An Engineer’s Perspective on Forefoot Running

I am surprised to see very few runners converting to forefoot strikers. For me, it was immediate and logical conclusion, but I have come to realize that I was taking for granted my background and knowledge in biomechanics. After this realization, I could easily see how confusing and controversial this subject could be. Therefore, I wanted to share my insights and describe why forefoot running makes a lot sense from an engineer’s perspective.

Engineers Perspective on Forefoot Running

An Engineer’s Perspective on Forefoot Running

Background

I love running. It’s great for my psyche, and I find that running is the most economical use of my limited time to get a good cardiovascular workout.

Most of my life, I have been running the traditional heel strike running style, and using the traditional running shoes with a lifted and cushioned heel. I had not given much thought about the physiology of the foot and ankle until the end of 2003 when I was hired as the Chief Design Engineer for a start-up company that successfully developed a new orthopedic implant, a total ankle replacement.

  • A total ankle replacement is much like a knee or hip replacement. Any joint replacement simply replaces the articulating surfaces of a joint with engineering materials.

In the process of designing for this device, I delved into the anatomy and biomechanics of the foot and ankle. I was surprised how much force the ankle takes when a person is simply walking –approximately 5 times body weight¹ (5 XBW). And during running, the ankle takes as much as 12 XBW².

  • This is an extreme amount of force that the body must absorb without damaging bones, tendons, ligaments, joints and internal organs.

I just attributed this to the amazing strength of the body, and I never thought of changing my running style. It was not until 2009 (years after developing an ankle replacement) when I was introduced to the so called “barefoot” running style, that I realized how beneficial the forefoot strike pattern could be.

My Introduction to the Forefoot Running Style

In the summer of 2009, my brother said he was switching to barefoot running, because the human body was designed to run that way. He mentioned that this was really explained well in the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall³. He also mentioned related websites that I researched extensively.

At the time, I never bothered reading Christopher’s book, because I was already convinced with my intimate knowledge of foot and ankle kinematics –I did eventually read his book, which is an excellent read.

I knew I was not interested in cutting up my feet, so I immediately made plans to buy some Vibram FiveFinger shoes, and as soon as I got them, started to transition to the forefoot strike running style. I have been doing forefoot running ever since.

Vibram Five Fingers - Forefoot Running Shoes
Vibram FiveFingers.

So during 2009, there was some hype around barefoot running and the new goofy shoes with individual toe compartments. I noticed a small number of runners transitioning to the shoes. I also noticed that some people wearing the shoes during everyday activities, but this I attributed to the hype at that time.

As I expected, the number of people wearing the shoes during every day activities dwindled. These are primarily made for running, and I personally do not use them any other way. As for the runners, I would have expected a steady growth, but I never observed this. It has since struck me that most runners must not understand what I naturally understood about forefoot running. Click here to read my logical assessment of forefoot running biomechanics.

My Initial Experiences with Forefoot Running

When my brother first told me of forefoot running, I was excited to read some of the research and trends in forefoot running. Fortunately, I was prepared by some of the articles. At the time, I was 45 and had run in the typical soft, elevated heel shoes all of my life. Plus, I was not an avid runner, and I knew that I would need a gradual transition. The most important transition technique was exactly that; a very gradual introduction technique.

Transitioning Tips

On your first outing, run with your forefoot running shoes of choice for only ¼ mile, then switch to your normal running shoes for the rest of your run. Concentrate on the proper technique of landing on the balls of your feet and taking shorter strides during the ¼ mile portion. I would even exaggerate the motions to develop the muscle memory.

Also, it helps to start running on a treadmill, which absorbs some of the impact and makes it much easier to switch shoes. Even though you are only running a ¼ mile, you will be surprised how sore your calves will be.

  • Remember, you are now using your calf muscles twice as much as normal. I would also stretch your calves before and after each run.
  • Do not increase the ¼ mile distance until your calves are no longer sore.
  • Only increase the forefoot running distance another ¼ mile, again waiting to increase the distance until your calf muscles are no longer sore. Repeat the process until you have gained the desired distance.

It took me 6 months before I was running comfortably 2 miles. I know that sounds like a long time, but cheating can lead to over stressing your foot. Not only are you using your calves twice as much, but the whole entire foot must be strengthened (bones, tendons, and muscles).

During the first year that I was consistently running 2 miles, I developed a stress fracture in my 3rd metatarsal (one of the long bones in the forefoot). I had to wait about 6 weeks before I could start running , and again I had to gradually increase my distances before I was comfortable running 2 miles. I have also had stone bruises, stubbed toes and various stressed tendons in my feet. All of which have required me to back off on my running and allow my body to heal. It is like the old saying; whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Because of my forefoot running, I’m sure my feet are the strongest they have ever been.

Of course you will need to gauge the above strategy to your abilities. If you are younger and/or an avid runner, you can probably shorten the time to running full-time on your forefeet, but remember pushing yourself to an over-stressed type of injury will set back your progress. It definitely will take some determination, but the overall benefits of low stress running can decrease your injuries and allow you to keep running through your old age. I am 51 now and I continue to enjoy running 2-3 miles each outing, and hope to continue through my 90’s.

More From Run Forefoot:

Benefits of Forefoot Running

Dangers of Heel Running

Best Shoes for Forefoot Running

Knee flexion protective on IT band for forefoot runners, but not for heel strike runners.

Inspiring and informational books on barefoot running.


References:

1. Seth Greenwald, D. Phil. (Oxon), et al. Mobility Characteristics of Total Ankle Replacements, Orthopaedic Research Laboratories. Cleveland Clinic Health System. AAOS 2000.

2. Lieberman, Daniel E., et al. Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus
shod runners, Vol 463| 28 January 2010. doi:10.1038. Nature, 08723.

3. McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. May 2009. Knopf. p. 304. ISBN 0-307-26630-3.

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!

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