I love reading and learning about the evolution of forefoot running because this truth keeps me realizing that forefoot running is the only way to run as humans were impressively designed via selective pressure to strike the ground on our forefoot, before the heel when we run.
Evolution of Forefoot Running
Early man was bred to be a runner. The ancestors of modern man came out of the dwindling trees of Africa and were forced to survive in the savannah.
- Walking upright was advantageous to surviving and became the prominent mode of locomotion approximately 4.4 million years ago¹.
It became imperative to look above the grasses for predators, and it became more efficient to travel from outcropping to outcropping of trees.
Running To Survive
Being able to run would be advantageous as well. In other words, the slowest man was eaten. So early man became better and better at running:
- the opposable toe went away in favor of a strong forward facing toe and foot for running².
- the flat foot of ancestral man (like that of chimpanzees and gorillas), become more arched to aid flexion and spring.
- the legs become longer, stronger and included collagen laden tendons for extra spring.
- the spine and pelvis adjusted for upright weight.
- the lungs expanded and allowed to inhale and exhale at rates that were not tied to the running gait like most mammals (the cheetah for example, when running, only breathes as fast as his body extends and compresses).
- the body was allowed to cool itself by having less hair and spreading sweat glands to the entire body.
These are some of the most obvious changes, but there are many subtle characteristics as well, in fact too many to list here. So man was born to run, but were they born to run on their forefeet?
Forefoot Running Indicators
So the evolution of the modern human body has many indicators that man was born to run. But what indicators point to man forefoot running rather than heel strike running? One is the gluteus maximus which is uniquely one of the largest muscles in ratio to the rest of the animal kingdom.
- As explained in the mechanics section above, it is used more fully when forefoot running, therefore fully utilizing its size.
- Another example is that the calf muscle helps to pump blood back to the heart, and guess what, you use the calf twice as much when forefoot running, helping your heart to pump with less effort.
These two indicator of forefoot running, not only suggest the body is better adapted to this style, but also that this style of running is more efficient. And as expected, when studies have been properly designed, investigators have found that forefoot running is more efficient.
There is another physiological indicator that is right up my alley. Back in 2003, when I was hired as the chief design engineer for an ankle replacement company, I thoroughly educated myself on the bones of the ankle.
The talus (ankle bone), is the bone at the bottom the tibia (shin bone) and is the joint in which allows up and down motion of the foot — the forces of running go right through this bone. Of particular interest is the shape of the joint surface, which is wider in the front and narrower in the rear, which is shown in figure a).
This is also mimicked in the design of the engineered talar component of the ankle joint replacement shown in the same figure above. Because of the wider surface area in the front, the bone can take more pressure in the front and less in the rear. This corresponds nicely with forefoot running:
- When the foot strikes, the forefoot it is flexed so that the tibia is positioned over the wider portion of the talus.
And conversely, when the foot strikes the heel first, the tibia is positioned over the narrower portion of the talus. Therefore, where the talus is concerned, higher forces can be better handled when forefoot running.
And here is one last logical indicator that forefoot running is more natural, and one that you can prove to yourself:
- Try running while barefoot. Unless you are running in sand or soft grass, you will find that your running style will automatically adjust to landing on your midfoot or forefoot to avoid high impact to your heels.
Without the luxury of shoes, primitive man naturally ran on his forefeet for millions of years.
Running and Primitive Man
All of these evolutionary changes made man become so good at running, that not only was it a method to escape danger, but running became a means to gather food too:
- Evidence of running down an antelope has been documented and currently practiced by the Kalahari bushmen — this form of hunting is called persistence hunting.
- Persistence hunting is thought to have been one of the earliest forms of human hunting, having evolved around 2 million years ago³.
In good company with the Kalahari bushmen, there are many examples of current tribes that have not been touched by the modern “advantages” of cushioned heel shoes.
These tribes still use the forefoot strike pattern, which include the Kalahari mentioned above, and the Tarahumara people, who were exalted into legendary status in the book, “Born to Run”. Both of these tribes can easily run 50 miles and more in one stint.
In the book, Christopher McDougall tells the story of a few Tarahumara members who were convinced to run an ultra-marathon in the US. They easily won, laughing and smiling the entire distance, only wearing thin sandals.
Nevertheless, the long-standing theory regarding the evolution of the forefoot running technique has also highlighted how disappointing progress has been in designing running shoes that prevent injuries. Find out why runners are no closer to having an effective way to run safely in thick, cushioned running shoes.
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Advanced barefoot running training guide.
1. Ward, C. V. Interpreting the posture and locomotion of Australopithecus Afarensis: Where do we stand? Yb. Physical Anthropol. 35, 185–215 (2002).
2.W E H Harcourt-Smith1 and L C AielloD.M. “Fossils, feet and the evolution of human bipedal locomotion” , Journal of Anatomy, May 2004; 204(5): 403-416.
3. Bramble and D.E. Lieberman, “Endurance running and the evolution of Homo” (PDF), Nature, 432: 345-353, November 18, 2004.