Is Forefoot Running Faster?

One of the upsides of forefoot running is that it is more energy-efficient than heel strike running because it uses two of the body’s natural energy suppliers, the foot arch and the Achilles tendon, in ways that allows more energy storage as compared with heel strike running. So, is forefoot running faster? The answer is absolutely yes and is the reason elite runners use this style of running, too.

Is Forefoot Running Fast?

Is Forefoot Running Faster?

In theory, forefoot running is more efficient than heel strike running because of two energy suppliers – the Achilles tendon and the arch of the foot, both of which cease to act as a spring in heel strike running.

A study by Alexander published in the Journal of Experimental Biology demonstrated that the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the lower leg and foot store elastic energy during the loading phase of gait and return that energy when the flight phase of gait is initiated thereby reducing muscular work and saves metabolic energy.

  • Forefoot running is associated with the mechanical descriptors relevant to the optimal movement patterns and force applications that result in both less total work and physiological strain – this may suggest why elite distance runners who forefoot strike experience fewer injuries than elite distance runners who heel strike.

According to Rocco and Merin in a 2014 study in the Journal of Biomechanics, running economy is strongly influenced by effective exploitation of this elastic energy stored in the tendons.

  • Forefoot running is more energy-efficient than heel strike running because a forefoot strike allows for higher storage and return of elastic energy in the tendonous structures of the lower leg and foot.
Comparing energetics between heel strikers and forefoot strikers
Left, shows a heel strike landing which decreases knee joint compliance allowing for a rougher interaction with the ground and a less springy gait. Right, shows a forefoot strike landing in which both knees are highly compliant which provides cushioning and energy return at each step.

How Forefoot Running Promotes Greater Supply of Elastic Energy

The joints of the lower leg are more compliant (better bendability) in a proper forefoot strike landing and cross-sectional and longitudinal studies showed that more economical runners had more compliant tendon structures which gels with other reports which found forefoot strikers to have greater tendon compliance.

In addition to the Achilles tendon, the arch of the foot supplies more elastic energy in a forefoot strike than in a heel strike landing because forefoot strikers experience greater arch compression that permits more elastic energy storage and recoil in the longitudinal arch, shown below.

2 Energy Supplies in Forefoot Running that Makes it a More Efficient Way to Run
In forefoot running, the arch undergoes 3-point bending and heightened compression which enables more supply of elastic, passive energy for running efficiency.

In a sense, heel strikers lose this source of energy because they show little or no arch compression. But, does the elastic contributions of the arch really impact running economy?

Ker et al., found that the arch of the foot accounted for 17% or slightly more of the total energy turnover per step. So, the answer is YES, the arch plays a big role in running efficiency.

If you run with a heel strike, you lose this energy source from the arch and to compensate for this loss, more muscular effort is needed for momentum.

The Take Home Message

Although future research is needed to characterize exactly how forefoot running is more efficient, the results mean to get faster we should try avoiding heel strike as it permits the loss of function of key areas needed for running, the arch and the Achilles tendon.

walking and heel strike running share similar mechanics
Walking and heel strike running share similar mechanics -we walk heel-toe with maximum knee extension and heel strike runners do the same.

In walking, the arch and the Achilles tendon are more dormant in terms of their elastic contribution because walking mechanics are strikingly similar to heel strike running mechanics, shown right.

However, the elastic properties of these structures are activated during running, but with a forefoot strike which makes forefoot running an advantage for running performance and economy. But, that does not detract from a very important question: is forefoot running safer than heel strike running?

More on why you should re-think heel strike running:


References:

Alexander, RM. (1991). Energy saving mechanism in walking and running. J Exp Biol,160:55-69.

Anderson, T. (1996). Biomechanics and running economy. Sports Med, 22(2):76-89.

Kubo et al. (2014).Relationship between Achilles tendon properties and foot strike pattern in long distance runners. J Sports Sci,3(1):1-5.

Pearl, DP,, Daoud, AL and Lieberman, DE. (2012). Effects of footwear and strike type on running economy. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 44(7):1335-1343

Rocco, DM and Merni, F. (2014). The concurrent effects of strike pattern and ground-contact time on running economy. J Sci Med Sport,14:414-18.

Bretta Riches

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!

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