Should I run heel first, or forefoot first?

While listening to music and jogging, a coach or a runner came over, looked up and down and said, “You can’t run with your heels on the ground! This hurts your knees, and you run slowly. You should…”

Most people jog with their shoes on their heels first. Where does the persuasion to change the landing method come from? Can the new running posture avoid pain and improve performance?

Heel-first running posture丨Photo courtesy of the author

Pain reduction, strengthening yourself or soles?

Many people are tempted to change their posture because everyone says “avoiding heel-first landing can reduce pain.” The popularity of this statement began in 2010 when “Born to Run” became a global hit. A legend in the book abandoned the traditional running shoes and changed from the heel to the “barefoot running” position where the forefoot first landed, saying goodbye to the pain.

This story made many followers change their heel-first running posture and put on thin-soled running shoes less than 4 mm thick to exercise their legs and feet against impact . During that time, the famous Italian manufacturer Vibram’s barefoot five-toed running shoes were popular, and they were promoted to help develop a forefoot-first running posture and “effectively strengthen muscles or reduce injuries.”

Thin-soled running shoes that help the forefoot to land first丨vibram

At the same time, there is another strategy for preventing injuries in the running shoe market: using extremely thick soles to improve shock absorption. In recent years, heels with a thickness of nearly 4 cm have even appeared. These shoes provide protection for runners who land on the heel first, and many people retain their accustomed running posture.

Is it better to put the forefoot on the ground first and train yourself to be reinforced and iron bones, or keep the heel first and use the sole to protect the legs and feet? Different manufacturers have their own propaganda directions. Before choosing, take a look at how current scientific research evaluates the impact of running posture on injury and performance (only long-distance running is discussed, sprinting posture is completely different).

Thick-soled running shoes that can hit the ground heel first丨nike

Change your running posture, can you say goodbye to the pain?

Most runners suffer from major or minor injuries, with 79% of runners injuring their legs and feet every year, with the most common areas being the calves, feet and knees.

A study comparing the injuries of runners with two landing styles found that compared to heel first landing (heel running), people who landed on the sole of the foot or forefoot first (non-heel running) had fewer injuries. But this is not enough to prove that the landing position is the cause of the injury. It is also necessary to see whether switching from heel running to non-heel running can reduce the pain.

Decreased stress on the knee joint

After switching from heel to non-heel running, the stride length of the runners did not change significantly, and the ground impact force on the body and the pressure on the knee joint decreased.

In one study, people with chronic knee pain who were accustomed to heel runners switched to non-heel runners had less knee and front calf pain. But the study involved only eight people, and the runners also changed other running techniques besides how they landed.

Therefore, it can only be speculated from the available research that people with knee pain may benefit from avoiding heel running. 


Increased pressure on the ankle

While knee joint stress is reduced, non-heel running increases stress on the foot, Achilles tendon, and some calf muscles. The above 8 people experienced calf soreness when running on non-heel, and 2 of them developed ankle pain one month later.

In addition, many people wear thin-soled shoes to help change their running style, which increases the likelihood of bone marrow edema, pain, and injury in the feet. The Vibram maker was sued in 2012 for claims that “shoes can effectively build muscles or reduce injuries” and were ordered to pay $3.75 million in damages.

Switching from using sole cushioning to relying on the ankle, the change in landing pattern will affect the entire lower body from the bottom up. People who are accustomed to heel runners switch to non-heel runners and may experience less knee pain and more exercise in their ankles. However, some people’s ankles can’t bear the added pressure, but they add pain.

Running posture with forefoot first on the ground丨Photo courtesy of the author

Does the running form determine the speed, or does the speed affect the running form?

Some runners have no pain, just seeing the world’s top distance runners use non-heel runs more often, so they change their position to run faster. Some running coaches also believe that the heel-first landing will generate a backward force and have a braking effect, while non-heel running can make more full use of the elasticity of the tendons and fascia, and run more labor-saving (highly economical).

However, in the actual measurement, the ground reaction force of the two running postures is not significantly different in the front and rear directions , that is, there is no braking effect that wastes energy. After getting used to a certain running method, the oxygen consumption representing running economy is not affected by the landing method.

Some runners feel that they run more effortlessly after switching from traditional running shoes to barefoot shoes. But it’s not just a change in landing style. Lighter running shoes and other changes in running posture can improve running economy.

If everything else remains the same, simply switching from heel running to non-heel running reduces running economy at low and medium speeds (below 12.6 km/h), and does not change at high speeds (14.0 km/h). Therefore, not only will it not be more labor-saving when you just change your running posture, but it may be more labor-intensive. As for whether there will be a reversal after adaptation, there is no research conclusion yet.

Conversely, when switching from non-heel running to heel running, there was no significant change in the degree of effort at low, medium and high speed.

Therefore, people who are accustomed to heel running change to non-heel running in order to improve their running performance, which may be ineffective or slow in a short period of time, and may delay training due to increased fatigue and pain. The effect of long-term adaptation is still unclear.

As for the non-heel running position of the top runners, it may be the result of running fast and good use of this running position to absorb shock, not the reason of running fast.

Running posture with full feet on the ground丨Photo courtesy of the author

You have to listen to your own running style

Optimal running form depends on each individual’s anatomy, tendon strength, exertion pattern, and injury history, which is related to years of shoe and exercise habits, not everyone.

For people who are accustomed to heel runners, the existing research can neither prove that there are advantages or disadvantages to switching to non-heel running. So, until new groundbreaking research comes along, heel runners without pain don’t have to force themselves to change positions.

If you simply want to try a new landing style, or try non-heel running to relieve knee pain, you need to do enough pre-training to get the ankle used to a stronger impact, and then transition at a very slow pace (especially fast or heavy runners). It is very easy to get injured if you change directly to the thin-soled running shoes and change to the position where the forefoot first touches the ground.

If you want to improve your running performance, adding strength training and plyometric training (such as jumping) is safer than forcing a change of landing pattern, and can improve running economy. Among them, the strengthening of muscle strength around the ankle can refer to the following video: 

The sound is slightly lower, if you want to amplify the system sound, remember to tune it back | Photographed by the author


[1] Anderson LM, Bonanno DR, Hart HF, et al. What are the Benefits and Risks Associated with Changing Foot Strike Pattern During Running? A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Injury, Running Economy, and Biomechanics. Sports Med. 2020 ;50(5):885-917.

[2] Hall JP, Barton C, Jones PR, et al. The biomechanical differences between barefoot and shod distance running: a systematic review and preliminary meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2013;43(12):1335-1353.

[3] Roper JL, Harding EM, Doerfler D, et al. The effects of gait retraining in runners with patellofemoral pain: A randomized trial. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2016;35:14-22.

Author: Dai Tianyi

Edit: odette

 an AI 

Healthy heel runners, don’t embarrass yourself yet

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