You may have a job and family that keeps you on your toes, but when it comes to running, you land hard on your heels. Running on the fronts of your feet, near the toes, and then putting down your heels is the new "in" way to strike the ground when you run. Part of the buzz behind barefoot or minimalist running is that it encourages this front-of-the-foot strike, which potentially discourages injury and increases efficiency. Front-foot striking has many benefits but may not be right for everyone.
Approximately 79 percent of runners experience injury in a given year, reports a study in “Current Sports Medicine Reports” in 2012. You might consider switching to a front-foot strike to keep yourself out of this statistic. A study published in the journal “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise” in July 2012 studied 52 runners and found that rear-foot strikers had approximately twice the rate of repetitive stress injuries than runners who habitually landed at the front of their foot.
Front-foot running is less jarring than when you hit with the heel, sending fewer shock waves up your kinetic chain. The muscles and connective tissue of your ankles, knees, hips and back experience less overall wear and tear. Research by Daniel E. Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, reveals that runners who wear shoes and heel strike experience about seven times more impact forces than barefoot forefoot runners.
Forefoot striking may also increase efficiency. When going fast, you tend to naturally shift to a forefoot strike. Studies as early as the one published in “Acta Physiologica Scandinavica” in 1995 found that front-foot striking is one of the best ways for middle distance runners and sprinters to attain higher speeds. In the August 2007 issue of the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,” researchers observed that during a half marathon, runners who ran more to the front of their foot tended to be faster than rear-foot strikers. Speed may be improved because your foot spends less time on the ground, which creates a braking effect.
Changing your foot strike is no easy feat. Switching to the trendy barefoot or minimalist shoes is often recommended as a way to encourage your strike to change. But researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that when runners switched to barefoot or minimalist shoes, they did not automatically change from a heel runner to a front-foot runner. After more than two years of running with minimalist shoes, one-third of the participants in the study continued to run with a heel-striking pattern. Heel striking without the cushion of modern, supportive running shoes can be even more injurious. If you do want to try switching your strike, make the change gradually. Your efforts should focus on form, and you may need to condition your muscles, particularly your calves, to work in new ways. If you are a distance runner, changing your foot strike may not be necessary. At endurance running speeds, runners naturally tend to strike more with a midfoot or heel strike, noted a study of Kenyan runners published in “PLoS One” in 2013. Rodger Kram of the University of Colorado told the "New York Times" in 2012 that analysis of elite distance runners reveal that front-foot striking is not the norm nor always more efficient. He goes on to note that no "best" way to run long distances exists.
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Accuracy of Self-Reported Foot Strike Patterns and Loading Rates Associated with Traditional and Minimalist Running Shoes
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: Foot strike and Injury Rates in Endurance Runners: A Retrospective Study
- Current Sports Medicine Reports: Barefoot Running: Biomechanics and Implications for Running Injuries
- Acta Physiologica Scandinavica: Metabolic and Mechanical Aspects of Foot Landing Type, Forefoot and Rearfoot Strike, in Human Running
- PLoS One: Variation in Foot Strike Patterns During Running Among Habitually Barefoot Populations
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Foot Strike Patterns of Runners at the 15-km Point During an Elite-Level Half Marathon
- The New York Times: Myths of Running: Forefoot, Barefoot and Otherwise
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Accuracy of Self-Reported Footstrike Patterns and Loading Rates Associated with Traditional and Minimalist Running Shoes
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.