If you’re a stubborn runner like me, and run through pain, like shin splints (aka medial tibial stress syndrome), you’ll be happy to know that accumulating evidence suggests that one of the leading strategies in overcoming shin splints during running is to land with a forefoot strike, not a heel strike. Thanks to forefoot strike running, which also has an inevitable effect of reducing impact loads on the shins, I am able to run shin-pain-free!
Some research has implied that it could be a forefoot strike landing pattern that may be the secret formula in helping diffuse tension from the shins during running, resulting in a decreased likelihood of chronic shin splints. For example, forefoot striking during running may reduce mechanical trauma on the shins because a forefoot strike landing pattern typically accompanies ankle plantarflexion (forefoot pointing downwards, as shown below) prior to and at touchdown.
By not lifting back your forefoot at touchdown during running, the muscles that line the top of the ankle, connecting through the shin gets closed off to muscular over-pulling and strain. This kind of muscular dis-engagement of the shins helps free the shins from the chronic stress tension implicated in shin splints.
Can You Run with Shin Splints?
Another way forefoot striking may help reduce shin pain while running is that running forefooted reduces stance phase duration which in turn, helps further lift tension build-up in the shins. In simple terms, landing with a forefoot strike during running reduces foot-ground contact time, which may help tightly limit accumulated impact loads that can damage the shin.
What is more, forefoot running may help stave off shin splints by enabling the feet to interact more passively, less intensively with the ground as compared to heel strike running, a running style known to feed more impact shock through the shins, making it possible for shin splints to easily emerge.
I’d also like to mention that to help improve the mechanical quality of your forefoot strike, reduce impact shock and scale back constant tension on the shin is by keeping your knee softly bent at touchdown, as shown below:
Bending your knee when your forefoot strikes the ground during running is a proven strategy that helps soften your landing and helps reduce harmful impact waves from rippling up the shin. Ultimately, the solution to high-impact, shin-straining running involves the forefoot strike + knee bend combination at touchdown which seems to work best for providing sufficient impact-protection support, making a runner more able to avoid medial tibial stress syndrome.
Let Your Feet Fall
Another helpful tip to ease shin tension during forefoot running is to relax the foot-ankle complex upon and at touchdown (shown below).
I really want to underscore that one of forefoot running’s crowning achievements in helping to prevent shin splints is anti-dorsiflexion (plantarflexion) of the foot/ankle at touchdown, meaning that the forefoot does not pull back at touchdown, like it does in heel strike running. By not lifting your forefoot upon touchdown during forefoot running can be a big payoff for muscular relief on the shins because the net effect is less pulling of the muscular tissue surrounding the tibia, thus the shins stay more relaxed, free of strain!
Need more convincing on the tight association of running foot strike pattern and shin splints?
A 2006 study published in the journal Gait and Posture, investigated the influence of heel striking vs forefoot striking during running on shin splints in 400 runners, and found:
- runners with shin splints were heel strikers
- heel strikers had higher loading underneath the medial forefoot during push-off, which is also an underlying cause of running-related shin splints
How does excessive loading underneath the medial forefoot during heel strike running lead to shin splints?
After heel strike, the foot rolls over the heel, on to the forefoot where the forefoot, toes included, are used to launch the body forward. This is why medial forefoot loading increases and there is multiple problems with this type of footstep engagement during running.
- using the forefoot/toes for forward propulsion in heel striking may exert enormous strain on the lower leg and foot because the forefoot/toes carry the heavy burden of launching the body’s mass forward at each step, and through some physiological/mechanical mechanism taxes the shins.
The increased forefoot loading spurred on by aggressive toe/forefoot push-off in heel strike running is another fundamental mechanical problem that may cause heel strike running to loosing its standing as an appropriately safe way to run.
Forefoot striking during running however, may offer relief of forefoot/toe over-loading as compared with heel strike running on account of the movement path of the foot in forefoot running (forefoot-to-heel) is the opposite to that of heel strike running (heel-to-forefoot). Its the movement path of the foot in forefoot running that may put the arch of the foot in a favorable position to greatly assist in forward propulsion.
- The forefoot-to-heel movement path of the foot in forefoot strike running could spur more dramatic elastic energy recovery, providing better leverage to spring the body forward, potentially helping to reduce the urge to use the forefoot/toes for full propulsion.
This is how it may be possible to reduce medial forefoot loading and therefore, reduce the risk of shin splints through forefoot running, since the forefoot and toes might be used less aggressively during the initiation of the propulsive phase as compared with heel strike running.
I’d also like to make one final point about another way heel strike running may cause shin splints.
Past research supports that shin pain while running is also due to high traction forces. It turns out, heel strike runners tend to generate more tractional forces because of the prolong braking period which is further compounded by longer ground-contact time as compared with forefoot strike running. Always remember that the more time the foot spends on the ground, the wider the opportunity for more force production, such as traction, to accumulate. This is how heel strike running may spur on even more shin-threatening mechanical circumstances as compared with forefoot strike running and that forefoot strike running may work best for shutting down high doses of impact and traction, resulting in pronounced improvements in safeguarding against shin splints.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, you’ll love my YouTube channel: Run Forefoot where I discuss more about the importance of forefoot running and I share my thoughts and the research on barefoot running vs shoes as well!
More From Run Forefoot:
Run Forefoot, Because You’re Faster Than you Think!
Willems et al. (2006). A prospective study of gait related risk factors for exercise-related lower leg pain. Gait and Posture 23, 91-8.
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.