Most recreational runners heel strike while some runners land with a forefoot strike, especially barefoot runners. Of significance, most of the top runners across all distances typically land with a forefoot strike, whereas the elite runners that do heel strike win or break records by a significantly lesser multiple than forefoot runners. Also, heel strike runners not only get injured more, they suffer more severe injuries, like osteoarthritic knees and femur fracture, to name a few, whereas forefoot runners do not.
Here are all the reasons for the differences in performance and injury outcomes between forefoot strike running and heel strike running:
In recent years, a number of published studies (references are below the article), found that there are a variety of impact forces uniquely produced in heel strike running that are either not produced or occur at a lesser magnitude and intensity in forefoot running.
A Closer Look at What Makes Heel Striking Highly Injurious
At heel strike, 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 or if you’re overweight dramatically increases the intensity of these forces, introducing additional stressors on the soft tissues, muscles, tendons and bones. This is why heel strike runners rely on running shoes with thick under-heel cushioning to try and minimize the excessive impacts, which unfortunately, are the classic features of heel striking during running.
Worse still, we are quickly learning that thick under-heel cushioning does nothing to scale down the high impacts of heel strike running, rather, these shoes have been consistently found to produce a greater downward force of the heel onto the ground, generating forces that are stronger than the original intensive forces of heel strike 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 encourages maximum knee extension at touchdown, which is best explained in this video:
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 is largely to blame for 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.
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 fully safeguards you from the ravages of the road and trails, and even more essential, it’s the reason 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 unending injuries, until I learned that forefoot running prevents all the injurious impacts in heel strike running! Ever since I’ve switched to forefoot running, I’ve left the injuries behind and my performance times have improved dramatically. I can do more speed sessions and run longer without worry of getting hurt. I must underscore that barefoot running has been and is still is the strongest influence in helping me quickly develop the proper forefoot technique while also allowing me uphold the proper forefoot running technique in running shoes.
When I’m not running in minimalist shoes, I’m 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 the forefoot strike is the normative landing response across most habitual barefoot running populations, including East Africa. The extensive barefoot running experience has had a long-lasting, positive influence on many East African distance runners as shod runners today, playing a big role in their enormous success. This also suggests that the forefoot strike is 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 is 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, improves or even reverse irregularities in foot structure and function caused by modern footwear and ultimately influences 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 really matters when it comes to improving your run times with little strife and that forefoot running sustains far better long-term and is 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:
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
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.
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