Is Forefoot Running Best?Posted on Feb 3rd 2010 3:00PM by Jennifer Fields
It seems as I though I read at least one new article a day singing the praises of forefoot and barefoot running for injury-free miles. As many runners have jumped on the trend, changing their foot strike, their shoes, or foregoing shoes altogether in the pursuit of pain-free runs, I wondered how making these seemingly subtle changes affects the rest of your body. If you change your strike, should you change your shoes and vice versa? Are we all capable of making the leap to barefoot running? And even if we can, does it mean we should?
First of all, it's important to note that there's no one or right way to stride, said Bryan Whitesides, runner and physical therapist in Colorado who founded the Web site, InjuredRunner.com. That seems to contradict a big movement out there that is basically telling you that everything you know about running is wrong. For example, a new study from Harvard found that people who ran barefoot or with minimal shoes tend to land on their feet in a way that avoids a jarring impact, fueling the argument that forefoot and barefoot running is the way to go.
"The Harvard study should be commended as a good epidemiologic study comparing cultural running differences, but it is not a biomechanical analysis that can make any conclusions on injury rates," said Whitesides, who pointed out that Daniel Leiberman, the lead study author, is an anthropologist, not a biomechanist. "Interestingly, the graphs they present demonstrating the impact forces with heel striking while wearing shoes, heel striking without shoes and forefoot running without shoes all have the same peak force (2.4x body weight)," he said. "Forefoot runners get injured just like heel strikers do. The injury location may be different, but they do get injured."
While it does seem that most elite runners are forefoot strikers, that doesn't mean elite runners don't get injured because of their foot strike. It also doesn't mean that slower running speeds are due to heel striking or that you'll run faster if you change your foot strike. "There is a speed component to forefoot running," said Whitesides, who highlights a crucial caveat that seems to be missing from all the barefoot/forefoot running hoopla. "If your athletic ability and goals are such that running faster than an eight-minute mile is realistic, then it is definitely worth spending some time transitioning to becoming more of a forefoot runner," he said.
If running a sub-eight-minute mile is achievable and you want to transition to forefoot running, then you absolutely should, but not without changing your shoes. Whitesides recommends a shoe with a lower heel over traditional running shoes with reinforced heels. "Any motion control shoe will be too bulky -- either a cushioning type shoe or a racing flat is a good choice," he said. "This helps avoid heel strike without forcing you to run too much on your toes."
However, and this is an important however, if your pace is slower than an eight-minute mile, it will be difficult for you to transition to forefoot running, and, contrary to all of the claims about the benefits of forefoot running, that's not necessarily a bad thing. "[A heel strike] is the most natural, efficient movement pattern for slower speeds. In many ways, jogging is like fast walking where a heel strike is the natural pattern," he said. In that case, a good quality traditional running shoe is the way to go.
As for barefoot running, it's obviously not for the joggers among us, and even for those who are already speedy, forefoot runners, it requires a good amount of strength and athletic ability. "We read in awe about the legendary barefoot runners who glide over rocky terrain like gazelles and have visions of effortlessly gliding over the landscape in similar fashion," said Whitesides. "However, you have to remember that they have been running like that since they were two years old -- and even most of them have opted for some type of cushioning." If you're going to give a try, Whitesides encourages runners to be able to jump rope on one foot at least 50 times before trying barefoot or forefoot running. "When you meet this strength level experiment with running barefoot on a grass field or running track," he said.
The trend in forefoot and barefoot is only going to gain more traction, particularly with a powerful marketing machine behind it. Before you jump on board, be sure you are the right type of athlete for it and are wearing the right shoes to make this running style pay off for you.
Read about Newton running shoes, which are designed for forefoot running.