Distance Debating: Should You Run Heel-First or Toe-First?

Of all fitness enthusiasts and pursuers, no one gets more heated and passionate about the little things than runners. Ask any long-distance runner you like about the best marathon course or type of shoe for your PB (that’s personal best for us mere mortals) and they’ll chew your ear off for hours explaining why their perfect combination of technique, equipment and wellness regime is the only way to reach success. One hotly debated topic in particular is the heel-lead versus toe-lead dispute; or how should your foot strike the ground? Despite it not making a huge impact on your wellbeing and not having a great deal of persuasive evidence to support either position, runners and coaches alike feel very strongly about this subject, so let’s try and work out the best technique for you to try.


According to a new, noteworthy study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, each style of running has advantages and drawbacks, and the right way to run almost certainly depends on what kind of runner you already are. Using motion capture technology, researchers at the Tampere Research Centre of Sports Medicine in Tampere, Finland, determined the running form of 286 young adults who played team sports, all of whom wore normal running shoes. Of these participants, 19 women and four men struck first with their forefeet while striding. This keeps inline with other reports that the overwhelming majority of modern runners, whether male or female, speedy or slow, are heel strikers.


Nonetheless, wellness experts and running coaches have been known to question the wisdom of heel striking, noting that when you’re running in your most natural state (i.e. not wearing shoes) most, albeit not all, humans adopt a forefoot-strike running style. Therefore, enthusiasts draw the conclusion that forefoot striking is the inherently right way for humans to run. That said, if this were so, forefoot striking should lessen the odds of a running-related injury, and so this gave the Finnish researchers an avenue to explore. They matched the 19 forefoot-striking female runners with an equal number of similar female heel strikers, but could not do the same with the four males because the sample size would have been too small.


The results of the study revealed that although many of the women runners jarred their knees, this was especially the case when they landed on their heels. Heel strikers had 16% more force moving through their knee joints than did forefoot strikers, but this does not mean that the forefoot strikers’ legs were immune to force. Those who hit the ground with their forefoot first absorbed the force differently, almost 20% more force moving through their ankles and Achilles’ tendons than in the other runners. According to study leader uha-Pekka Kulmala, a PhD student now at the University of Jyvaskyla, this shows that there is no one invariably right and painless way to run.


However, Mr. Kulmala went on to say that the results imply you might be able to avoid old injuries flaring up if you strategically alter the way you run. If you hit with your heels, you increase your risk of conditions such as patellofemoral stress syndrome, while striking near the ball of your foot while cause you to joly your ankle and Achilles’ tendon, potentially increasing the risk of such injuries as Achilles’ tendinopathy, plantar fasciitis, and stress fractures of the foot. ‘People suffering from knee problems can benefit from forefoot striking,’ Mr. Kulmala advised. ‘Those who have Achilles’ tendon complaints can benefit from rearfoot striking…I think that experienced runners are able to change stride pattern, but non-experienced runners find it more difficult.’

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