Avoid Soft Surfaces When Learning Forefoot Running

How fast you learn and improve the forefoot running technique depends largely on surface hardness. For instance, hard surfaces, such as pavement, hard dirt, even rocks, provide better perceptual conditions that brings about positive changes in foot strike pattern as compared with soft surfaces. How come?

Hard Surface Better than Soft Surface for Learning Forefoot Running
Hard running surfaces, such as pavement, makes it easier to land lighter. When you land lighter, less impact is generated.

Soft Surface Evokes Instabilities

A soft surface, such as grass, a soft track or even soft cushioned running shoes, provokes a perceptual illusion during running that not only changes foot strike pattern, but causes foot strike intensity to be perceived as lighter than it actually is!  In other words, soft surfaces will cause a runner to unknowingly slam their foot harder into the ground when running (Robbins and Gouw, 1996).

Robbins and Gouw (1996) reported that during running, the body perceives foot strike as unstable on soft surfaces, thereby increasing the risk of inappropriate landings. This may be a direct result of our evolutionary past as barefoot runners –we as humans adapted to walk and run barefoot on the earth (dirt, rough terrain), and not on overly, plush soft surfaces.

Though conventional wisdom affirms that soft surfaces are safer, this notion has been poorly supported. If anything, past studies show the opposite: the harder the surface, the better, especially when running barefoot.

  • McNitt-Gray et al. found that well trained gymnasts landed with less impact on a harder surface than on a typical, soft mat because the hard surface provoked the gymnasts to choose their own landing strategy.
  • Because softer surfaces trigger perceptual illusions, the gymnasts who landed on soft, plush mats had compromised movement coordination and balance.

Why does soft, cushioned surfaces impair balance and movement coordination?

Balance and movement coordination is mostly controlled by proprioception in the foot –the less material between the foot and the ground, the greater the proprioceptive acuity.

  • If proprioception is blocked, the feet are essentially blinded, unable to send messages to the spinal cord to respond to plantar sensory stimulation.

This is why habitual barefoot runners generate less impact, regardless of surface hardness, compared to most shod runners. The reason again, is the heightened proprioception sends instructions to land lightly on the forefoot, not the heel, during barefoot running.

The Take Home Message

The human body is a reflexive machine more than capable of protecting itself when running, thanks to the proprioceptors of the foot. Blocking proprioception with unnatural substrates, strips impact-moderating reflexes of their normal function. As a result, running becomes risky business because the body is less aware of movement and position.

More From Run Forefoot:

Heel Striking to Forefoot Striking – Discover why you should make the switch right now.

Alberto Salazar on Forefoot Running – Read what Al Sal has to say about forefoot running.

No Toe-Push Off – Learn how to avoid injury by NOT using your toes for propulsion.

Best Barefoot Shoes – Read my reviews on the top barefoot like running shoes best suited for forefoot running.


References:

McNitty-Gray, JL., and Yokoi, T. (1989). The influence of surface characteristics of drop landings.

Robbins, SE., and Gouw, GJ. (1991). Athletic Footwear: unsafe due to perceptual illusions.

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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