How Heel Strike is Different From Forefoot Strike

Many runners have different foot strikes. Some heel strike, whereas others land on their forefoot. I was a heel striker, but switched to forefoot running after reading Born to Run.

The differences between a heel strike and a forefoot strike is that a heel strike landing is when the heel is the first part of the foot that contacts the ground at touchdown. Heel strike is also less common in elite runners and is more common in joggers (Lieberman et al. 2015), and is associated with more injury than a forefoot strike.

Heel Strike vs Forefoot Strike Running
In heel strike running, (left), initial ground-contact is on the heel followed by foot rollover where the toes then propel the weight of the body forward. In forefoot strike running, (right), initial ground-contact is on the balls of the foot then the rest of the foot flattens to the ground where the heel is the last part of the foot to contact the ground. Note, that a forefoot strike landing is a much flatter foot placement at foot strike compared to a heel strike landing.

How Heel Strike is Different From Forefoot Strike

After the heel contacts the ground in heel strike running, the movement pattern of the foot follows a heel-toe pattern whereas forefoot striking involves a ball-of-foot to heel pattern.

A Closer Look at the Heel Strike

In a heel landing, the forefoot pulls up allowing the heel to contact the ground first. This is followed by foot rollover, where the foot rolls over the heel, over the arch, over the balls of the foot, and on to the toes where the toes push the body forward, shown below.

Heel Strike
In heel striking, initial contact is made directly on the heel, followed by foot rollover for propulsion. SOURCE: Lieberman et al., 2010.

A Closer Look at the Forefoot Strike

A forefoot strike does not mean landing high up on the toes. The first part of the foot to contact the ground in a forefoot strike is the balls of the foot, just under the toes, then the heel is brought to the ground, shown below.

It is important to remember that after the forefoot contacts the ground, the rest of the foot quickly flattens to the ground, almost resembling a midfoot strike to the naked eye. Thus, forefoot running is not toe running, as the landing pattern of the foot in a toe strike landing differs significantly from that of a forefoot strike landing.

Forefoot Strike
Forefoot strike running does mean landing high on the forefoot, but a much flatter interaction with the ground.  SOURCE: Lieberman et al., 2010.

Which is the Most Dangerous?

In heel striking, at heel strike, the foot lands ahead of the knee while the knee remains stiff and unbent, known as maximum knee extension.

Further, when running, a foot positioned in front of the knee is indicative of a foot strike position well in front of the center of mass and results in rapid deceleration, or braking.

Below, Christopher McDougall tells HBO Real Sports why heel strike  running in running shoes is bad for the body:

Essentially, due to the strike position of the foot relative to the body, greater impact is generated in a heel strike compared with a forefoot strike.

The problem with having foot strike position in front of the center mass is that doing so produces an impact transient force.

  • the impact transient transmits as a shock-wave up through the heel, to the shin and knee, into the hips and the back
  • the magnitude of the impact transient increases as running speed increases and has been found to increase vibrational frequencies in soft tissue compartments within a range that contributes to swelling and pain

Because of a flatter foot placement as well as initial ground-contact on the front part of the foot positioned under the knee, habitual forefoot strikers are found to produce less impact where the impact transient is often eliminated.

The lower leg mechanics of a forefoot strike landing may expose the body to less sheer force, allowing for a lighter and safer interaction with the ground.

The Take Home Message

The master differential factor between a heel strike and a forefoot strike is impact.  The mechanics of a heel strike running style allows for more force production whereas the mechanics of a forefoot strike allows for less force production.

Nonetheless, an added bonus of forefoot strike running is that it is a more airbrushed style of running, it looks better, and most importantly, it feels better.

More on the Health Benefits of Forefoot Running:


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.0131354

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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