Thursday, June 13, 2013

Quick Running Tip: Try Forefoot Striking

Running injuries are nothing new. In the 1970s, when running injury data was first collected, about 20 percent of runners had injuries, with the top five injuries affecting the knee, Achilles tendon, shins, foot, and ankle. (1) Since the 70s, both the number of runners and their injuries have gone up: Today it is estimated that up to 70 percent of all runners will experience an injury every year (with the top five running injuries found in the foot, Achilles tendon, upper leg, knee, and shins). (2,3) And this increase in injuries is despite of latest running shoes designed to cushion, support, and control runners' feet.

There are lots of possible reasons for all these injuries (e.g., modern shoes, asphalt running surfaces, poor training, popularity), but one surprisingly controversial cause might be how you strike the ground.

A person can initially make contact with the ground while running in one of three different ways: With the hindfoot-, mid-, or forefoot. Hindfoot (or heel) strikers will first land on heel of their foot, while midfoot strikers land with their entire foot. Forefoot strikers will land on the balls of their feet.     
Heel strikers impact the ground with their heel first; midfoot strikers place their whole foot on the ground; and forefoot strikers land on the balls of their feet (and may also lightly make contact with their heel before pushing off).

Although heel striking is popular with today's runners, (4,5) it seems that forefoot striking is a more natural way to contact the ground while jogging and running. You can test this out by trying to run barefoot. No matter what your running style is when you wear shoes, we all run on the balls of our feet when we run barefoot. Heel striking is only possible in modern running shoes.

As children, we all forefoot strike. Many runners today get out of that natural habit and become heel strikers when they start wearing modern running shoes. 

Since running got started in the late 19th century, running shoes were flat from toe to heel and provided little to no support. Running injuries were largely restricted to athletes until running grew in popularity during the 1960s. (6) This caused a change in the running shoe that attempted to reduce these injuries. The thick, raised heel was one of these innovations.

On the left is the NB Trackster running shoe from the 1960s, which had a minimal sole and no raised heel. On the right is the Nike Shox running shoe, which has a prominent raised heel.

An unfortunate side-effect of the raised heel is that it encourages heel striking while running. (1) Recent research shows that heel strikers experience twice as many injuries as forefoot strikers. (3,5) One reason for the increased rate of injury is the fact that heel striking hinders the complex shock absorption and redistribution system found in the feet, legs, and hips. Instead, heel strikers rely on the padded heel of their running shoes to absorb much of this impact. (7) However, despite this artificial cushion, heel strikers in modern running shoes will experience more impact force than a barefoot runner landing on the balls of their feet (see below). (8,9)
Notice how heel striking (top) creates additional impact force that is missing from forefoot striking (bottom).  This is true even on hard surfaces.

Forefoot striking may do more than just reduce injury, it may also improve running efficiency. A recent Harvard study has found that forefoot strikers expend 5 percent less energy than heel strikers. (10) This small improvement doesn't seem like much, but over the course of the 1.5-mile run, a heel-striking male under 30 years of age could reduce his run time by up to 30 seconds by simply switching to forefoot striking.

This idea is echoed by Ken Mierke, creator of the Evolution Running program, who believes that forefoot striking (and growing up running barefoot) enables distance runners from Africa to dominate marathon races. These runners don't win because they have superior physiological abilities (which are average for every measurable category), but because they have naturally developed a very efficient running style that utilizes forefoot striking.

Personally, I've recently switched from VERY heavy heel striking to forefoot striking with very good results. I used to suffer from chronic shin splints, as well as knee and hip pain. However, since I transitioned to forefoot striking those pains have disappeared. I've also managed to run faster without feeling tired after my runs.

If you want to try forefoot striking, I've found the best way to get started is to run completely barefoot on a clean surface (e.g., gym floor, soccer/football field) for short distances so that you can relearn how to land naturally on the balls of your feet. Then, once you feel comfortable with forefoot striking, pick up some minimalist shoes and start slowly building up your millage in quarter-mile increments over the course of 4-12 weeks.

Be prepared for some pain during the transition: Since heel strikers don't support as much of their weight on their calves as forefoot strikers, calf soreness is all but guaranteed. But, once your calves build up in strength (which might take a while), this pain will go away.

To learn more about forefoot running technique, you can also read any of these books:


  1. This debate has interested me ... and as someone that first looked into Vibram shoes and the advantages of a more natural style that allows your body to provide the cushioning (via your calf), it seemed to make a lot of sense to me. Over the last 6 months I have transitioned to a forefront to mid strike and have enjoyed it - though I definitely feel fatigue in my calves at the end of longer runs.

    After doing some additional research, however, I wonder whether it is just an issue of what portions of the body you are putting stress on ... the knee gets more stress with heel strike and the achilles gets more stress with a forefoot strike.

    Here are a couple of links that I thought were interesting on this issue ...

    Nevertheless, for me the transition to forefront makes sense and I will stick with it (though I have decided to move away from Vibrams). Even if it is not more efficient, I am convinced it is a better workout.

  2. I've also been interested in this debate. I know from my own experience that switching from heel to forefoot striking has reduced my injuries and made it easier to complete my runs without feeling as tired. But the transition hasn't been simple, as I still experience calf and Achilles tendon soreness every now and again.

    Shoes are a different matter. I have a pair of Vibram Bikila LS minimalist running shoes, and I do like them, but I've been wondering if humans are actually designed to run barefoot on the artificial and hard surfaces we find today. I have noticed a HUGE difference when I run cross-country (a.k.a., on grass and dirt) and when I run with the same shoes on surfaces such as concrete and asphalt. So I'm currently trying to find a pair of minimalist running shoes that provide the ground feedback of the Vibrams while also providing the feel of running off-road.

    And thanks for the links! They were very interesting.

  3. More research is coming out about the benefits of forefoot or mid foot running. Three is less "braking effect" on the body when the heel strikes and less impact. But care should be taken when making any changes to running gait. Sports physiotherpist explains the pros and cons and the benefit of getting a video of your gait.For more information about Best Achilles Tendonitis Shoes visit our site.

  4. Since running began in the late nineteenth century, running shoes were level from toe to heel and gave practically zero backing. Running wounds were to a great extent confined to competitors until running developed in prevalence amid the 1960s. (6) This created an adjustment in the running shoe that endeavored to decrease these wounds. The thick, raised heel was one of these developments.

    Sandra J. Hughes