Pronation, the natural side-to-side motions of the back of the foot during the touchdown and stance phase of running, is considered part of the body’s built-it, natural mechanical support and impact protection mechanism. However, too much or too little foot pronation, especially too much pronation during running, may amplify impact and have profound ripple effects up the leg that may place more torque on the knees and may work against your injury prevention efforts. It’s like the foot wrestles with the ground too much during running, but foot overpronation can be avoided with forefoot running, especially when barefoot.
Most interesting, there’s well-supported data showing that foot pronation patterns differ in heel strike running vs forefoot strike running. For instance, in a forefoot strike landing during running, the foot may operate from a safer pronation pattern and may be an important asset in protecting the lower leg, especially the knee from injury as compared with heel strike running.
Here is the typical pronation pattern in a forefoot strike:
A. Prior to touchdown in forefoot running, the forefoot begins to invert (tilts outward, away from the midline).
- Forefoot inversion (the forefoot tilts outward to set up to land just under the 4th-5th toes) upon and at touchdown may allow for greater control of the foot until the heel is lowered to the ground and may be a protective strategy to minimize heel impact.
The increased forefoot inversion upon and at touchdown is followed by rapid forefoot eversion (the inner side of the forefoot begins to make contact with the ground, shown in B).
- Rapid forefoot eversion may facilitate arch lowering, allowing the foot to become mobile and attenuate shock.
B-C . The forefoot and heel begin to move relative to each other and the heel lowers down to the ground, initiating stance.
- During stance, the heel supinates (the ankle bows outward away from the midline) when barefoot whereas in cushioned running shoes, the rearfoot (heel) angle decreases, suggesting that when heel supination is blocked via running shoes during stance, may interfere with the natural, preferred pronatory movement path of the foot, shock attenuation strength may diminish which in turn, may work against your injury prevention efforts.
In fact, Stacoff et al. (1991) found that during stance, footwear forced the rearfoot into extreme positions as compared with barefoot running, which according to the researchers, opens up the question of foot movement within the shoe and injury risk.
D. The foot is quickly removed as soon as the center of mass moves more anteriorly.
In looking at the whole picture of how the foot interacts with the ground in forefoot running, the precise movement trajectory of the foot has valuable ties to permitting better dynamic stability of the foot/ankle complex, keeping the kinetic chain more in line and may help give you a more maximal level of impact protection, especially when running barefoot.
Another positive aspect of forefoot running that helps ensure adequate and safe pronation is that forefoot striking during running naturally increases cadence (the number of steps taken per minute) as compared with heel strike running.
In heel strike running however, cadence is measurably lower and ground-contact time is longer in duration which may increase pronation duration of the foot beyond a tolerable limit and may set the stage for cumulative stress and strain to infuse the leg, especially when thick cushioned running shoes are worn.
What is it about heel striking during running that may increase the risk of foot overpronation?
The landing configuration of the foot in heel strike running is the reverse to that of forefoot running and unlike forefoot running, the heel spends more time in an extreme everted position in heel strike running, which was found to spark ankle instability at initial ground-contact and may be a difficult undertaking in torque for the rest of the leg. Conversely, in forefoot running, forefoot inversion at touchdown accelerates ankle stability at initial ground-contact, providing more rock-solid balance control.
Another mechanical conflict at the feet in heel strike running is the trajectory of the center of pressure on the foot during the heel-to-toe rollover phase, may influence excessive toe-out which may over-strain the midfoot. In this position, the foot’s arch also has a greater tendency to collapse as the body weight passes posterior to anterior over the foot (McClay and Manal 1998).
The Take Home Message
It’s good to see research assessing how foot strike pattern and running shoes fits in affecting pronation. This evidence makes it clear that foot strike pattern and footwear have a strong influence on running foot pronation whereby running with a heel strike and/or running in motion control stability running shoes may hinder the efficient use of the foot’s natural pronation control and in this capacity, may not offer anything of protective substance.
Lastly, forefoot running seems to provide the necessary mechanical reinforcements that are necessary to lock in stronger, steady foot-steps, and it appears that forefoot running while barefoot, can be the intervention that improves injury prevention outcomes even more!
McClay I and Mana K. A comparison of three-dimensional lower extremity kinematics during running between excessive pronators and normals. Clin Biomech, 1998; 13(3):195-203.
Stacoff A, Kalen X and Stussi E. The effects of shoes on the torsion and rearfoot motion in running. Med Sci Sports Exer, 1991; 23(4):482-490.
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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.