Unlike forefoot running, heel striking during running is a major contributor to shin splints because it puts unusual strain on the front of the lower leg.
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.
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. This is how forefoot running does more to remove stress off the shins as compared with heel strike running.
This work joins other studies showing that the shins experience higher stress and strain in heel strike running, mainly on the basis of greater dorsiflexion at landing, which is an inescapable consequence since 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.
Miller AF., Roberts A., Hulse D and Foster J. Biomechanical overload syndrome: defining a new diagnosis. Br J Sports Med, 2014; 48:415-416.
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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.