By Matt Bushell
The publishing of the book ‘Born to run’ by Christopher McDougall propelled the barefoot movement and minimalist shoes into the popular running world around 2009. And while the subject tends not to be as all-consuming as it once was, it’s left behind a question that we hear regularly from both experienced and aspiring runners; ‘should I run with a forefoot or rearfoot strike?’.
Foot strike can be broken into 3 main categories; rearfoot, where your heel contacts the ground first, midfoot, where you contact the ground with a near flat foot and finally forefoot, where the ball of the foot touches the ground with the heel noticeably raised. Foot strike is variable in all runners and in general, running slowly will lend itself to more of a heel/midfoot strike. As pace increases, we move through to forefoot striking during sprinting. Similarly, hills often demand heel striking on descents and forefoot striking on climbs.
When it comes to running, neither of these styles is categorically correct or incorrect. As with any movement in the human body, changes in pattern equal changes in demand on different structures. Each of these running styles is achievable for most people, but they require your body to deal with different forces so if you’re thinking of changing your running style, it’s best to prepare your body for the changes (generally through a strength and conditioning program) before you try and do too much volume (distance) with your new running style.
Rearfoot striking is by and large the most common running style you’ll observe in the casual or weekend warrior running groups. It typically involves a longer stride length, a slower turn-over of your legs (less steps for an equivalent pace) and some cushy shoes to protect your heels (Ahn et al. 2014).
The greatest detractor of the rearfoot striking style from an efficiency perspective is the fact that your foot contacts the ground a long way in front of your centre of mass which creates a braking force (Lierberman et al. 2015). Each time your heel strikes in front of your centre of mass, you lose some of your forward momentum and you need to expend more energy on your next push off to maintain your pace.
In terms of forces, rear root striking increases the load on the hip and knee. Your quadriceps, hamstrings and your tibialis anterior (the small muscle on the front of your shin) then have to deal with increased work loads.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll combine both midfoot and forefoot striking effects below. Generally speaking, they’ll have similar effects in terms of structures loaded with load increased in the forefoot striking compared to midfoot.
Forefoot striking generally requires an increase in cadence (footsteps per minute) for the same velocity as rearfoot striking. This increase shortens your stride length slightly and brings your ground contact point back underneath your body. This has the positive effect of reducing the braking forces mentioned earlier (Lieberman et al. 2015).
Landing with a mid or forefoot strike increases the load on the ankle and foot complex and asks more of your calf and achilles tendon (Ahn et al. 2014, Almonroeder et al. 2013). It will also normally reduce your vertical impact loading rate. This means the impact force of your foot hitting the ground is spread over a greater time thereby reducing the magnitude of load your body has to deal with at any one time.
During the peak popularity of the barefoot/forefoot striking movement, there was a thought that it may reduce injury rates. After studying runners over longer periods of time, we now know injury rates are similar regardless of which style of foot strike you employ (Zhou & Ugbolue 2019). Where we do see a possible increase in injury rates is when people attempt to change their running style. This is likely due to increased demand on the body in a way that it is not accustomed to.
Running style is individual and large or sudden changes tend to have a negative impact on our body. However, sometimes changing your running style slightly can help to improve speed, increase endurance or overcome niggly injuries. If you’re looking to make a change in running style, or have an injury you’d like to address, your physio can help to provide a considered approach to your running frequency, volume, intensity and provide you with a complimentary strength program to ensure your body is up to the new challenges.
Ahn, A., Brayton, C., Bhatia, T., & Martin, P. (2014). Muscle activity and kinematics of forefoot and rearfoot strike runners. Journal of Sport and Health Science 3 (2), pg 102-112.
Almonroeder, T., Willson, J. D., & Kernozek, T. W. (2013). The effect of foot strike pattern on achilles tendon load during running. Annals of Biomedical Engineering 41, 1758-1766.
Lieberman, D. E., Warrener, A. G., Wang, J., & Castillo, E. R. (2015). Effects of stride frequency and foot position at landing on braking force, hip torque, impact peak force and the metabolic cost of running in humans. Journal of Experimental Biology 218 (21), 3406-3414.
Zhou, H., & Ugbolue, U. C. (2019). Is There a Relationship Between Strike Pattern and Injury During Running: A Review. Physical Activity and Health, 3(1), 127–134.