I hear a lot of interesting claims at races. Sometimes I chime in, other times I don’t. Most recently, I
overheard someone at a race telling someone else that heel striking is bad. He told her that she needed to consider forefoot running. And that it would reduce her risk of injury. It’s the way we were designed to run. It would make her faster. And, there’s even shoes that can help you become a forefoot runner. Sounds pretty nice. But is it true?
What is Forefoot Running
The forefoot refers to the front of the foot. Forefoot running refers to landing and maintaining your balance on the front of your foot. Watch Haile’s foot strike in this video. You can see his initial contact is towards the front of the foot.
Haile is one of the greatest distance runners of all time. So now you may be thinking you need to mimic him. Do what successful people are doing, right?
What Is Heel Striking
Heel striking is what it sounds like: making initial contact with the heel instead of the front of the foot. Here’s a video of another great elite runner. Notice that his initial contact is with the heel in contrast to Haile’s foot strike occurring on the front of the foot.
Haile and Meb are both very accomplished elite runners. One is a forefoot runner while the other is a heel striker. It’s true that Haile is considered to be a more accomplished runner. However, is it from the way his foot strikes the ground?
The Truth About Forefoot Running
Contrary to what you may hear others saying, the injury rate is not reduced with forefoot running. Researchers have shown that impact forces are significantly less with forefoot running. However, this has not resulted in a decrease in injury rates.
Forefoot running loads the achilles tendon, which is designed to accept this load. It’s our strongest tendon and designed to withstand heavy loads. However, things have changed since its original design.
- We now spend a lot of time on hard surfaces
- We also spend a lot of time in shoes
- Many are carrying extra weight
The first two have resulted in a shortening and weakening of the tendon. The 3rd item puts extra stress on the tendon. A bad combination when you add the high impact forces of running.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to avoid the forefoot. Some are naturally forefoot strikers with achilles tendons that are properly suited for this type of loading.
So Does Foot Position at Contact Even Matter?
No, but distance between foot contact and the body does. Think stride length.
As you saw in the videos above, foot strike at ground contact is very different for those elite runners. Watch the elite runners at the next large race you attend. You’ll find elite runners who are forefoot strikers as well as heel strikers.
Now, go back and watch the videos again. This time, look at where Haile’s and Meb’s feet lands in relation to their body.
Distance from the body is what matters.
Now, take a look at me in this video.
You can see in the video that I am heel striking, which we determined is okay. Contrast this to Meb’s stride though. Take note of where my heel is striking in relation to my body. My foot strike is much farther away from my body as compared to Meb. This is bad (and you can hear my dog in the background agreeing with that). Watch how I really reach out away from my body. Not only is it causing a breaking effect to slow me down, it’s also putting excessive loads through my joints.
Note: Before I get the comments critiquing my form, this isn’t my normal gait pattern. I am a heel striker, but I exaggerated the stride length to demonstrate overstriding.
Still Interested in Being a Forefoot Striker?
If you’re not currently a forefoot striker and still want to be, don’t worry. You can train yourself to run on the forefoot. However, it needs to be a slow process. The achilles tendon and lower leg muscles need to adjust to the change in loading. This isn’t a matter of days or weeks. This can take up to a year or even more. Be prepared and patient with the process. Soft tissue remodeling can be a long process. It’s a good idea to start with strengthening and lengthening of the muscles and tendons in the lower leg, specifically the achilles tendon.
And then slowly add in short runs or drills where you practice running on the forefoot. If you do the opposite of those bolded words, you’re asking for an injury.
What about running barefoot? You may have heard from barefoot running proponents that if you run barefoot you can become a forefoot runner. Impact is softer with the forefoot strike so you’ll naturally convert to forefoot running when barefoot. Sounds logical, right? Unfortunately, it’s not true. If you’re a heel striker, like myself, go out and try running barefoot. You don’t naturally convert over to the forefoot. You’ll need to practice. And don’t forget the slowly and short from above!
Is forefoot running the best way to run? Not necessarily.
Is it okay to be a heel striker? Yes.
Forefoot runners tend to naturally land closer to the body than heel strikers. However, if you are a heel striker, and tend to overstride, you can train yourself to land closer to your body.
If you are a heel striker, have someone take a look at your stride. Make the changes to the stride length if you need it. Some need to make adjustments, others don’t.
Heel strikers can change to become forefoot runners. However, be prepared for the process of getting the muscles and tendons used to the change in loading.
Want some more details on biomechanics, running shoes or running barefoot? Check out our running shoe series and running shoes ebook.
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