There really is no safe way to heel strike when running because doing so generates an impact transient that is not produced in forefoot running. Nonetheless, it has been suggested that heel strikers may reduce the impact transient by bending their knees more. However, this comes with a consequence: knee pain from IT band compressing the fat pad located on the outer knee.
Knee Pain From IT Band
Running with more knee bend (greater knee flexion) is beneficial, for forefoot runners. However, a study by Miller et al. found the opposite to be true for heel strike runners: greater knee flexion at heel strike increases strain on the IT band and is believed to contribute to IT band syndrome.
The researchers postulated that greater knee flexion at heel strike relates to more time spent in the impingement range of knee flexion angles and IT band syndrome. Therefore, reducing knee flexion at heel strike reduces the risk of ITBS, however it increases the risk of runners knees.
To Bend or Unbent Your Knees, That is the Question
Typically, heel strike running is associated with maximum knee extension at heel strike. According to the study, heel strike runners without history of IT band syndrome show less knee flexion at heel strike. Though, these runners may be less likely to suffer IT band syndrome, they are more likely to suffer knee injuries due to greater knee joint compression and stiffness.
Likewise, the researchers argued that greater knee flexion at heel strike compromises the orientation of the IT band where impingement with the lateral femoral epicondyle is more likely to occur.
The researchers also found that IT band strain was highest during the early stance of heel strike running, the point at which the body comes to a dead stop.
- In addition to sudden braking, peak vertical ground reaction force at heel strike occurs during the first 10% of stance –another massive blow to the knee.
Braking arises because heel strike occurs anterior to the runner’s center of mass and increases with speed, too. Because the magnitude of the vertical ground reaction force is so great, the researchers emphasized a role for heel strike impacts in the pathology of IT band sydrome.
Maintain Knee Flexion, But Ditch the Heel Strike
Loading rates, compressive forces and high angular work to the knee are estimated to be significantly lower in forefoot running. Therefore, adopting a forefoot strike while maintaining knee flexion may reduce IT band strain, diverting a runner farther from their IT band syndrome threshold.
The foot/ground interactions of forefoot running also warrants a gliding gait because leaning forward with the center of mass cuts down on a bouncy gait and may encourage a favorable orientation of the IT band at touchdown.
The researchers noted that increased strain in IT band syndrome runners is probably a function of kinematic variables which jibes with the assumption that adopting a forefoot strike could help illuminate the kinematics that lower IT band strain.
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- Heel Strike vs Forefoot Strike – Comparing Biomechanics
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Braunstein B, Arampatzis A, Eysel P, Brüggemann G-P. Footwear affects the gearing at the ankle and knee joints during running. J Biomech, 2010;43(11):2120-2125.
Crowell HP, Milner CE, Hamill J, Davis IS. Reducing impact loading during running with the use of real-time visual feedback. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2010;40(4):206-213.
Goss DL and Gross MT. A review of mechanics and injury trends among various running styles. US Army Med Dep J, 2012, Jul-Sept:62-71.
Hreljac A, Marshall RN, Hume PA. Evaluation of lower extremity overuse injury potential in runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000;32(9):1635-1641.
Kerrigan DC, Franz JR, Keenan GS, Dicharry J, Della Croce U, Wilder RP. The effect of running shoes on lower extremity joint torques. PMR. 2009;1(12):1058-1063.
Miller et al. Lower extremity mechanics of iliotibial band syndrome during an exhaustive run.Gait & Posture, 2007; 26, 407-413.
Milner CE, Ferber R, Pollard CD, Hamill J, Davis IS. Biomechanical factors associated with tibial stress fracture in female runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006;38(2):323-328.
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.
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