Don’t Heel Strike When Running Barefooted

When you are running barefooted, you don’t want to heel strike. The most forceful interaction with the ground in running is running with a heel strike, especially when you’re barefoot. So, when running barefoot, how should we be striking the ground with our feet? The evolutionary answer turns out to be with a forefoot strike, not a heel strike.

forefoot strike not heel strike when barefoot running
Don’t heel strike, but land forefooted when running barefoot. A forefoot strike landing is observed in most habitual barefoot runners. Landing on the forefoot eliminates impact transients, but the role it has in ankle injury prevention is poorly understood.

Don’t Heel Strike When Running Barefooted

Over the eons, the human foot and hind leg have developed spring-like properties that appear to function optimally with a forefoot strike running style which may allow distance running to be less costly and more safe compared to heel striking while running barefoot.

And, runners who wear thick cushioned heeled running shoes are more likely to heel strike than habitual barefoot runners.

Unfortunately, common running related injuries such as ankle inversion injuries are not documented in habitually barefoot running populations such as Ethiopia where these runners are mostly forefoot, or midfoot strikers.

Comparatively, ankle inversion injuries are well documented in habitually shod populations of which heel strikers account for the majority of these runners.

most shod runners heel strike
The degree of cushioning and heel elevation may encourage a heel strike landing instead of a forefoot strike landing seen in most barefoot running populations

So, is it the shoes that cause ankle injuries in runners? Or, is it heel strike mechanics that results in ankle injury? Or, is it a combination of both?

If humans evolved as barefoot runners, could barefoot running prevent ankle injury? Not if you run on your heels.

Running Barefoot On the Heel Causes Ankle Inversion Injury

A recent study by Rice et al. found that barefoot running, if heel strike is maintained, may not prevent ankle injury as ankle inversion was not reduced with barefoot running.

Further, the barefoot-heel strikers in the study had high medially concentrated pressure at heel-off as well as high M1 (metatarsal bone of big toe) peak pulse pressure, both of which are risk factors for ankle inversion injury in runners.

Rice and her colleagues pointed out that past studies have found that the same risk factors for lower leg injury can be identified using shod and barefoot trials, however the risk factors are more pronounced using barefoot trails (assuming the barefoot runners heel strike).

What if a forefoot strike is adopted when running barefoot? Will doing so prevent ankle injury? Ongoing studies are just starting to provide some answers.

Although, the barefoot runners in the study by Rice et al. were instructed to heel strike, Sinclair et al. found that barefoot running increased ankle plantar-flexion indicative of a forefoot strike landing.

  • increased ankle plantar-flexion is considered to be the primary mechanism of shod-runners to adopt to running barefoot as a form of impact-moderating behavior

If validated in more trials, the finding might reveal that forefoot running bares potential rewards in preventing ankle injury compared to heel strike running.

forefoot strike running may prevent ankle inversion
Most studies on ankle inversion injuries were on heel strikers. Experimenters still need to verify that forefoot strike running may protect the ankle from injury.

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References:

Rice et al. (2013). High medial plantar pressure during barefoot  running are associated with increased risk of ankle inversion injury in Royal Marine recruits.

Robbins and Gouw. (1991). Athletic footwear: unsafe due to perceptual illusions.

Robbins et al. (1989) Running related injury prevention through innate impact moderating behaviour

Sinclair et al. (2013). The influence of barefoot and barefoot-inspired footwear on the kinetics and kinematics of running in comparison to conventional running shoes.

Willems, et al. (2007). Gait-related risk factors for exercise-related lower-leg pain during shod running.

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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