How Heel Strike Running May Cause Shin Splints

A possible contributor to shin splints when running may be heel striking because it may put unusual strain on the front of the shin as compared with forefoot running.

A 2014 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that heel strike runners who had the greatest dorsiflexion (forefoot pointed up; shown below) at touchdown were at the greatest risk of anterior (frontal) shin splints. The researchers discovered that the greater the dorsiflexion at heel strike, the harder the forefoot slapped down onto the ground shortly after heel strike. This had the main effect of causing repeated and prolonged inner-range contractions of the tibialis anterior (muscle that runs down the front of the shin) which led to premature muscular fatigue and muscle cramps.

Heel Strike Running May Cause Shin Splints
To enable heel strike in heel strike running, the forefoot is pulled up (dorsiflexion) upon and at touchdown whereby the more the forefoot is pulled up at touchdown, the harder it slaps down onto the ground when stance phase is initiated shortly after heel strike. Shin splints may stem from this continuous forefoot-slapping because it may have a ripple effect up the shins, causing painful rises in contractions of the anterior tibialis.

Conversely, studies have shown that landing with a forefoot strike while running is consistently associated with increased plantar-flexion (forefoot points down; shown below) at touchdown which produces a smoother placement of the foot with the ground, thereby reducing forefoot-slapping and also has a strong effect on reducing energetically-taxing muscle activity in the anterior tibialis. In these ways, forefoot running may do more to limit stress on the shins as compared with heel strike running.

Forefoot Running May Prevent Shin Splints
One of the essential features of forefoot running is that at touchdown, plantarflexion (forefoot points down) of the foot is automatically increased and therefore dorsiflexion is reduced. In this way, the forefoot coasts down to the ground, resulting in a smooth landing where forefoot slapping is greatly diminished. This landing configuration of the foot in forefoot running may be a sustainable solution to shin splints because it was found to be a mechanical imperative that directly minimizes contractions (reduces work) in the anterior tibialis.

This work joins other studies showing that the shins appear to experience higher stress in heel strike running, mainly on the basis of increases in dorsiflexion at touchdown may be an inescapable consequence because the forefoot must lift up in order to heel strike, whereas in forefoot running, since initial ground-contact is made on the forefoot, there’s no need to lift it prior to touchdown. 

If you’ve enjoyed this article, you’ll love my content at my YouTube channel where I speak more on forefoot running vs heel strike running as well as the health and performance advantages of barefoot running.


References:

Miller AF., Roberts A., Hulse D and Foster J. Biomechanical overload syndrome: defining a new diagnosis. Br J Sports Med, 2014; 48:415-416.

Bretta Riches

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

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.
Bretta Riches

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