Heel Strike Running Limits Performance

Do your legs feel heavy towards the end of a run? Heel strike running may limit running performance due greater muscular and mechanical demands.

Factors relating to how heel strike running may limit performance:

  • Heel strike running may limit running performancemaximum knee extension which results in a foot strike position in front of the knee and the center of mass (COM)
  • foot strike position in front of the COM results in braking and compressive forces
  • elastic energy storage of the arch may become disturbed as the mass of the body transfers over the foot during rollover

Excessive muscular effort coupled with lack of elastic use in heel strike running may compromise performance, resulting in premature fatigue, and may justify why many elite runners do not heel  strike.

Many elite runners, including elite marathoners such as Paula Radcliffe and Haile Gebreselassie are forefoot strikers, not heel strikers.

Reducing impact when running is fundamental for injury prevention and at faster running speeds, the body preferentially moves away from landing on the heel towards landing on the front part of the foot.

Forefoot Running Mechanically Easier?

Forefoot running may improve running performance better than heel striking

Having been a heel striker for many years,  it is much easier to relax the legs in forefoot running because much of the movements are less forced as demonstrated beautifully by Tirunesh Dibaba (left).

Forefoot running may be mechanically easier than heel strike running because in forefoot running, the knee’s are softly bent which adds a pop of spring to one’s stride.

Maintaining bent knees, especially at foot strike, enhances spring in the leg. Meanwhile, a forefoot runner is continuously pushing their body mass forward thereby reducing braking and promoting a smoother interaction with the ground.

The spring-like behavior of the leg uses elastic energy from the tendons which decreases the amount of muscular demands thereby conserving energy. This is why many forefoot runners, like Dibaba, look springy when they run and appear less strained.

Too Much Stiffness in Heel Strike Running

In heel striking, less elastic energy is used because the knee joint essentially breaks the chain of compliance in the leg. In other words, an unbent knee at foot strike impedes the leg from acting as an energy-saving spring.

In essences, joints, like the knee joint, prefers to be bent because that’s what they do, bend. Bending of the knee joint helps fuel the spring in forefoot running. Because the knee joint is straightened in heel strike running, many heel strikers have a somewhat rigid, choppy gait.

Forefoot Running Fueled By Tendon Power

The Achilles tendon and the arch of the foot supplies elastic energy more generously in forefoot running.

  • A 1991 study in the Journal of Experimental Biology reported that the spring-like structures of the leg have little effect on energy savings in walking because walking, like heel striking, involves a pendulum-like movement path of the leg (below) where the legs are not compliant, or ‘springy’

However, in forefoot running, which involves greater limb compliance by bending both knees, the elastic structures of the leg may save up to 50% in energy savings!

Heel striking running increase braking thereby hindering performance
Above, shows heel strikers presenting a pendulum-like stride similar to the leg swing mechanics in walking where the legs are more stiff due to an unbent knee at heel strike which may lessen energy return from the elastic structures of the lower leg.

It may be possible that the mechanics of a heel strike coupled with the excessive movements initiated by the musculoskeletal system may actually impair elastic energy reutilization from the Achilles tendon which may result in inadequate energy transfer.

More Great Stuff at Run Forefoot:

Run forefoot, because you’re faster than you think!


References: 

Alexander, RM. Energy saving mechanisms in walking and running.  J Exp Biol (1991);160: 55-69.

Ker et al. The spring in the arch of the human foot. Nature (1987); 325:147-9.

Lieberman et al. Endurance running and evolution of human, Nature (2004); 432:345-352.

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

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