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Is It Better To Run On Your Toes Or Heels?

Is better to run on your toes or heels? EndurElite Chief Endurance Officer Matt Mosman discusses if there is a clear cut benefit to either method.

Video Transcript:

Should Endurance Athletes Run On Their Toes Or Heels?

Good morning, family of fast, Matt Mosman, the Chief Endurance Officer over at EndurElite. The other day I got a question from one of the family of fast members, Taylor, and he asked, "Is it better to run on your heels or your toes?" Now, this has been a pretty hotly debated topic amongst researchers the last few years, with the advocates of forefoot running saying it will help you be more efficient, run faster and it'll reduce your rate of injuries. While the advocates of the heel striking method say, "No, that's just a bunch of poppycock. There's really no advantage of forefoot running over heel running."

Toe Versus Heel Running: Which Is Better?

So, today what we're going to look at is, if indeed forefoot running is better than heel strike running. Now, how do you quantify if it's better? Well, I'll tell you how, you look at the research and the data, because without that, it's just your personal opinion if one is better than the other. Now, I'm not totally discounting the value of, you know, experience in the field, with your experiences with either forefoot running or heel strike running. But if it works for you, that doesn't necessarily mean it's gonna work for the rest of the population, and this is why we look at the data for answers. So we'll just really look at, real briefly, if running on your forefoot is more efficient, and if running on your forefoot reduces the likelihood of getting injured.

What Does The Research Say About Heel And Toe Running?

So let's look at the first study, and I have it pulled up here in front of me on my computer. This was done at the University of Leon, and what this study aimed to do is analyze the influence of footstrike pattern, aka rear heel striking versus forefoot, on running economy and biomechanical characteristics in sub-elite runners with a similar performance level. Now, here's what they did. They took these 20 runners and they broke'em into two different groups, each consisting of 10 subjects. So, not a huge study but, you know, decent. They put 10 people in a group that had more of the heel strike pattern and then the other 10 that had the forefoot/midfoot patterns, footstrike pattern.

Anthropometric character, anthropometric - that's a tongue twister - characteristics were measured: height, body mass, body mass index, skin fold, circumferences and lengths. Physiological characteristics like VO2 max, anaerobic threshold, running economy. And biomechanical characteristics, contact in flight time, step rate and step length were registered both during incremental and sub-maximal tests on a treadmill. Now, after they did all their researchy [SP] things, this is what they found, or this is what the results were. There were no significant intergroup differences in anthropometrics, VO2 max or anaerobic threshold measures. Rearfoot strikers were 5.4%, 9.3% and 5% more economical than midfoot strikers at sub-maximal speeds. So at 11, 13 and 15 kilometers an hour, although the difference was not significant at 15 kilometers an hour. So, no statistical significance but practical significance.

Step rate and step length were not different between groups, but rearfoot strikers showed longer contact times and shorter flight times than midfoot strikers at all running speeds.

Heel Running Appears To Be More Economical Then Toe Running

And the conclusion that they came up with which may be mind-blowing to you forefoot strikers is, the present study showed that habitually rearfoot striking runners are more economical than midfoot strikers. Footstrike pattern affected both contact and flight times, which may explain the differences in running economy. So, why is this the case that rearfoot strikers were more economical in this study? Well, the researchers thought since they had their heel on the ground longer, they were able to generate more force that led to an increased stride, rate or frequency, and length. So, this study demonstrates that forefoot striking really isn't more economical than rearfoot striking.

Now, truth be told, there are other studies out there that show forefoot striking is about 2.3% more economical than heel striking based when they measured VO2 max at different speeds. But the one caveat with a lot of these studies, is they're very, very short. So anywhere from like three to five minutes of forefoot versus heel strike running. But there are other studies out there that show, yeah, within those first five minutes the person is more economical landing on their forefoot, but as time goes on, and the runners get more fatigued, guess what they start to do? They start to land on their heel a little bit more, and all equals out. So the take home point here is, I think you're more economical on your forefoot for like short duration races, maybe like up to a mile or if you're sprinting, but beyond that, it's really not that more economical. And in fact, based on the study we just discussed, it just may be a little more economical to heel strike because you're gonna be able to generate more force with that method.

So that's kind of that first myth/notion that forefoot running is more economic, and we kind of dismiss that. There's really, you know, no benefit when it comes down in terms of running efficiency that forefoot is better. I'm sorry, all you minimalist shoe lovers. But you know, I'll present some reasons why you may want to switch to forefoot running later on this video, just so I'm not totally discounting it altogether. 

Does Running On Your Toes Minimize Injuries Versus Heel Running?

But anyways, let's look at the next claim about running on your toes versus your heels, and that this is running on your toes/forefoot will reduce the likelihood of getting injured compared to heel running. Again, there's really no strong evidence to support this. Running injuries are actually pretty much the same whether you run on your heels, or whether you run on your forefoot or toes.

Now, why is this? In most cases, it's not due to your running form, it's just due to the repetitive stress of running. You know, how much you're pounded down with each foot strike you're taking, usually is what's leading to these running injuries. Now, I won't delve into all the research about the running injuries of heel versus forefoot because there's a ton of them, all with different conclusions. But for the majority of it, and this is based on a meta-analysis, which is a collection of a bunch of studies researchers analyze, there's no difference in the rates of injuries of heel strike versus forefoot running. So, again, I'm sorry forefoot strikers, doesn't look like there is a benefit there. So, based on all this research, I mean, you pretty much know the conclusion here, there's really no advantage of forefoot running over heel strike running.

When Might It Be A Good Idea To Switch From Heel To Toe Running?

But, that's not to say that you may not want to make the switch from heel to forefoot, and there's one particular running...or reason why. Probably the only reason, in my personal opinion, why I would switch from heel to toe, if you're not already running on your toes, is if you're having a reoccurring injury that's due to running form. Then it may make sense to switch from heel to toe. On the same token too, if you feel like you've plateaued, it may not hurt to try to go to forefoot toe running to make you maybe a little more economical in the shorter distances. 

The Bottom Line On Toe Versus Heel Running

But other than that, the real question I would ask is if you're a heel striker, you're running good, you're not getting injured, you're making progress, you know, is there really a need to switch to forefoot running? I don't think so. I mean, there's a chance you may get injured, who knows. Maybe not. But if you do decide to make the switch, the main thing here too is, you wanna do a slow progression from heel strike to forefoot running. So, you know, wear your regular running shoes at the start of it for your longer, harder runs, and then save like the forefoot/midfoot running technique for your shorter runs, and then slowly transition to more forefoot running if you want to. But again, I don't know if I'd do that if I'm running healthy, I'm not getting injured and I'm running good.

So that is just my two cents on the whole matter of toe versus heel running. I don't think one is really more superior than the other. At the end of the day, it really comes down to what works best for you and what you're running best with. So, if you have a friend who is just absolutely sold on forefoot running, please share this video with them. If you want other videos on endurance training, nutrition and supplementation, subscribe to the EndurElite YouTube channel or head on over to the EndurElite blog at www.endurelite.com. Get social with this on Instagram and our Facebook training and nutrition club page, and until next time, my friends, stay fueled, stay focused, stay fast, and stay informed.

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