Is Heel Striking Less Efficient Than Forefoot Running?

Heel striking when running is less efficient than forefoot running because more impact and mechanical stress burdens and taxes the muscles, soft tissues, joints and bones.

In fact, the impact forces in heel strike running have been consistently shown to exceed joint loading, soft tissue and muscular strain limits. 

Is Heel Striking Less Efficient Than Forefoot Running?
Science tells us that by impact standards, a high collisional force as well as greater joint loading are consistent consequences of heel strike running. At faster running speeds, these impacts exceed tolerance, resulting in pain and fatigue because the body  needs to continuously work harder to absorb the excessive impact. This is one of the many reasons heel strike running does not sustain well economically as well as for injury prevention.

What’s not often told is the soft tissues and muscles naturally vibrate and shift in efforts to absorb and reduce impact during running. This is one of the body’s handy built-in mechanisms to protect itself from impact-induced damage, and its called ‘muscle tuning’. However, the evidence has become so compelling that heel strike running produces an assortment of impact forces that are unusually prolong in duration and often exceed tolerance, resulting in injury, particularly long-bone injuries. But, injury isn’t the only cost of the high impact nature of heel strike running, these high impacts are also uneconomical since too much soft tissue vibration and movement has proven to be energetically expensive. 

In fact, evidence emerged showing the prolonged deceleration (brake force) in heel strike running was largely to blame for the stark increases in soft tissue movements and was accompanied by a substantial net energy loss in all three leg joints during stance. More muscles in the leg were also strained as well, and this negative effect is especially true at faster running speeds.

After knowing all this, it’s clear that impact forces strongly affect energy demands during running. But how can we use our feet to our economical advantage while protecting the body from injurious impact loads? Run with a forefoot strike is the perfect antidote! 

Why Forefoot Running is Better

It’s turned out to be very much confirmed that landing with a forefoot strike does more to reliably safeguard the body from impact because certain impact force variables in heel strike running are eliminated in forefoot running. In this way, there’s less joint loading, soft tissue movements are constrained and vibrational responses are minimal.

Is Forefoot Running More Efficient
In forefoot running, impact forces and loading dissipates best and are consistently prevented from rising to dangerous levels. This is why habitual barefoot runners, who land with a forefoot strike, are perfectly able to run safe, regardless of surface hardness!

In forefoot running, most of the impact protection comes from the specific way the foot configures and rolls with the ground. At touchdown, the outer-side of the forefoot (just under the 4th and 5th toe) connects with the ground first. Then, the rest of the forefoot flattens down to the ground followed by the rest of the foot flattens down to the ground, with the heel being the last part of the foot to make ground contact. You can see what this looks like here!

The precise movement path of the foot in forefoot running has more influence on phasing out straining jarring and jerk forces than heel strike running, too. This landing configuration also has the added benefit of optimizing elastic energy in the arch and Achilles tendon, enabling the foot to operate at the level of better economic sufficiency (your stride becomes more spring-loaded; less muscle effort is required to thrust you forward).

Even more encouraging, landing on the forefoot has quite the positive chain reaction on your running stride such that it naturally shortens your stride length and increases your cadence. This results in a contact with the ground that’s so brief that certain impact variables are not fully produced which has a large effect on reducing joint loads and less energy is needed for soft tissue and muscle suspension.

The Take Home Message

Do not underestimate the role foot strike pattern plays in effecting energy economy during running. If you’re having rough patches in your running, try landing with a forefoot strike, not a heel strike. It’s remarkable how quickly your stride will feel springy, zippy and light when you land forefooted because it allows more energy-saving sping power storage in the elastic structures of the lower leg, while lifting unwanted stress off the body.

If you’ve enjoyed my content, you’ll LOVE the content over at my YouTube channel here where I go into more detail about the number of published studies showing the health and performance benefits of forefoot running, especially when barefoot!


References:

Blickhan, R., Seyfarth, A., Geyer, H., Grimmer, S., Wagner, H., Günther, M.: Intelligence by mechanics. Philos. Trans. Ser. A Math. Phys. Eng. Sci. 365(1850), 199–220 (2007)

Boyer, K.A., Nigg, B.M.: Soft tissue vibrations within one soft tissue compartment. J. Biomech. 39(4), 645–651 (2006)

Boyer, K.A., Nigg, B.M.: Quantification of the input signal for soft tissue vibration during running. J. Biomech. 40(8), 1877–1880 (2007)

Davis, B.L., Cavanagh, P.R., Sommer, H.J. III., Wu, G.: Ground reaction forces during locomotion in simulated microgravity. Aviat. Space Environ. Med. 67(3), 235–242 (1996)

Günther, M., Sholukha, V.A., Keßler, D., Wank, V., Blickhan, R.: Dealing with skin motion and wobbling masses in inverse dynamics. J. Mech. Med. Biol. 3(3/4), 309–335 (2003)

Järvinen, T.L., Kannus, P., Sievanen, H., Jolma, P., Heinonen, A., Järvinen, M.: Randomized controlled study of effects of sudden impact loading on rat femur. J. Bone Miner. Res. 13(9), 1475–1482 (1998)

Jorgensen, L., Crabtree, N.J., Reeve, J., Jacobsen, B.K.: Ambulatory level and asymmetrical weight bearing after stroke affects bone loss in the upper and lower part of the femoral neck differently: bone adaptation after decreased mechanical loading. Bone 27(5), 701–707 (2000)

Schimitt S and Gunther M. Human leg impact: energy dissipation of wobbling masses. Arch Appl Mech, 2011; 81:887-897.

Taaffe, D.R., Robinson, T.L., Snow, C.M., Marcus, R.: High-impact exercise promotes bone gain in well-trained female athletes. J. Bone Miner. Res. 12(2), 255–260 (1997)

Wakeling, J.M., Liphardt, A., Nigg, B.M.: Muscle activity reduces soft-tissue resonance at heel-strike during walking. J. Biomech. 36(12), 1761–1769 (2003)


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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!