-line, New Balance Minimus are great examples of zero-drop shoes that have harder midsoles.

      Avoid rocker shoes because they prevent you from learning the right technique on your own. You can’t rely on the shoe to do all the work for you in terms of developing the right forefoot running technique. I know rocker shoes are marketed
      to help ‘guide’ your forefoot strike — there’s no proven science behind their claims. And rocker shoes weigh more because of the ‘added shoe technology’, which slows you down.

      I am glad you love running barefoot, so if you are able to, run barefoot as much as you can, but depending on where you live, running barefoot can be a challenge. If you don’t like the Vibrams, try Earth Runners Sandals or Huarache-inspired running sandals. I personally love Vibram and only run in them, but my next choice and I think most barefoot runners would agree too are the running sandals. However, if it’s cold where you are, Vivobarefoot is pretty good too.

      Just remember, if you love running barefoot, you need to find a shoe that closely approximates the barefoot experience, which includes avoiding wearing running shoes with compressible material in the sole. The shoe needs to feel firm under your feet, similar to how the ground feels when you are barefoot.

      Hope this helps! Let me know how you make out!

      ~Bretta

  14. dixon hemphill // 20/02/2015 at 2:46 pm // Reply

    I also believe running on ones toes is the better way however I switched from heel to forefoot striker 6 months ago and soon after developed plantar fasciitis. I’m certain switching caused the problem. Any comments?

  15. Dixon Hemphill, By wearing very protective running shoes, characterized by internal and external supports, the foot completely loses its intrinsic capacity of having a dialogue with the ground. That capacity can be recovered with patience by walking barefoot at home first and then outside preferring hard surfaces in order to awake the sole receptors and restore the ground-brain dialogue. When barefoot walking let fall the foot on the external edge with at the end a full contact heel-ground always paying much attention that ankle and foot be very relaxed. I also suggest some very simple exercises; barefoot walking backwards (very important: full heel-ground relaxed final contact), barefoot lateral walking in both directions (full heel-ground), walking forward by crossing the legs (right foot lands on the left of left foot, left foot lands on the right of right foot, ..). These exercises help relaxe hips, legs, ankles and feet and make easier adopt the new walking pattern: a gentle body slope, the right foot lands under the body, full heel-ground relaxed contact, right knee bent and relaxed, then left knee moves relaxed forwards and horinzontally pulling the left ankle and foot both relaxed.
    Once you have mastered this new barefoot walking pattern, you can pass to running: the technique is the same.

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