How Heel Strike Running Differs From Forefoot Strike Running

Many runners have different foot strike patterns. Most recreational runners heel strike whereas some runners land with a forefoot strike. Of significance though, the majority of the BEST short, middle and long distance runners typically land with a forefoot strike. However, elite marathoners, for example, who do heel strike rarely podium on a consistent-basis on the world stage and rarely do they break world records.

Elite runners who heel strike also seem to get dinged with a greater frequency of injuries and more severe injuries, too, such as a femur fracture and a significant loss of knee cartilage. In contrast, the vast majority of world record holders at the 5,000-m, 10,000-m, half-marathon and marathon are not heel strike runners and do not suffer the same high frequency of injuries and their injuries are less severe as well.

How Heel Strike is Different From Forefoot Strike Running
In heel strike running (left), initial ground-contact is made on the heel followed by the foot rolling over heel-to-toe. In forefoot strike running (right), initial ground-contact is made on the balls of the foot (the outer-side of the forefoot to be exact) then the rest of the foot flattens down to the ground where the heel is the last part of the foot to contact the ground –-here’s a video to see what this looks like! Note, that a forefoot strike landing is a much flatter foot placement at touchdown compared to a heel strike landing, whereby this flatter foot placement at touchdown in forefoot running instantly delivers more natural protections against jarring and collision forces as compared with heel strike running.

In recent years, a number of published studies (references can be found below the article), have showed that there are a different variety of impact forces uniquely produced in heel strike running that are either not produced at all or occur at a much less intensity in forefoot running.

A Closer Look at the Heel Strike

Heel Strike

At heel landing in heel strike running, excessive vertical impacts and higher rates of loading, especially on the knee are produced as compared with forefoot running. Even worse, heel strike running at faster speeds causes the intensity of these forces to dramatically increase, especially if you’re overweight, and at any point in this process may introduce additional stressors on the soft tissues, muscles, tendons and bones as compared with forefoot running.

It’s for these reasons that heel strike runners have to rely on running shoes with thick under-heel cushioning to cope with the distinctive impact forces that are classic features of heel striking during running. However, we are quickly learning that increased under-heel cushion thickness does not consistently prevent the impact burden of running with a heel strike; it actually encourages a greater downward force of the heel onto the ground and generates forces that are stronger than the original strong forces of landing heel-first when running. This injurious effect is especially true when, again, running at faster speeds with a heel strike.

Another negative aspect of heel strike running that has attracted a lot of attention is that it may encourage maximum knee extension at touchdown, which is best explained in this video:

As seen in the clip, in heel strike running, making the effort to land heel-first usually requires the knee of the landing foot to unbend and fully straighten out which actually forces the landing foot to fling out farther in front of your center mass (torso and head). This creates a large distance separation between the landing foot and your center mass which in consequence produces a rapid deceleration, or heavy brake force of much greater magnitude, intensity and duration that places a significantly heavy load on the knee as compared with forefoot running.

Heel Strike vs Forefoot Strike Running
Shalane Flanagan is a phenomenal distance runner, but she’s nowhere near the greatness to that of most of her East African competitors. Of course there are many reasons why Flanagan consistently falls short next to her Kenyan and Ethiopian opponents, but one of her disadvantages could very well be her hard-hitting, pronounced heel strike. Recently, Flanagan underwent knee surgery to repair the 75% of the patella tendon that had been grinded off the bone in her right knee ~a procedure we rarely hear of in most elite, highly-decorated East African distance runners, probably because they don’t plow their heels into the ground with a hyper-extended knee in the way that Shalane does.

Shalane’s not the only heel strike runner slaughtered with severe running injuries. Canadian marathoner, Krista Duchene, is also a heel-pounder who broke her femur and underwent surgery to repair the break with a plate and three screws. American marathoner Meb Keflezighi was also a heel strike runner, always plagued with harsh injuries until he corrected his heel strike to land more flat-footed. From here, he suffered fewer injuries of less severity and went on to win the Boston marathon, becoming the first American male in decades to do so!  

Again, running injuries stem from lots of other influences, BUT since there seems to be more negative forces at work in heel strike running than in forefoot strike running and given the examples of the types of injuries more common in heel strike runners than in forefoot runners, lends strong credence that the high impact nature of heel strike running may be largely to blame for potentially predisposing one to injury.

A Closer Look at the Forefoot Strike

You’ll notice that in a forefoot strike landing (shown below), initial ground-contact is NOT made high up on the toes, rather its made much lower on the forefoot, almost like a mid-foot strike. That is very key to always remember.

Forefoot Strike

What’s so special about the precise movement path of the foot when it connects with the ground in forefoot strike running? It has a large effect on naturally reducing stride length, it widens your stance width and it increases your cadence, all of which are mechanical outputs on record for being to able to decrease, or even fully blunt many impact force variables during running.

Essentially, forefoot running can be thought of as a key organizer of more functional mechanics that may leave you less vulnerable to the ravages of the road and even more essential, it’s the reason that the forefoot strike is the preferred foot strike pattern of many of the great distance runners history has ever seen: Eluid Kipchoge, Genzebe Dibaba, Haile Gebrselassie, Tirunesh Dibaba, Galen Rupp, Paul Radcliffe, Bernard Lagat, Tiki Gelana, Molly Huddle ~check out any of these runners on YouTube and you will see that they’re not heel striking when they run! 

