Heel Strike Running May Fatigue the Legs More Than Forefoot Running

Emerging evidence may support that idea that heel strike running may cause premature fatigue by putting more stress on the muscles, soft tissues and joints as compared with forefoot running. 

Because impact forces tend to exceed joint loading limits as well as soft tissue and muscular strain that exceeds tolerance, heel strike running may cause the leg to reach a fatigue state faster than forefoot running.

Heel Strike Running May Fatigue the Legs More Forefoot Running
Science tells us that by impact standards, a high collision force as well as greater joint loading are consistent consequences of running with a heel strike whereby at faster running speeds, all this impact may boil into pain and fatigue which in turn, may complicate running economy and your injury prevention efforts.

What’s not often told is that under high impact conditions, the soft tissues in the leg naturally vibrate and shift in natural efforts to absorb and reduce impact during running. This is one of the body’s core attributes for providing impact protection and is a big help in protecting the bones. However, the evidence has become so compelling that heel strike running, as the heel plows into the ground, produces an assortment of impact variables of hefty loads that are unusually prolonged and can easily exceed a certain impact-protective threshold in the soft tissues. The high cost of this is not only an increased risk of an impact-related injury, but it may also be uneconomical as too much soft tissue vibration and movement has proven to be energetically expensive. 

In fact, evidence emerged that the prolonged deceleration, or brake force, duration period in heel strike running was largely to blame for stark increases in soft tissue movements that was accompanied by a substantial net energy loss in all three leg joints during the stance phase and may also strain more muscles in the leg. This negative effect is especially true at faster running speeds.

After knowing all this, it seems clear that impact forces may strongly shape energy demands during running. But how can we use our feet to our economical benefit and also prevent such heavy loads and stress from acting on the body when we run? Running with a forefoot strike can provide the antidote! 

Why Forefoot Running May Be Better

Its turned out to be very much confirmed that landing with a forefoot strike has a lot to contribute to impact protection because certain impact force variables found in heel strike running are eliminated in forefoot strike running which results in less joint loading and soft tissue movement and vibrational responses are minimal.

Is Forefoot Running Better?
Impact forces and loading seems to dissipate best and are consistently prevented from surging to dangerous levels when initial ground-contact is made on the balls of the foot during running. Its for this reason that habitual barefoot runners, who typically land forefooted, are able to run safely, regardless of surface hardness, without generating greater impact and costly soft tissue movements and muscle tuning can be avoided altogether.

In forefoot running, most of the impact protection comes from how the foot configures and rolls with the ground. At touchdown, the outer-side of the forefoot (just under the 4th and 5th toe) connects with the ground first, then the rest of the forefoot flattens down to the ground followed by the rest of the foot flattening down to the ground with the heel being the last part of the foot to make ground-contact. You can see what this looks like here!

This precise moment path of the foot in forefoot running has more influence on nipping jarring and jerk forces than heel strike running. This landing configuration also has the added benefit of getting the most out of the elastic energy from the arch, potentially helping the foot operate at the level of better economic sufficiency (your stride becomes more spring-loaded; less muscle effort is required to thrust you forward).

Even more encouraging, landing on the forefoot has quite the positive chain reaction on your running stride whereby it naturally shortens your stride length and increases your cadence, resulting in a contact with the ground that’s so brief that certain impact variables are not fully produced which has a large effect on reducing joint loads and less energy may be needed for soft tissue and muscle suspension.

The take home message here is that do not underestimate the role foot strike pattern may play in shaping energy demands during running. If you’re having a lot of rough patches in your running, try landing with a forefoot strike, not a heel strike. Its remarkable how quickly your stride will feel springy, zippy and light when you land forefoot and may offer a better mechanical template that may pile more energy into the elastic structures of the lower leg while lifting unwanted stress off the body.

If you’ve enjoyed my content, you’ll LOVE the content over at my YouTube channel here where I go into more detail about the number of published studies showing the health and performance benefits of forefoot running, especially when barefoot!

P.S. Don’t forget to check out my Run Forefoot Facebook page here! 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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References:

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Järvinen, T.L., Kannus, P., Sievanen, H., Jolma, P., Heinonen, A., Järvinen, M.: Randomized controlled study of effects of sudden impact loading on rat femur. J. Bone Miner. Res. 13(9), 1475–1482 (1998)

Jorgensen, L., Crabtree, N.J., Reeve, J., Jacobsen, B.K.: Ambulatory level and asymmetrical weight bearing after stroke affects bone loss in the upper and lower part of the femoral neck differently: bone adaptation after decreased mechanical loading. Bone 27(5), 701–707 (2000)

Schimitt S and Gunther M. Human leg impact: energy dissipation of wobbling masses. Arch Appl Mech, 2011; 81:887-897.

Taaffe, D.R., Robinson, T.L., Snow, C.M., Marcus, R.: High-impact exercise promotes bone gain in well-trained female athletes. J. Bone Miner. Res. 12(2), 255–260 (1997)

Wakeling, J.M., Liphardt, A., Nigg, B.M.: Muscle activity reduces soft-tissue resonance at heel-strike during walking. J. Biomech. 36(12), 1761–1769 (2003)

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!