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Should I run heel-toe or toe-heel?

Heel strike, mid-foot, toe strike… who knew there were so many ways to run? And how do you know which one’s right for you? We delve into the research to help put your feet on the right track.

Most of us don’t think about what our feet do when we run, beyond putting one in front of the other. But a growing body of researchers are investigating the mechanics of running, and whether there’s a ‘right’ way to do it.

First, let’s break down the mechanics of running. There are three ways people strike the ground: rearfoot, midfoot, or forefoot.

A diagram showing three running styles: one where the heel hits the ground first, one where the mi-foot hits the ground first and the other where the toe hits the ground first.

Rearfoot runners (around 75–80% of people) strike with the heel first, then roll through to the toes.

Midfoot runners (around 20% of people) land on the ball of the foot then bring the heel and toes down.

Forefoot runners (only around 2% of people) also land on the ball of the foot but roll through to the toes without the heel touching the ground[1].

Advocates of toe running (or more accurately, midfoot running) believe that because most of us run on our toes when barefoot, this is the most natural, and therefore economical, way to run. But is there evidence to support this?

The way you run could improve endurance

While it’s true that some of the world’s greatest distance runners use a midfoot or forefoot technique, what’s interesting is that as these runners tire many switch to striking with their heel first, suggesting rearfoot running is less taxing.

And it seems that studies back this up. Researchers compared the oxygen consumption and energy expenditure of 19 rearfoot runners to 18 forefoot runners and found them to be the same. But here’s where things get interesting: when the rearfoot runners were asked to switch to forefoot running, the increased metabolic strain was so great researchers predicted that even after habituation (getting used to the new method), they’d still be exerting more energy. The same was not true for forefoot runners switching to rearfoot[2][3].

In fact, studies indicate that if you’re a forefoot runner and beginning to tire, switching to a rearfoot pattern could help you conserve energy[4].

Download: Free training guides for 5km, 10km, half marathon and marathon events

Different running styles may increase the risk of injuries

There are also claims that mid and forefoot running cause fewer injuries. But again, the science doesn’t appear to support this. A 2017 study[5] on the stress placed on ankle, knee and hip joints in 11 forefoot and 11 rearfoot runners found little difference in overall force and loading. However, the forefoot runners experienced greater stress on the knees while the rearfoot runners experienced more stress on the ankles and hips.

Based on their findings, the researchers suggested that if you have issues with your knees, rearfoot running may be better for you, while those with hip or ankle problems might have fewer injuries using a mid or forefoot technique.

Switching from one running style to another

It’s worth noting that if you’re not naturally a mid or forefoot runner,  it takes several months to develop the calf strength, Achilles tendon durability and ankle flexibility to competently toe run. And the switch from forefoot to rearfoot requires a comparable level of physical reshaping.

It’s actually been suggested that switching away from your natural style may stress tissue that’s not normally stressed when running, increasing your risk of a secondary injury. So unless you’re an elite runner—with a coach and health professional supervising your technique—the best running technique is probably the one you’ve been using since childhood.

For a fun, recreational way to put your running style to good use, why not try a 5 km parkrun as part of our Free + Active program? Find out more about Free + Active

[1] Hamel, Gruber, 2017, Is changing footstrike pattern beneficial to runners?, Journal of Sport and Health Science
[2] Gruber et al., 2013, Economy and rate of carbohydrate oxidation during running with rearfoot and forefoot strike patterns, Journal of Applied Physiology
[3] Ogueta-Alday et al., 2014, Rearfoot striking runners are more economical than midfoot strikers
[4]  Hamill, Gruber, 2017, Is changing footstrike pattern beneficial to runners, Journal of Sport and Health Science [4] Hamill, Gruber, 2017, Is changing footstrike pattern beneficial to runners, Journal of Sport and Health Science
[5] Knortz et al., 2017, Three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of rearfoot and forefoot running, Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine

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