Is Forefoot Running Better for Energy Economy than Heel Striking?

Research on running economy presents a fresh take on which foot strike, forefoot strike or heel strike, is more efficient whereby further analysis revealed that forefoot running saves more energy on account of more gravitational acceleration that results in more efficient forward momentum with less mechanical energy.

Is Forefoot Running Better for Energy Economy?
Foot strike matters immensely in running because it influences energy economy. Forefoot running was found to be more economical because landing forefoot-first was found to cause the knee to bend, which also causes the upper body to instantly shift in the forward direction vs heel strike running, which shifts the torso backwards, against the force of gravity.

Gravitational acceleration means an object is falling because gravity is pulling it down towards the ground, therefore the object does not expend energy to fall. Researchers also learned that more muscle energy is freed up in forefoot running because it naturally increases gravitational acceleration by improving upper body posture, while preventing an over-stride. These are mechanical outputs that compliments, not goes against, gravitational acceleration. 

In contrast, the mechanical components of heel strike running resists gravity, which results in more muscle demands, and therefore, more muscle energy, to counter the force of gravity. Specifically, more propulsive muscle force is needed to launch the body up and forward through each step, shown below:

Is Forefoot Running Better for Energy Economy
How you land on your foot when you run directly affects the posture of your upper body and stride length which in turn directly affects running economy and injury outcomes.

The primary evidence shows that the farther the foot lands away from the heel towards the front of the foot (i.e. the balls of the foot which is a forefoot strike), the more the knee-joint bends and softly flexes, the more this causes the upper body to tilt forward. This whole-body postural arrangement has been identified as a huge economic incentive because it easily leverages more energy, while producing a quiet, more of a low amplitude brake force as compared with heel strike running

Moreover, the forward lean engaged by forefoot striking allows the body to essentially free-fall, which also allows the foot to release quickly from the ground, pulling up underneath the hips, with less muscular effort.

Is Forefoot Running Better for Energy Economy?
Dr. Romanov (a world renowned running form expert who advocates against heel strike running) demonstrates the concept of creating a continuous fall in the forward direction via forefoot running and how economically useful it is in his eye-opening book POSE Running.

The scale of foot strike type and its involvement in running economy is paramount because forefoot striking when running is a better mechanical energy-saving mechanism than heel striking when running.

The big problems when you heel strike when you run is there’s a larger vertical displacement of the upper body, which means the body bounces higher up and down off the ground, while creating a larger horizontal displacement of the body’s center mass (which is the hips) and your initial foot strike position, all shown below:

Is Forefoot Running Better for Energy Economy?
In order to land heel-first when running, the foot over-reaches too far ahead of the hips, creating an over-stride (i.e. a longer horizontal displacement between initial foot strike position and the hips). In consequence, the torso is pushed backwards, against gravity, which slows forward momentum and makes the muscles work harder to pull the body through, and therefore, against gravity acceleration.

Heel strike running increases energy use via a higher vertical and horizontal displacement of the body’s centre mass, which means for one, the body lifts up too high off the ground at each step, which produces a larger downward force of the body onto the foot at landing. For another,  initial foot strike position is too far ahead of the hips, which causes the mass of the body to abruptly collide for too long with the stance leg. In simple terms, heel strike runners can’t ‘free-fall’ forward because they engage longer, lunge-like steps that cause too much stop-and-go, which opposes and fights gravitational acceleration.

A landmark study in the journal, Nature, confirmed and re-affirmed heel striking when running caused the knee to unbend and stiffen, while heavy impact occurred under the ankle, which allowed the ankle to convert only a small amount of translational energy into rotational energy, however most of the translational kinetic energy was lost during the unusually prolong collision that always occurs at heel strike.

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What’s worse, the knee is used too much to help carry the mass of the body up and through the long over-stride. This was found to cause mechanical strain to reach a level of an injury at the knee, while dramatically increasing muscle force generation as well as muscular strain and fatigue, again all due to movements that resist gravity. This is also why ‘runners knee’ and heel strike running go hand-in-hand. Heel striking makes the wrong use of the knee when running, which eventually causes structural damage to the joint. This is never the case in forefoot running. (Read more here on that!)

The Take Home Message

The small change of switching from heel strike to forefoot strike running will make the most positive difference in not just your performance, but injury prevention. Once you land forefoot-first, the rest of your mechanics follows with better positioned upper body and knee-joint angles that reduce energy use, while evening out impact.  

Need more convincing that forefoot running is better than heel strike running? Here are all the evidence-based reasons forefoot running is more protective against many negative injurious outcomes linked to heel strike running.

If you’ve enjoyed my post, you’ll LOVE my YouTube channel, here, where I show why and how forefoot running works!

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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

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!