Why Flat Minimalist Running Shoes is Better for Forefoot Running

Loads of research shows that thick under-heel cushioning in a running shoe increases your risk to heel strike. This is why flat minimalist running shoes are ideal for forefoot running, especially for runners switching from heel strike to forefoot strike running.

While flat minimalist running shoes makes a substantial difference at reducing harmful impact forces, they also allow greater energy storage in the Achilles tendon.

Flat Minimalist Running Shoes
Vibram FiveFingers KMD EVO is a great example of a flat minimalist shoe for forefoot running.
Flattest Minimalist Running Shoes
The Sockwa X8 is another great example of a flat minimalist running shoe for forefoot running. It’s insulated, so it’s better for running in cooler weather.

Why Flat Minimalist Running Shoes is Better for Forefoot Running

Why Achilles Elongation Saves Energy

The nerves in your feet helps control your landing strategy when you run, this is why the thinner your running shoes, the better. Similarly,  small heel drop running shoes are better for forefoot running because they allow the Achilles tendon to elongate during stance, allowing more energy to be stored inside the tendon.

During each step in forefoot running, the heel lowers to the ground immediately after forefoot strike. The lowering of the heel elongates the Achilles tendon, allowing it to store and subsequently reutilize a great amount of energy needed for the support and propulsive phase (Willwacher et al., 2013).

Therefore, the longer the Achilles tendon, the greater the running efficiency (Biewener, 1998; Rubenson et al. 2011).

Many runners however, wear running shoes with a large, cushioned heel which limits the amount of ankle joint moment needed to slacken (i.e. elongate) the Achilles tendon.

Running Shoes with Fat Soles
Under-Heel Cushioning: Barrier Between Heel and Ground – Thick, under-heel cushioning makes it difficult to recover elastic strain energy in the Achilles because the heel is unable to lower completely to the ground
  • Wearing a running shoe with a wedged heel halts the heel drop process of forefoot running, impeding elastic energy storage/reuse in the tendon.

In contrast, Scholz et al (2008) and Willwacher et al. (2013) found that runners with smaller heels had better running economy because a shorter heel requires greater elongation of the Achilles during stance, allowing more elastic strain energy to be conserved inside the tendon.

The Flatter the Shoe, the Better!

Pure minimalist running shoes –running shoes with a zero heel drop– can be worn without infringing on Achilles elongation because the heel is able to drop to the ground.

Flat Shoes for Running
Minimalist Shoes Allow Heel Drop -Forefoot runners must acquire Achilles tendon elongation during stance, which is achieved only if the heel can fully lower to the ground. [Running shoes in the picture is the Sockwa X8].
Another reason minimalist shoes are best for forefoot running is that they increase working conditions of the extrinsic foot muscles, improving a runner’s ability to retain foot strength. According to Willwacher et al. 2013 strong feet work optimally regardless of intense running conditions and are better able to modify stiffness behavior.

Overall, the take home message is that small heel drop running shoes kill two birds with one stone: they create conditions under which energy storage and return can occur in the Achilles tendon, while improving foot strength.

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References:

Biewener AA. Muscle-tendon stresses and elastic energy storage during locomotion in the horse. Comp Biochem Physiol B Biochem Mol Biol. 1998;120(1):73–87.

Rubenson J, Lloyd DG, Heliams DB, Besier TF, Fournier PA. Adaptations for economical bipedal running: the effect of limb structure on three-dimensional joint mechanics. J R
Soc Interface. 2011;8(58):740–755.

Scholz MN, Bobbert MF, van Soest AJ, Clark JR, van Heerden J. Running biomechanics: shorter heels, better economy. J Exp Biol. 2008;211(Pt 20):3266–3271.

Willwacher et al. Does specific footwear facilitate energy storage and return in the MTP joint in running? J Appl Biomech, 2013; 26, 583-592.

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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