I always tell new forefoot runners not to be afraid of speed because running faster actually protects the knees and hips from high impact. The problem with running too slow, i.e. shuffling, is that your biomechanics can get off track, like landing with greater ankle dorsiflexion. Yet, shuffle running is a common tactic many marathoners use towards the end of a long race in order to save energy, or simply because they are too tired to maintain a longer stride. But, shuffling is not only energetically wasteful, causing you to fall behind, it also causes the lower leg tendons to become irritated and inflamed, and may be a risk factor for shin splints and ankle pain.
Why Shuffle Running Hurts
Shuffle running usually translates into slower, but higher impact running as compared with running faster, around 11km/hr and faster. Many runners are unaware that impact is far greater when you shuffle despite a shortened stride. While shuffling during running seems like you are guarding your body from impact, using a shuffle gait actually mis-aligns the muscles and tendons in the lower leg and increases traction on these areas, resulting in a slew of lower leg injuries, such as anterior tibial tendinitis (anterior shin splints).
Experts say shuffling can do very little at helping a runner avoid injury. For example, the shuffling technique tends to restrict ankle movement/flexion, causing the tendons to continuously pass under and rub against the adjacent muscles (extensor retinaculum) in the lower leg (Fallon, 1996). This rubbing is actually causing a high-degree of traction, leading to irritation and swelling. One crucial difference between running fast and running slow is that running faster (~13 km/hr) leads to less deceleration of the foot and ankle at touchdown, therefore the leg is less likely to incur tractional forces and tendinitis–providing you are landing properly on your forefoot. Because of this, this should give you the strong incentive to open up your stride a little more, and let your leg swing freely behind you while you run. I know it’s difficult to maintain solid form when you’re exhausted, but whatever you do, just don’t do the shuffle.
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Fallon, KE. Musculoskeletal injuries in the ultramarathon: the 1990 Westfield Sydney to Melbourne run. Br J Sports Med, 1996;30:319-323
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.