When I run with a forefoot strike, I feel more ‘springier’ than when I run with a heel strike. This springing sensation comes from the lower leg muscles and tendons and is a huge power saver and makes for better running economy.
Lower Leg Muscles Operate More Efficiently in Forefoot Running
The lower leg muscles operate more efficiently in forefoot running due to greater pre-activation of the calves and plantar flexors as compared with heel strike running.
Paavolainen et al. (1999) found that the top performing runners (forefoot runners) had the highest pre-activation of the lower leg muscles during a 10-km run, whereas heel strike runners tend to have less working muscle pre-activation, suggesting that heel striking is not useful in advancing one’s own performance. (Ahn et al. 2014).
For a variety of reasons, forefoot running is more economical than heel strike running because the calf musculature increases in pre-activation by 400%-450% when a forefoot strike is used, thus runners may ought to pay special attention to optimizing their forefoot strike. Although heel strike runners do pre-activate their calf muscles, the amplitude of pre-activation is significantly lower as compared with forefoot runners.
Forefoot runners also have greater plantar flexor pre-activation at touchdown (Ahn et al. 2014). This is of great interest, not only from a performance perspective, but from an injury prevention perspective also.
In forefoot running, pre-activation of the plantar flexors just before and at touchdown stretches the Achilles tendon, thereby increasing elastic energy storage, and it also prevents a jarred landing, thereby reducing impact forces (Derrick et al. 1998; Perl et al. 2012; Roberts et al. 2011).
Higher pre-activation of the lower leg muscles also corresponds to reduced contact time and increased efficiency, especially over short distance runs (Nummela et al. 2007; Paavolainen et al. 1999). Forefoot running typically results in less contact time which has been found to be a supply of performance ammunition.
Lastly, barefoot running, where a forefoot strike is commonly used, also has similar pre-activation mechanisms of the lower leg muscles as compared with shod-forefoot running, suggesting that evolution prepared us to run with a forefoot strike to keep up with our prey.
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Ahn et al. Muscle activity and kinematics of forefoot and rearfoot strike runners. J Sport Health Sci, 2014; 3, 102-112.
Derrick TR, Hamill J, Caldwell GE. Energy absorption of impacts during running at various stride lengths. Med Sci Sport Exerc, 1998;30:128 e 35.
Nummela, A, Keranen, T, and Mikkelsson, LO. Factors related to top running speed and economy. Int J Sports Med 28: 655–661, 2007.
Paavolainen, LM, Nummela, A, Rusko, K, and Ha¨kkinen, K. Neuromuscular characteristics and fatigue during 10-km running.Int J Sports Med 20: 1–6, 1999.
Perl DP, Daoud AI, Lieberman DE. Effects of footwear and strike type on running economy. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2012;44:1335 e 43.
Roberts TJ, Azizi E. Flexible mechanisms: the diverse roles of biological springs in vertebrate movement. J Exp Biol 2011;214:353 e 61.
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.