New research shows that landing on your forefoot while running makes you nearly 2.5% more efficient and can reduce injuries by up to 50%.
I spend a lot time writing about running shoes. I’m not what you’d call a “big fan” of the modern, traditional shoe. Even though I am not a barefoot runner (I prefer a minimalist shoe without a heel lift), people who run barefoot usually run with proper form. Not always, but most of the time they have to by necessity. I truly believe people who heel strike are just begging to get injured, and if you heel strike in your bare feet – let me just call a doctor for you right now.
Recently some new research was released by Dr. Daniel Lieberman, who is leading the charge in the growing field of research that supports barefoot running. It stops short of declaring barefoot running the way to go, but it does touch on some things near and dear to us. He researched a college cross-country team and concluded that “runners who habitually rearfoot strike have significantly higher rates of repetitive stress injury than those who mostly forefoot strike”. He also noted that “those who habitually rearfoot strike had approximately twice the rate of repetitive stress injuries than those who habitually forefoot strike”.
I would really like to emphasize those statements:
A very well-known Harvard PhD, who specializes in human biology, has run a series of studies that have shown injuries to occur twice as often in runners who heel strike.
That is some seriously exciting news.
I’ve always said that forefoot striking is integral to good running form – and good running form is integral to staying injury-free. The entire point of learning good form is to minimize the forces you punish your body with as you run. No matter what you do, you should be smart and always protect yourself and learn to listen to your body. But, running on your forefeet gives you the best chance to stay injury-free.
There is one other thing that needs clarified. The “running on the forefoot causes 2x fewer injuries” claim is specifically referring to what’s known as a repetitive stress injury. Luckily, this encompasses many of the common running injuries that people get. Think stress fractures, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, IT band syndrome, etc.
These are all injuries that develop over time, due to the toll that the constant pounding takes on your lower body. It doesn’t account for freak injuries and accidents, like torn knee ligaments from a misstep, stab wounds from stepping on a piece of glass, or a sprained ankle you got slipping off of a curb. I think that’s good, because his numbers aren’t skewed by injuries that are complete chance.
The only thing that is not clear is if he accounted for the body types and existing ailments of the runners. For example, Runner X has scoliosis, which angled his hips, which means his left leg is a tiny bit longer than his right. He also has bowed legs. Runner X wears orthotics to correct these issues.
Barefoot running became been a controversial subject the second it gained the tiniest bit of mainstream attention. And it certainly challenges conventional wisdom. But conventional wisdom didn’t work for me. And if you read here often, it probably doesn’t do much for you either. You come to this site to learn about running injuries, running form, or how to stay healthy while running. Dr. Lieberman offers proof that by challenging the information that most people assume is true, we can figure out what truly works.
And there is even more exciting news from the study! If you are a racer – the studies also point out that “runners were 2.41% more economical in the minimal shoe condition when forefoot striking”. This suggests that forefoot striking is considerably more effective when you’re wearing a minimalist shoe. This makes sense, because as I discussed in previous articles, traditional running shoes trick your brain into heel striking. The heel of the shoe literally sticks out so far, that it hits the ground first even when you’re trying to avoid doing so.
A shade under 2.5% doesn’t seem like much, but believe me, it makes a gigantic difference in a distance race. If you usually run a marathon at 8:00 mile pace, that suggests you can take over 5 minutes off of your time! With zero change in effort!
Not a distance runner? Let’s take a look at the 100 meter dash. Let’s say you are world-class fast and can run it in 10.5 seconds. Running it 2.5% more efficiently, with the same effort would cut your time down to about 10.24 seconds. That’s huge.
Football player? We can go there! Let’s say you’re a college football player, trying to improve your draft position at the NFL Scouting Combine. You normally run a 4.4 second 40-yard dash (which is very fast). In minimalist shoes you can run it in about 4.29 seconds. That difference in speed could mean a higher draft pick and an extra million dollars in your pocket.
Here are links to the two new studies:
And to another article that summarizes the two, from Wired: