Foot Strike Follies: New Study Suggests Heel Striking is Better, Or Does It?

I spent much of yesterday in a meeting with Merrell footwear that was attended by several running biomechanics experts. One of the things we all lamented was the laser focus on foot strike that has arisen from the barefoot running debate and resulting discussions about what type of running form is best. Running form seems to have become synonymous with foot strike, and forefoot striking seems to have become synonymous with barefoot running. This frustrates me as there is much more to running form than foot strike, and I think there are quite possibly more important aspects of running form that are influenced by running barefoot than where the foot makes initial contact.

After the meeting yesterday I returned to my hotel room to find a bunch of references to an article that had just been published on the New York Times Well Blog. The article was titled “Is Barefoot-Style Running Best? New Studies Cast Doubt” and was accompanied by a giant photo of the Vibram Fivefingers shoes (which, strangely, have also become synonymous with barefoot running – they are not!). The article went on to discuss a study from UMass published online last month at the Journal of Applied Physiology.

The study was an interesting one. They took two groups of runners – 19 habitual RF and 18 habitual FF runners – and compared their running economy using their habitual foot strike and the reversed, non-habitual foot strike at three different speeds (3.0, 3.5, and 4.0 m/s). Foot strike was classified in the lab using both video and force parameters, and this is where one important point needs to be made. Because true forefoot strikers were difficult to find, their “forefoot” group actually consisted of 14 midfoot strikers and only four true forefoot strikers. Keep that in mind when interpreting the results – it was more a comparison between midfoot and heel than forefoot and heel. All subjects ran in the same New Balance racing flats.

Now, the NY Times reported the results as follows:

“In the end, this data showed that heel-striking was the more physiologically economical running form, by a considerable margin. Heel strikers used less oxygen to run at the same pace as forefoot strikers, and many of the forefoot strikers used less oxygen — meaning they were more economical — when they switched form to land first with their heels.”

Now, here’s what the what the authors of the study report in the text of the paper:

“We found no difference in rates of oxygen consumption or relative contribution of carbohydrate oxidation to total energy expenditure between habitual RF and FF runners performing their habitual footstrike pattern at a slow, medium, and fast speed.”

So, when runners used their usual foot strike pattern, there was actually no difference in running economy between the groups. No difference at any of the three speeds tested. This result is consistent with other studies that have compared economy between heel and forefoot strikers. They also found no statistically significant difference in carbohydrate oxidation between the two groups at any of the speeds tested, though there was a trend for “forefoot” strikers to burn more carbs. This is quite different from what was reported in the Times.

When they asked the runners to run with the opposite foot strike, they found the following:

“When performing the alternative footstrike pattern, FF running resulted in greater rates of oxygen consumption than RF running in the RF group at the slow and medium speeds and across groups at the fast speed.”

So, habitual heel strikers got less economical when they ran with a forefoot strike at the slow and medium speeds. No real surprise there as it was a novel pattern requiring greater use of the plantarflexor muscles. If I’m interpreting the results presented in their Figure 2 correctly, the forefoot strikers were equally economical when running with either foot strike at any of the speeds. It was only when the foot strike groups were combined that rearfoot striking was more economical at the fast speed. Carb usage was only significantly increased when the rearfoot strikers switched to a forefoot strike at the slowest speed.

One of the cool things about this study is that they provided data on individual changes. Group means don’t always provide a good picture of the magnitude of change that can occur at an individual level. What they found was that economy for rearfoot strikers was better when rearfoot striking for almost all individuals at the sow and medium speeds, and for roughly 2/3 of individuals at the fast speed. “Forefoot” strikers were split roughly 50-50 at the slow speed in terms of whether rearfoot or forefoot was more economical, but more tended to do better with a rearfoot strike at the higher speed. Similarly, about 75% of the habitual RF strikers tended to burn less carb with a rearfoot strike at all speeds (slightly less at the fastest), whereas patterns for the forefoot strikers were more evenly split.

How would I interpret all of this?

1. If you are a heel striker, switching to a forefoot strike will likely lead to reduced economy, at least until you become used to the new pattern. But, it’s not likely that you will become more economical with a forefoot strike even with practice (remember, there was no significant difference between habitual rearfoot and “forefoot” strikers when using their habitual foot strike). Economy is probably not a great reason heel strikers to mess around with their foot strike.

2. If you are a midfoot striker, as were most in this study, it probably doesn’t matter much what your foot is doing. Forefoot and heel strikes are equally economical. This doesn’t surprise me much since a midfoot strike is kind of a middle ground between forefoot an heel striking (in fact, my guess would be that they might use multiple foot strike types when they run).

3. There was a tendency for forefoot strikers to burn more carbs. The authors reference a paper I published which showed that midfoot and forefoot strikers tend to switch to a heel strike late in a marathon. Thus, if your plan is to race a marathon, there may be an advantage to a heel strike (a mild heel strike I’d guess).

4. This study was conducted on a treadmill, so we do have to be careful about extrapolating the results to a non-compliant, harder surface like a road.

Now, one part of this study that I haven’t mentioned up to this point is that the authors also measured some kinematic variables. Two of the variables they measured were stride length and stride rate. The focus of the study was to compare running economy, but my guess is that most people considering switching foot strike are doing so not to make themselves more economical, but do so because they are dealing with some kind of injury and think that a switch might help. People generally don’t take up barefoot running out of a desire to race faster, they do so because they either enjoy it or have found that running in shoes just does not work for them. When groups were combined, they found that rearfoot strikers tended to take longer and slower strides (about 2% longer, and 2% slower). Previous research has shown that an increase in stride rate of even just 5-10% can reduce loading on the knee and hip (again emphasizing here that there’s more to running form than just foot strike!). So, there my be a tradeoff whereby a forefoot strike may at times be less economical for some individuals, but they may benefit in other ways such as via a shorter, quicker stride with reduced loading of the knee/hip (but possibly increased loading of the foot and ankle).

As always, I come back to the individual. If you’re a forefoot striker, there’s probably not a big benefit to trying something else except maybe if you plan to race a marathon or if you have injury issues that can be linked to your contact style (foot, ankle, calf problems perhaps). If you are a rearfoot striker, you’re probably not going to become an elite runner by switching your foot strike. You may, however, shorten your stride up a bit which could be good for other reasons (e.g., reduced loading). Consider the tradeoffs, and figure out what’s best for you and your needs.

About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. tdhurst says:

    I’d be interested in longer term studies that discuss injury rate before I believe this. Too many “normal”, heel strikers seem to have knee or hip surgeries, while the data for mid or forefoot strikers major injury rates over time just aren’t available yet.

    There’s a lot more to running than speed, carb burn and mechanical efficiency.

    • Pete Larson says:

      I think the pattern that is emerging is that short stride, forefoot strike may be beneficial for reducing loading of the knee and hip, but may increase loading of the foot and ankle. So, it’s a matter of knowing where you tend to have trouble and playing with form and footwear accordingly. If you look at historical patterns from the 1970’s, we basically saw a shift in injury prevalence from the Achilles to the knee as the decade went on and shoe got bigger and more cushioned. This also seems to support the idea that more minimal shoes put the ankle and foot at greater risk, but that the knee may be better off.
      Sent from my iPad

      • tdhurst says:

        Excellent point. I suppose we’ll have to wait a few years before there’s enough data to prove that either way.

  2. Cody R. says:

    changing strikes makes muscles different muscles work other ways that they’re not used to, not surprised that one can become “less efficient” right after changing, though with more time spent in the other form, makes sense to become more efficient with more strength

  3. Zedric Dimalanta says:

    Often missing in any mainstream blog discussion (such as the one in the NY Times Well blog) is a sense of a larger context for why individuals choose to run with a particular footstrike. When I switched to being primarily a forefoot/midfoot striker last year, I already knew based on months of researching the topic that (a) I would likely be slower, perhaps even significantly, at least initially; (b) I would likely be expending more energy over the same distance as I would be heelstriking; and (c) I stood a very good chance of minimizing my running-related knee and hip injuries.

    I didn’t mind point (a) because at this point in my life, I’m not actively looking to set new PRs every time I run, I actually wanted point (b) because at the time of the footstrike change, I had a goal of losing a significant amount of weight, and as for point (c), that’s the main reason I had for deciding on the footstrike change.

    As with a lot of things, context, and understanding that context, is key, and I think some of the discussion of study findings (such as in the linked NY Times blog) tend to gloss over the importance of that.

    • Nicholas Eaton says:

      @Zedric: I agree with Pete. This perfectly summarizes my reasons for changing up my stride and foot-strike.

      @Pete: You wrote: “Vibram Fivefingers shoes (which, strangely, have also become synonymous with barefoot running – they are not!)”. The article you cited says (abstract and conclusions) “The Fivefingers model seems to be effective in imitating the barefoot conditions while providing a small amount of protection”. Also, “lower limb kinematics with VF was similar to barefoot running…”, and “peak vertical force at the impact was significantly lower in VF compared to standard shod condition… and much closer to barefoot running”. For most of the variables which the authors found where differences existed between VFs and barefoot, VFs seemed to fall right between barefoot and traditional shoes.

      Considering that most traditionally shod runners that switch to VFFs or similar minimalist shoes do so with Zedric’s points in mind, I think it’s quite understandable, and in many ways apt, why VFFs have become synonymous with barefoot. Your source seems to highlight the similarities, rather than the differences.

      • Pete Larson says:

        My point in citing that study was to show that although there were variables where barefoot and VFFs were similar, there were also several where barefoot was different than both shod conditions. I view VFFs as intermediate between traditional and barefoot, not as synonymous with barefoot. I also have foot strike data of my own supporting this, need to publish it.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Excellent comment!

    • Will Musto says:

      Spot on, Zedric. I changed my footstrike in HS–junior year, during XC season–and the reason wasn’t economics (although I knew that longterm it was more economical), but rather health. I’d had longterm shin splints, and *almost immediately* (except for the whole, you know…calf soreness) those shin issues were reduced, and then, within months, 100% eliminated.

      • Pete Larson says:

        Anterior shin splints is a great case where adjusting foot strike to reduce pain makes sense. Did it for two of my beginner 5k runners and it is amazing how quickly you can make the pain disappear.
        Sent from my iPad

      • Zedric Dimalanta says:

        My experience is similar to yours, in that I don’t think I’ve had a notable case of anterior shin splints since I changed my footstrike pattern. It makes sense from a cursory analysis of the biomechanics of it.

        But again, these things sometimes come with performance trade-offs that one has to “earn back” in a sense—I don’t want to come off as a single-minded forefoot/midfoot evangelist here—and it could be the case that the risk of injury is just being displaced elsewhere on your body. But that’s also what’s so interesting to me about all of this: we just keep learning so much from each other as a community and from the academic institutions who study these things.

        As long as we take the time and effort to understand what we’re reading and trying to do and keep open to new, reliable, and replicable data, I think things can only get better as far as runners becoming more informed about the various factors that can contribute to chronic injuries.

  4. As health has kept me from running, I’ve been watching more people run. Midfoot strike with a short stride seems to be the norm. Odd to see someone overstriding anymore. Feet seem to be under center of mass most of the time. Just anecdotal, unscientific observations from the North Shore of Boston

    • bob baks says:

      People may be paying more attention to foot strike, but many still haven’t gotten the memo about having a faster turnover. I mentioned before that I ran a 5k Saturday. Passed many people who would have done a lot better if they had just increased their cadence. A note to younger, stronger runners: don’t let some old dude pass you because your form isn’t good. Watch Olympic and other top level 5000m and 10,000m races on Youtube and emulate their cadence. And perhaps their arm carriage and posture as well.

      Just gotta mention that the comments on this blog are awesome. Very interesting and supportive.

  5. Amanda Loudin says:

    When I made the switch a couple of years back, it was with injury prevention in mind, not speed. I would say I definitely lost some economy with the initial switch. But today, that has all settled. Most importantly, my body has never felt better. That’s the best reason to make the switch, IF you are someone who has an injury pattern as a heel striker and can’t point to obvious training errors. It is amazing to me how much the coverage of this topic gets garbled, and how much of it focuses on the foot strike and no other factors.

    • tdhurst says:

      Doesn’t matter how fast you run if you’re too injured to do so.

      I switched for the same reason.

    • Zedric Dimalanta says:

      Part of the reason the discourse gets garbled, I think, has to do with the reductionist approach of shoe marketing-speak. There’s a lot of “fudgy” science and over-simplified claims out there about footstrike, even from manufacturers whose products I find useful for me, and they just gain more strength as they’re repeated online like some sort of digital mantra .

  6. FernandoL. says:

    Speed increasing with heel strike? I don´t see it. If you have a look to elite runners, I would say a majority of them use either a midfoot or a forefoot strike. The fact that many of the runners who were supposed to be ff strikers were actually mid foot strikers changes everything in this study. In my opinion, differences between ff and mf strikes are bigger than it is usually said (they are often considered as almost the same thing, when they are not). When I first switched to minimalist shoes, my natural mf strike became a ff one. My calves had problems to face this change. But, with the time, my natural mf strike “came back”…and my calves appreciated it.

    Finally it is really a shame that debate about minimalism is so focused on foot strike in many forums, as Peter metiones. Cadence is more important; and influence in cadence (making it longer) is the “evil” of modern running shoes.

  7. Martijn Jorritsma says:

    My two cents: too much emphasis is put on footstrike. I made “The Change” 2 years ago through the Chi Running book. I started out with the posture excercises, started working with the lean and went from there. The whole time being very aware of landing on the forefoot. After about six months i was running one of my long runs and a man passing me by on his bike commented: why are you running on your toes? A comment that frustrated me at the time, but in reflection proved to be a wake up call.
    I literally “tried” landing on the “best part of the foot” instead of focusing on the most important aspect of my running form: posture.
    Since improving my form (i’m leaning more towards Pose Method atm) I have achieved a much better running efficiency. The best step I have taken is joining the athletics club in my local town and learning new technique drills with a really good trainer.
    Last night I ran 12X400m on the track and I noticed I’m really not paying attention to footstrike at all anymore. It’s much more about posture, cadence and relaxing my body. I did clearly feel (through the soles of my Adipure Gazelles) that I’m now naturally landing on the cushy bit between my forefoot and midfoot, then my heel dips down to the ground and then the soles of my feet roll of the ground again. It sure feels a lot better than pounding down heel first.

  8. bob baks says:

    Tried being more heel strike-y today in a 5k. New PR by over 2 min.! 22:07. Hey, don’t laugh. That’s a big deal for me.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Solid!

      • bob baks says:

        Thanks. Instead of trying to aim for my forefoot, and then letting my heel settle, I tried to land with my whole foot and feel my heel.

        Kinda bummed, because they’ve timed this race for the last couple of years just with a guy and a stopwatch, so I don’t think my result will show up on Athlinks. That’s the only explanation I can think of for not finding results from this race in recent years on Athlinks. Whatever, maybe I would have been faster with a chip.

        • bob baks says:

          21:15 today on a course that was uphill for about 1.5 miles. Chipped this time. Woohoo! No stitch. It’s cool to see that all the long run marathon training has translated to faster times for shorter races.

    • Will Musto says:

      Great job on the PR!

  9. Stephen Boulet says:

    I am curious whether there are any trends in efficiency vs. stride rate, independent of foot strike. I would not expect there to be an ideal stride rate, since people’s legs are not identical pendulums, but who knows.

    I also wonder if efforts to increase stride length at a given stride rate (by stretching, strength training, or what have you) can improve efficiency or conversely can lead to injury.

  10. Really all this proves, in my very humble opinion, is that we tend to polarize discussion and cherry pick points of our arguments. Pete and Sportsscientists.com make the most compelling argument for this. And we should add that if you’re paying attention to footstrike only, you’re marching into a forest/trees perspective.

    For those of us who have coached for a number of years, these studies have almost no bearing on how we do things on the road, track or trails. In general, one doesn’t go about changing things unless there is a need to change something.

    Personally, when Bill Rodgers or Amby Burfoot or Arthur Lydiard suggest that running in the least amount of shoe you’re comfortable in, or in a shoe that allows your foot to move as if barefoot, I’ll take that over something that comes from a lab. Those are the voices that ought to resonate more.

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