Why Forefoot Running Seems Hard at First

Forefoot running seems hard at first, especially for those who switched from heel running as forefoot running increases demands on the plantarflexor muscles.

 

If you were a long time heel striker who recently transitioned to forefoot running (forefoot transitioner), you may feel less efficient at first when forefoot running.

Learning a new style of running requires a lot of energy at the muscular level, until your body gets use to the new running condition. But, don’t give up on forefoot running because it’s safer than heel strike running.

  • before the modern running shoe, humans ran barefoot or in minimalist footwear for centuries if not millions of years. Therefore, when it comes to forefoot running, you can do it, depending on your learning curve, some may learn forefoot running faster than others.

But, why does forefoot running seem harder when you first learn it?

When I first learned forefoot running, it sure felt like a lot more work than when I was heel striking.

At times, I even thought I was more efficient heel striking, but having watched Tirunesh Dibaba and other elite distance runners who are forefoot strikers, I knew that forefoot running was my only ticket to get faster.

Unfortunately, I got tired much faster in my initial stages of learning forefoot running. But you have to remember, aside from differing biomechanically, forefoot running differs kinematically meaning forefoot places greater demands on different muscle groups compared to heel strike running.

Forefoot running uses different muscle groups than heel strike running
Above, forefoot strike running uses different muscle groups than heel strike running (below) and therefore differs kinetically and biomechanically.

Ahn et al., found that habitually shod heel strikers who ran barefoot (transitioners) for the first time, adopted a new foot strike pattern, which was a forefoot strike landing, and showed different muscle activation patterns.

Ultimately, the transitioners naturally shifted their muscle activity based on the new running condition. Why?

  • forefoot running utilizes different muscle groups and tendon structures of the lower leg compared to heel strike running.
  • a forefoot transitioner may fatigue sooner during the initial stages of learning forefoot running because they are using certain muscle groups that were under-active when heel striking.
  • in the same study, forefoot running increased pre-activation of the gastrocnemius where the EMG amplitude was higher during the stance phase and take-off phase compared to heel strike running.
  • longer activation of certain muscle groups in forefoot running implies greater muscular force and possibly, increased energy costs, especially for a forefoot running learner.

Greater Plantarflexor Muscle Demands in Forefoot Running, But so What?

As mentioned above, forefoot running utilizes different muscle groups than heel strike running and because of this, a transitioner may find forefoot running a little exhausting at first. However, the specific muscle groups that are more activated in forefoot running are essential in energy savings and impact reduction compared to heel strike running.

  • forefoot running requires greater work from the plantarflexor muscles which help stabilize the ankle-joint at touchdown and allows for more elastic energy storage.
  • more specifically, forefoot running increases the pre-activation of the plantarflexor muscles before landing which increases tension in the Achilles tendon, allowing absorption of impact at landing.

Greater demands along with the earlier activation of the plantarflexor muscles trigger a chain of events that have a positive impact on running performance.

  • Lichtwark et al., reported that earlier activation of the plantarflexor muscles in running enhances performance by promoting optimal ankle function, allowing for elastic energy savings in the sarcomeres during the first portion of stance.
  • Herzo et al., also found that increased activation of titin promoted more elastic energy storage.

In the context of performance, you need greater activation of the plantarflexor muscles to provide energy and forefoot running is the sure way to do this.

The Take Home Message

Forefoot running increases work of the plantarflexor muscles
Forefoot running increases work of the plantarflexor muscles to allow more elastic energy storage for efficient running!

In the beginning, runners who change their running style, naturally adjust muscle activity patterns which requires more energy until forefoot running becomes learned or habituated.

When forefoot running becomes habituated, the body develops preferred movement paths which are automated and therefore require less energy.

Initially, forefoot running may seem like you are working harder, but that is only because the plantarflexor muscles have been awakened and need to time adjust.

With patience and lots of practice, your body will eventually adopt to forefoot running and you will become more efficient than when you began and even more efficient than when you were heel striking.

 

More on Heel Running vs Forefoot Running:


References:

Ahn, AN., Brayton, C., Bhatia, T and Martin, P. Muscle activity and kinematics of forefoot and rearfoot strike runners. J Sport Health Sci, 2014; 3:102-112.

Huxley, AF and Simmons, RM. Proposed mechanism of force generation in striated muscle. Nature, 1971;233:533 e 8.

Lichtwark, GA., Bougoulias, K and Wilson AM. Muscle fascicle and series elastic element length changes along the length of the human gastrocnemius during walking and running. J Biomech, 2007;40:157 e 64.

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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