On a personal note, I was a heel strike runner who suffered all kinds of injuries until I learned that forefoot running was much less force intensive and risky. Ever since I’ve switched to forefoot running, I’ve left the injuries behind and my performance times have improved dramatically. I can do all kinds of speed sessions without worry of destroying my knees. 

How's Forefoot Running Different from Heel Strike Running
When I’m not running in shoes and weather permitting, I’m definitely running barefoot as much as possible! Why? The BEST runners in the world, from East Africa, including Eluid Kipchoge, Tirunesh Dibaba and Haile Gebressalie, grew up running barefoot for at least 13 years of their early life and from this, many of these runners are the most common users of a non-heel strike running style. Evidence shows that a forefoot strike is a normative landing response of the foot across most habitual barefoot running populations, including East Africa. All this barefoot running may have an extensive, long-lasting influence on many of the East African distance runners running form as shod (shoe) runners today and may have some role to play in their enormous success. This also suggests that the forefoot strike may be the body’s default, hardwired, preferred landing strategy when barefoot to ensure high-impact avoidance as at some point in our evolutionary past, early humans ran barefoot to hunt and survive; natural selection, therefore, obviously favored certain mechanical defenses against high-impacts, the forefoot strike may be one of them!

I like to run barefoot as much as I can as compelling evidence shows that running barefoot has power beneficial effects for improving your forefoot strike precision, stride-length control, postural positioning, faster reaction time and balance stability. You also develop stronger awareness of your foot’s landing intensity and sensibility about the forces acting on your joints. Moreover, published studies show that just walking barefoot, especially on uneven surfaces, may improve or even reverse irregularities in foot structure and function caused by modern footwear and may ultimately influence the feet to operate at the level of better spring efficiency when you run.

It’s because of my amazingly positive experience with forefoot running that drives me to get runners better informed about forefoot running vs heel strike running and to really inspire people that running is NOT hard on the body, if done properly!

Above all, the implied lesson from all this is that foot strike may really matter when it comes to improving your run times with little strife and that forefoot running may sustain better long-term and may be the surest way to conquer more progress with little worry of injury setbacks.

If you’d like to learn more about forefoot strike vs heel strike running, you’ll love the content over at my YouTube channel, here, where I talk extensively about the evidence-based facts about the potential performance and health benefits of forefoot running and barefoot running.

If you’d like, you can support Run Forefoot and help keep it going strong by making a donation in any amount of your choosing:



References:

Necking et al.  (1996). Skeletal Muscle Changes After Short Term Vibration. Scandinavian Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and Hand Surgery 30, 99-103.

Nikooyan, A.A, and Zadpoor, AA. (2012).Effects of muscle fatigue on the ground reaction force and soft-tissue vibrations during running: a model study. IEEE Trans Biomed Eng 59, 797-804.

Perl DP.,  Daoud AI., Lieberman DE. (2012). Effects of footwear and strike type on running economy. Med Sci Sports Exerc 44, 1335-43.

Lieberman, D. Barefoot Running: Home Page. www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu.

Lieberman et al. Variation in foot strike patterns among habitually barefoot and shod runners in kenya. PlOS ONE, 2015;  DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.013135

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

2 Comments

  1. So when I run, I go long endurance distance and I can do explosive short distances. The long distance is something I started recently at and I went from being able to run a fast but tortures 6:10 mile to being able to run 10 Miles in under an hour in under 7 days. It was more will power than intelligence that made me do that but I am lean and taller to give you reference, and I am very used to naturally running with a heel strike. But now I saw a recommendation from multiple professional sports medicine running resources talk about a forefoot strike being better, and my chiropractor recommended that as well, but I am fatigued and my feet are sorer then anything when doing long distance with a forefoot site, however, I will have other problems with my ankle, knee, chest, and neck, joint and muscle wise later on when doing a forefoot strike. But get this, I find that my endurance is at least 70% better (serious increase for me) in the long distance because at the moment my body seems to absorb the shock better. Now I see forefoot recommended and it’s very painful in the fact that it’s much harder and less natural for me. Any feedback would be amazing, thank you for reading this and I am really open to your opinion as to what I could be doing wrong or if there is a simple answer I have missed.

  2. Reformed Edition Of The Previous Comment By Pierce.K:

    So when running, I will do long endurance distance and I do explosive short distances also. The long distance is something I started recently and I went from being able to run a fast but torturous 6:10 mile to being able to run 10 Miles in under an hour in under 7 days (With a significantly better mile time as well). It was more will power than intelligence that made me do that but I am lean and taller to give you reference, and I am very used to naturally running with a heel strike. But now I see recommendations from multiple professional sports medicine running resources discuss a forefoot strike being better, and my chiropractor recommended that as well. However, I am fatigued and my feet are sorer then anything when doing long distance with a forefoot strike. I will have other problems with my ankle, knee, chest, and neck, joint and muscle wise later on when doing a heel strike. But get this, I find that my endurance is at least 70% better (serious increase for me) in the long distance because at the moment my body seems to absorb the shock better. Now I see forefoot recommended and it’s very painful in the fact that it’s much harder and less natural for me. Any feedback would be amazing, thank you for reading this and I am really open to your opinion as to what I could be doing wrong or if there is a simple answer I have missed.

    Pierce.K.Kozlowski

    PS – I do perform proper running form based off of multiple resources regarding running presentation on the body (foot strike is the only thing confusing me and not working right now), I wear professional running shoes that were fitted and choose for me by a professional runner, and I am still young and growing, so I don’t know if I am choosing a poor time to train or if I am just making common mistakes.

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