Heel Strike Running Causes Slipped Discs

In running, in order to safeguard your lower back in ways the sustains best, one of the best changes to your running form is to switch from heel striking to forefoot striking. This is because mounting confirming evidence shows forefoot running provides better protection against damaging impacts on the shins, knees and back whereas heel strike running is the biggest contributor to increasing all-around impact levels across multiple sites on the body.

Does Forefoot Running Hurt Your Knees?
The act of landing with a forefoot strike when running was found to improve the functional movements of the knee and the lower back by enabling the knee to softly bend and flex at landing, which also pulls the torso instantly forward, thereby creating a shorter stride tied to maximum positive impact protection on the entire body vs heel strike running.

One intriguing discovery revealed that landing on ahead of the arch, on the balls of the foot (i.e. your forefoot) when running reduced loading on the lumbar spine as compared to heel strike running. These findings came from a 2013 study in the journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise which found that when heel strike runners ran barefoot and landed with a forefoot strike, leg impact at contact and shock attenuation was dramatically reduced, meaning less shock was produced, therefore less shock was needed to be absorbed by the lumbar lordosis.

  • The lumbar lordosis serves as a natural shock absorber during running. The researchers found that forefoot striking did a better job at sustainably reducing leg shock at landing, thereby unburdening the lumbar lordosis of elevated shock.
Proper Running Form: Why Forefoot Strike
Confirming reports reveals forefoot running decreases the need to accommodate shock by exaggerating lumbar lordosis. Put simply, forefoot running stops the inflow of high impact forces which is legitimately tied the prevention of lower back pain and injury as compared with heel strike running, which is pegged as a major risk factor for slipped, degenerated discs.

The researchers also pointed out that the forefoot strike landing led to positive positional changes in the lower back and pelvis during running:

Heel Strike Running: VERY Bad News for the Lower Back

The same study discovered that the heel strike runners had greater overall foot-ground impact which resulted in more shock that was attenuated by the lumbar lordosis than the forefoot strike runners. This finding is also not the first to suggest that heel strike running is damaging for the back. Read more here about how the impacts related to heel strike running directly causes disc degeneration that is resolved by forefoot running.

In addition, the heel strike runners had greater overall low back excursion which inflicted a sizeable demand for stability in the lumbar spine.

The Take Home Message

When it comes to protecting your lower back long-term in running, the research reveals foot strike matters immensely whereby forefoot running prevents the weakening of the shock-absorbing structures in the back, while perfectly preventing impact-induced degenerative changes to the lower back that are directly caused by heel strike running.

In that light, here are more injuries directly caused by heel strike running that are prevented by forefoot striking.  

If you’ve enjoyed this post, you’ll love my content at my YouTube channel, here, where I show why forefoot runnings works for everybody!

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Delgado et al. Effects of foot strike on low back posture, shock attenuation, and comfort in running. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2013;45(3):490-6.

Driscoll C, Aubin CE, Labelle H, Dansereau J. The relationship between hip flexion/extension and the sagittal curves of the spine. Stud Health Technol Inform. 2008;140:90–5.

Franz JR, Paylo KW, Dicharry J, Riley PO, Kerrigan DC. Changes in the coordination of hip and pelvis kinematics with mode of locomotion. Gait Posture. 2009;29:494–8.

Uetake T, Ohtsuki F, Tanaka H, Shindo M. The vertebral curvature of sportsmen. J Sports Sci. 1998;16:621–8.

Voloshin A, Wosk J. An in vivo study of low back pain and shock absorption in the human locomotor system. J Biomech. 1982;15:21–7.

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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!