Humans are built for endurance running, that is, we are built to run incredibly long distances that go way beyond the marathon distance. We are the only primates capable of sustained endurance running and our legs are built perfectly for it. We also evolved through selective pressures to run with the forefoot running form, not a heel strike running form.
Forefoot Running Form Made Hominids Better Endurance Runners than Most Mammals
How We Compare to Quadrupeds in Running
Most mammals are excellent sprinters and not endurance runners because they lack key perspiratory functions to support running long distances.
Thus, if you chase a quadruped long enough, it will eventually collapse due to hyperthermia. This is one of the many elements that distinguishes humans as excellent endurance runners compared to other mammals.
Tendons: A Major Power Source For Humans when Forefoot Running
In hominids, the forefoot running style was an adaptation of running long distances barefoot and is also a highly efficient style of running. Why? Because forefoot running makes better use of the Achilles tendon and the arch of the foot compared to heel strike running.
Like us today, hominids had more collagen-rich tendons and ligaments in the legs than most four-legged mammals (quadrupeds).
For instance, the Achilles tendon is a tremendous source of elastic strain energy that is actively stored and released while forefoot running.
To use this energy effectively, the forefoot must contact the ground first (not the heel!) and the ankles and knees must remain flexed.
- in forefoot running, elastic energy from the Achilles tendon is potential energy and requires no muscular power to use
- the elastic strain energy of the Achilles tendon allows humans to increase their running speed without change of gait, or metabolic penalty
This is why forefoot running is more economical than heel running, as landing on the heel exerts compressive forces on the Achilles tendon, impairing the elastic energy capability.
The Take Home Message
A forefoot running style allowed our ancestors to run efficiently and harmlessly to hunt and key unique structures of the leg, such as our long Achilles tendon, facilitated our success as endurance runners.
More on the Benefits of the Forefoot Running Form:
Fixes severe chronic knee pain
Greatly improves run performance
Makes winter running safer
Prevents Achilles foot pain
Mattson, MP. (2012). Evolutionary aspects of human exercise–born to run purposely. Ageing Res Rev, 11(3):347-52.
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.