Is Heel Strike Running Bad for Performance?

Is heel strike running bad? The long-list of musculoskeletal stressors accompanied by the heavy impact loads produced in heel strike running may drain energy as compared with forefoot running. Not only that, running with high impacts, like in heel strike running, can be pain and injury-predisposing as well.

By impact standards, heel strike running is a more force-intensive style of running than forefoot running whereby in heel strike running, the impact force variables are greater in numbers, are more enormous and more immediate which in turn may cause the muscles and soft tissues to work harder in tampering-down vibrations from impact ~this is called ‘muscle tuning’ which is the body’s natural defense mechanism in safeguarding the musculoskeletal system from impact-related damage, but it also requires a lot of energy to sustain.

Is Heel Strike Running Bad for Performance?

Regardless of foot strike pattern during running, impact is still produced which naturally causes muscle tuning to kick in which involves vibrations in muscles and soft tissues to prevent impact from rising beyond a tolerable limit.

However, as compared with forefoot running, heel strike running may take more energy in muscle tuning to sustain because at heel strike, a sock-wave is generated as well as significantly greater mechanical forces and compressive loads that often reach beyond a certain threshold of impact exposure which in turn causes a rapid uptick in muscle activation to control muscle tuning, or muscle vibrations that are delivered in a higher, repetitive manner. In this capacity, the muscles may be more vulnerable in fatiguing quicker and may hinder running economy as more muscular effort is required to cushion impacts with the ground, and to date, researchers have failed to find a correlation between whole body vibrations and improved running performance.

Worse still, in looking at the micro-effects of high-impact running on muscle tuning, a 2011 study in the Journal of Biomechanics reported that pounding the pavement with a heel strike during running induced whole-body vibrations of high amplitudes which reduced motor firing, maximal muscle contraction force, nerve conduction velocity and peripheral blood circulation! If enough of these negative factors add up, the symmetry of good mechanics may break which may add a variety of other forces on the body.

Meanwhile, several studies have connected forefoot running to significant reductions in impact overexposure, and since low-impact running may be strongly linked to lower energy costs, you may be better off economically if you run with a forefoot strike.

Forefoot Running Benefits

Why is forefoot running much less force-intensive than heel strike running? The precise landing configuration of the foot in forefoot running (shown below) results in minimal jarring and collision forces because the foot slides, not crashes, down onto the ground as compared with heel strike running.  

Is Forefoot Running More Economical than Heel Strike Running?
The reason forefoot running may help conserve more energy is the muscles may need to work less in dampening impact which may save some energy on muscle tuning (shock attenuation) as compared with heel strike running. The radical difference in impact force reduction in forefoot running partly comes from the landing configuration of the foot at touchdown which involves initial ground-contact on the outer-side of the forefoot (1) ~the widest part of the foot to contact the ground. This is followed by the rest of the foot flattening down to the ground, then the heel fully drops (2-3). Landing this way during running contributes a greater extent to producing less burst of high impacts as compared with landing heel-first (heel strike) which generates 3 types of forces at touchdown: collision, compressive and jarring forces. Ultimately, landing with a forefoot strike during running has a significant smoothing effect, regardless of speed or surface hardness, resulting in a quieter, more of a low amplitude impact that doesn’t require a lot of energy for muscle tuning to cancel out.

What is more, less impact hits the shins, knees, hips and back in forefoot running because much of the impact at touchdown is more highly dissipated over the foot, not the leg. The reason for this is a proper forefoot strike landing involves initial ground-contact being made towards the outer-side of the forefoot, therefore the widest part of the foot connects with the ground first, resulting in a larger surface area to contact the ground of which impact is able to spread over a larger area of the foot where much of the impact has faded before it reaches the leg.

By that measure, there is really no point on the body that gets hit hard with heavy impact in forefoot running as compared with heel strike running. Likewise, forefoot running seems to perfectly prevent increases in impacts from spreading out over the body of which the muscles have to work less to assist in muscle tuning which in turn may leverage up more energy to support as many miles as you want to go as compared with heel strike running.

If you’ve enjoyed this content on heel strike vs forefoot strike running, you’ll love my content over at my YouTube channel, here, where I discuss more of the numerous benefits of forefoot running as well as barefoot running.


References:

Friesenbichler et al. Tissue vibration in prolonged running. J Biomech, 2011;44:116-120.

Luo J, McNamara B, and Moran K. The use of vibration training to enhance muscle strength and power. Sports Med 35: 23-41, 2005.

Rittweger J. Vibration as an exercise modality: how it may work, and
what its potential might be. Eur J Appl Physiol 108: 877-904, 2010.

Roschel et al. Effects of strength training associated with whole body vibration training on running economy and vertical stiffness. J Strength Cond, 2015: [1064-8011].

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!