The Causes of Painful Heels After Running

A heel strike runner is more likely to suffer painful heels after running because the heel lacks the stress dissipation capacities for heel strike running. Ultimately, the heel just wasn’t made for running, and here’s why…

Painful Heels After Running

The Causes of Painful Heels After Running with a Heel Strike

Heel strike running produces a heel strike-transient that corresponds to 2.4 times of body weight at touchdown and exerts compressive deformations on the heel pad, even in a cushioned heeled running shoe [1].

  • At heel strike, the fatty tissues of the heel pad become highly distorted due to a large shear deformation [1] –in this state, stress distributions of the heel pad are compromised, despite under-heel cushioning of a shoe.
  • The foam material under the heel in a running shoe also becomes highly deformable under these high impact conditions [1].
Painful Heels When Running
Landing with a heel strike during running hurts the heels.

Further, shoe cushioning triggers perceptual illusions which may increase landing velocity –meaning that a runner strikes the ground with greater force under cushioned-shod conditions compared to running barefoot [3].

Essentially, heel cushioning of a shoe coupled with the heel pad is the first and last line of defense against the heel strike-transient. When these protective sources are compromised, the rest of the body naturally lacks the load dissipation capacity from the harmful transient stresses at heel strike. This is why humans were made for forefoot running, not heel strike running.

How to Prevent Painful Heels After Running

The solution is simple: Don’t heel strike, rather land with a forefoot strike. Why?

About 4 million years ago when humans started running barefoot, natural selection weeded out less helpful mechanical adaptations (heel strike) and hit on the most successful one (forefoot strike) to allow us to run injury free without the aid of external protective devices that we rely so heavily on today, unfortunately.

How to Avoid Painful Heels When Running
In forefoot running, the forefoot strikes the ground first, the heel contacts the ground last. The center of mass is always in front of the heel, preventing compressive deformations on the heel pad.

Human evolution took a distinctive path when our ancestors ran barefoot on the plains of Africa which involved adopting the forefoot running technique –an adaptive mechanism to protect the heel pad from overloading and prevent plantar pain.

In forefoot running, compressive forces and impact transients are virtually nonexistent and therefore compressive deformations of soft tissue compartments in the foot and leg do not occur.

Bottom line, the essential anatomical structure of the heel pad is strong enough to heel strike when walking (because heel strike-transients are much, much lower), but not running.

More From Run Forefoot:

Don’t Heel Strike! – Research shows that heel striking is a major pitfall for runners.

Barefoot Running – It’s not a fade. It’s actually one of the best ways to improve the sensory networks in your feet and joints.

Shoe Reviews – A forefoot runner’s guide to minimalist shoes.

When Your Knees are Out of Whack – Learn how to avoid runners knee.


[1]. Chen WC and Lee PV. Explicit finite modeling of heel pad mechanics and running: inclusion of body dynamics in application of physiological impact loads. Comp Meth Biomech Biomed Eng, 2015, 18(14):1582-95.

[2]. Bobbert MF, Yeadon MR, Nigg BM. 1992. Mechanical analysis of the landing phase in heel–toe running. J Biomech.

[3]. Robbins, SE., and Gouw, GJ. (1991). Athletic Footwear: unsafe due to perceptual illusions. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 23(2):217-24.

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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