Why Kenyans Run in Heeled Running Shoes & Don’t Heel Strike

Many sub-elite distance runners challenge the theories of Lee Saxy and fire remarks about how thick heeled running shoes do not force Kenyan elite distance runners to heel strike. Most Kenyan distance runners manage to sustain a forefoot strike landing in athletic footwear with an elevated cushioned heel.

This is why many recreational runners avoid blaming the padded heel of a shoe for causing heel strike. However, Kenyans run in heeled running shoes and do not heel strike due to earlier adaptations of a non-heel strike running style determined by running barefoot.


Additionally, past reports have demonstrated that the positioning of the foot in a heeled running shoe encourages a heel strike landing over a forefoot strike landing during running.

For example, Pearl et al., reported that heeled running shoes encourages a heel strike landing when running on account of increasing stride-length and eliminating controlled dorsiflexion by the plantar flexors during landing.

Thick heeled running shoes encourage a heel strike in inexperienced runners

Therefore, running shoes are a key variable in affecting foot strike mechanics.

So, despite wearing heeled running shoes, how come Kenyan runners are not heel striking like recreational runners?

Most Kenyan elite distance runners adopt a forefoot strike landing on account of running barefoot during their earlier years. Therefore, foot strike is well determined before they become shod runners.

Essentially, Kenyan elite distance runners go from being habitual barefoot runners to habitual shod runners and the heel elevation of their selected footwear is not as high as the heels of the shoes many recreational runners wear.

Forefoot Strike is Retained in Adulthood Due to Earlier Years of Learned Barefoot Running

Many years of running barefoot, which encourages a forefoot strike landing, at an earlier age strengthens the neuromotor behaviour of a forefoot strike landing.

Running barefoot during childhood development allows plenty of time for the forefoot strike technique to become learned or hardwired in the neuromotor units of the body.

And, Pearl at el., also hypothesized that if humans evolved to run barefoot with a forefoot strike, natural selection did not adopt us to run with a heel strike in shoes. This may suggest why the forefoot strike pattern of most Kenyan distance runners wearing heeled running shoes is not disturbed.

The Take Home Message

Kenyan distance runners learned how to run correctly before running in a shoe and many of us heel strike because we are not raised to run barefoot whereby earlier years of development is a critical time to learn key motor strategies, especially motor strategies that reduce impact when running barefoot.

How running shoes affect biomechanicsAnd finally, because our foot strike is often undetermined when we begin running later in life coupled with the data showing that the foot configuration in a heeled running shoe inadvertently causes heel strike, the fate of our foot strike is in the shoe.

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Pearl, DP., Daoud, AI and Lieberman, DE. Effects of footwear and strike type on running economy. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2012; 44(7):1335-43.

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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