Heels Or Toes: What Is The Best Way To Run?


(Photo by Kevin Morris)

I was THAT kid in high school. I could run a 4:30 mile, I was pretty good at soccer too. But I was THAT kid for one reason… I admit it – I was a TOE-RUNNER (cue the horror music!). Teammates laughed and coaches tried to change me. Years later, I’m still a toe runner, although the world of running has changed. With the minimalist running push the last few years, running on your toes (or “forefoot” running) has become popular. But does it make you faster? Injury free? More effiecient? Let’s take a look.

Here’s the basics. About 80% of runners strike the ground with their heel first, termed “rearfoot running”. Another 15% of runners strike the ground with their foot flat, termed “midfoot running”. That leaves a very small group of “forefoot runners”, who run on the balls of their feet.

The reality is almost everyone sprints on their forefoot. It is biomechanically faster, though requiring greater calf and leg strength to maintain. It is also true that when we run barefoot, almost everyone again runs on their toes or forefoot. Recently, the thinking has become that perhaps forefoot running is more natural and modern-day shoes and concrete running have only turned us all into injury-prone, rearfoot runners. “Pose techinique”, “ChiRunning” and Newton running shoes have only fueled this thinking.

So what does the research say…

  • Although, most recreational runners are rearfoot strikers, most studies have found the majority of elite distance runners are forefoot or midfoot strikers (Hasegawa et al 2007). Is it genetics? Is it just that they run faster? Are they more efficient? Well, yes, yes and yes. Muscle strength and structure is probably a factor as is running speed and just pure athleticism. It is hard to ignore that the countries of the world that produce the best distance runners (i.e Kenya) also have a high percentage of barefoot running.
  • During a marathon, fatigue causes the majority of forefoot runners to become midfoot or rearfoot runners (Larsen et al. 2012). In other words, the vast majority of us land on our heels as we get tired. Some researchers claim that this shows that heel running is actually more efficient (easier) and less tiring (Williams & Cavanagh, 1987). Others claim, that easier form doesn’t mean better form.
     
  • There is no evidence that rearfoot runners are injured more or less often than forefoot or midfoot runners. Actually, studies find higher injury rates when a forefoot runner is asked to land on their heels, and vice versa.
  • There is no evidence that minimalist running shoes (i.e. Vibram Five Fingers or Brooks) help prevent injuries more than normal running shoes. The fact is, despite our advances in shoe design and safety, running injury rates have changed little in the last 30 years. In other words, $150 shoes are not the answer!
     
  •  Both types of running cause impact forces on the body, thus potential injury. Rearfoot running is associated with greater immediate impact forces upon striking the ground, particularly around the ankle, However, some studies have found forefoot running may actually produces greater forces up the lower leg.

So a few take home messages:

  • It is true elite runners tend to be forefoot strikers. So, if you are reading this and can run under a 16min 5k (guys) or 20min 5k (girls), beginning the process of gradually converting to a midfoot or forefoot strike may be advisable. But, if that’s not you, think seriously before making a change.
  • If you are a forefoot runner and it is working, stay that way. If you are a rearfoot runner and it is working, stay that way. If you are going to switch, take time. World class runners are not efficient, because they run on their forefoot; they run on their forefoot, because they are efficient. Shoes or lack of shoes will not suddenly make you faster. If you lack the strength, biomechanical efficiency, and conditioning to develop a forefoot strike pattern then the shoe cannot instantly do it for you.

Until next week, run well and run fast… and stay on your toes (or heels)!

Next week: What makes great runners great?
 

Dr. Matthew Mitchell's Bio:

Matthew currently lives in Wellington, Florida and teaches Physiology, Biomechanics and Nutrition at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He completed his graduate studies at the University of Florida, Wake Forest University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. While completing his doctoral work at the University of Florida, he served as Assistant Women’s Soccer Coach. During his tenure, the team won three SEC championship and one NCAA Championship in 1998. Matthew is an avid runner and currently coaches elite youth runners in Florida.

 

Comments

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  • nofinishingkick / 10 Months Ago
  • CoachGCracker / 10 Months Ago
    Toe running ruined my body. I no longer have a bursa sack between my Achilles and heal bone because until college I was a toe runner putting in 75-90 mile weeks. I ran 15:05 for 5k in HS but was injured half my college career and still today I walk and run in some pain. So definitely don't recommend it for distance mid foot strike preferred here
  • nofinishingkick / 10 Months Ago
    Midfoot strike for sure. Its better for running fast times and staying healthy.
  • Chobee_CC_Girl11 / 10 Months Ago
    Tell that to Meb.... He's a big heal striker. Lots of pros are. Multiple studies have been done to show that it makes no difference what stride you use. It's all about what comes natural to an individual and how each person's body works. I am not at all a fan of changing someone's form unless they are dealing with chronic injuries and a different running form may help. I see a bunch of injuries because people get caught up in the minimal fad and think that they have to change they way they run. You'll never see a professional runner wear minimal shoes for their everyday training.
  • nofinishingkick / 10 Months Ago
    Overstiding is the main problem. Pros have inefficiencies too. Most pros land with a midfoot strike and the ones that don't most likely don't overstride. Heel striking is a common sign that someone is overstriding. You don't need minimalist shoes to have your foot land under your body, but a shoe that doesn't have a huge heel makes it easier. A lot of people are getting hurt because they are going from wearing a shoe with a lot of suport to a shoe with little suport. And I am sure pros run in more minimalist shoes everyday.
  • MStony / 10 Months Ago
    I was what you have stated as an elite runner between 1966-74. I primarily ran the 880 (800) and I know that I was a Midfoot-Toe runner, even when running a 6 mile XC race. We had in today's standards, terrible shoes, and I would venture to say, in agreement with you, that the shoes do not make the runner. Also, were their anymore track or XC injuries back then from poor shoes than there are today? I would think that the injuries have come from all of the pavement running today and the emphasis on 5K, 10K 1/2 and full marathons by runners who put in pounding mile after mile with inefficient and insufficient strength, biomechanical efficiency, lack of true training or conditioning and just a lack of the pure athleticism necessary to run.
  • teammitchell / 10 Months Ago
    A lof of great comments by everyone, I really appreciate it. This topic is always one that is controversial.

    MStony - The percentage of running juries has stayed pretty constant over the last 30 years, which says a lot given the "improvement" in running shoe technology. I do think the combination of pavement/sidewalk running and longer races for individualls who are not physically or biomechanically prepared for it are issues.

    nofinishingkink - I agree overstriding is an issue and, you are right, wearing a wrong type of shoe is also an issue. ITB syndrome is a classic example of wrong shoe wearing causign injury. Although I did not talk about it in this article, muscle imbalances/weaknesses and other unique anatomical quirks play a large role.

    Thanks again for everyone comments.
  • daileysk / 10 Months Ago
    "Heel striking is a common sign that someone is overstriding". Really? I guess then that since 90%+ of Boston Marathoners are heel strikers, then it reasons that they are overstriding? Not at all. [By the way, how do you scientifically define "overstriding"?] You can't change someone's natural heal/mid/toe running without a ton of effort and with mixed results. Remember Janet Evens in swimming, the "wind mill" crawl stroke ... ungainly but it worked for a gold medal. Stop trying to change runner's strides and work on the biomechanics, conditioning and strength issues that are noted below.