When I switched from heel strike running to forefoot strike running, I suffered a nasty tear of the Achilles tendon. Initially, I blamed forefoot running, but then I came to realize that it was the footwear that I wore that caused my Achilles injury and that forefoot runners are at no greater risk of Achilles problems.
Tear of the Achilles Tendon – Forefoot Strike vs Heel Strike Running
Researchers assume that because Achilles tendon force is greater in forefoot running, than forefoot runners would have an increased likelihood of Achilles tendon injury. The current research suggests that there are many factors that cause running-related Achilles problems, and the proper forefoot running style is not really one of them.
Since forefoot strike running is associated with greater Achilles tendon force compared to heel strike running, it is assumed that Achilles injuries are common running injuries suffered by forefoot runners.
Studies have found that Achilles tendon force increased when heel strike runners attempted barefoot running and landed with a forefoot strike, but nothing else happened with respect to injury.
Unfortunately, these studies are quick to point out that the increase in Achilles tendon force pegs forefoot strike running as a greater risk factor than heel strike running for Achilles injuries. This makes it difficult to persuade runners that forefoot strike running is safer.
However, the participants were instructed to run barefoot and to land on their forefoot for the first time, ever.
Of course mechanical consequences are expected, it could be a matter of a poor understanding of the proper forefoot strike technique coupled with residual heel strike mechanics that resulted in greater Achilles tendon force.
Habitual heel strike runners have heel strike running mechanics cemented in their neuromuscular system -their body is used to moving as a heel striker, not a forefoot striker.
- For example, heel strike runners lift their forefoot up to strike the ground on the heel first whereas forefoot strike runners do not.
- The consequence of forefoot-lifting to heel strike causes shin splints.
Heel strike runners also use their feet for propulsion which may strain the Achilles tendon.
The gist is, instruct heel strikers, who have the slightest idea of proper forefoot strike mechanics, to run forefoot while barefoot and chances are, they will continue to lift their forefoot and push-off with their toes at each step.
It’s not forefoot strike running that increases Achilles tendon force, its heel strike runners who try forefoot strike running and do so incorrectly, using residual heel strike mechanics.
Is forefoot running really associated with higher Achilles force? Or, is it poor quality science involving habitual heel strikers poorly instructed to adopt a new style of running they aren’t used to that results in greater Achilles force?
The Take Home Message
The top runners in the world, from sprinters to marathoners, are mostly forefoot strikers, not heel strikers. They seem to be doing okay in terms of Achilles health, mainly due to proper forefoot strike mechanics.
Therefore, it is inaccurate and unjust to directly conclude that forefoot striking causes Achilles tendon injury. A more appropriate, fair, and informative conclusion would be habitual heel strikers who shift to barefoot running for the first time and adopt a forefoot strike with no concept of proper forefoot strike mechanics, may experience greater Achilles tendon force and possibly injury.
Think about it, if forefoot strike running led to Achilles injury, Paula Radcliffe, Mo Farah, Galen Rupp, Tirunesh Dibaba and her sisters, Kenensia Bekele, Bernard Lagat, Molly Huddle, and Usian Bolt wouldn’t be forefoot strikers. Studies are not always correct, which is why most theories are revised, over and over.
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BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.