Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Forefoot Running

Have you ever considered that you may have been running incorrectly your entire life?

This was the tough but alluring question I faced as I was first introduced to forefoot running. That was a month ago and now I only run forefoot. If you've ever been injured running, want to increase your running mileage, or am simply interested in the subject matter, do read on. I think that modern shoes and improper training has taught us to run incorrectly, and this causes all sorts of injuries and problems and prevents us from enjoyable, injury free running.

The term forefoot refers to which part of the foot strikes first while running. We have three typical types:
  1. forefoot strike - ball of your foot strikes the ground first
  2. midfoot/neutral strike - foot is almost flat
  3. heel strike - heel strikes the ground first
Before all this I was a heel strike runner, and by far this is the most popular type of running I see today on the street. In elite athletes its quoted that around 90% of them run with a forefoot/midfoot strike instead. We need to look at why this is.

The Simple Test:

I've thought about the easiest way to demonstrate the difference both in terms of comfort and efficiency, here's what I've come up with:
1. Take off your shoes
2. Jog on the spot
3. You'll notice one thing right away, people who jog on the spot naturally switch to forefoot and are gently bouncing on the balls of their feet. If you are an exception to this, then consciously switch to landing on the balls of you feet. You'll find the heels of your feet do not even touch the ground.
4. Now switch to landing on your heels. Feel the difference? Its a lot less comfortable as there's much much more shock and vibration. Instead of a gentle bouncing you'll find landing on the heels has a dull pounding that really kills momentum.
Simple test? If you can feel the difference over just 10 paces, imagine the difference if you're running 5KM using thousands and thousands of paces.

The Story

So the million dollar question is why do we run heel strike instead of forefoot strike? I think there's 3 prominent reasons for this:

1. Mimics Walking
Even though I've switched completely to forefoot strike for running, when I walk I heel strike. Forefoot strike requires a certain amount of speed and momentum that walking simply doesn't have. So if all our lives we've been walking heel strike, when we start to run we may simply mimic our walking and our running technique simply becomes fast walking.

2. Shoes
Modern shoes do not give your feet the feedback they need to learn to run properly. If you had to run barefoot on concrete, you would learn very quickly that heel strike really hurts. You would then develop a forefoot run because you would realize there's a problem. With all the thickly padded shoes out there we do not realize there is a problem. They mask the pounding that we saw in the simple test we did.

Furthermore if you look at the design of our modern shoes, we see that running shoes are heavily padded at the heel, encouraging (and assuming) heel strike. Walking shoes should be made this way, while running shoes should be ultra flexible with the padding at the forefoot. There aren't many shoes that do that, there are a few such as the Nike Free, or Newton Runners.

3. Pre-shoe Man
The thought that immediately struck me the more and more I thought about running was: "duh! How did people run before Nike?" The truth is we don't need all this shoe technology, it has made our feet weak, needy and untrained. A great example of this is a guy who runs barefoot. He's done a few dozen marathons barefoot, as well as many other distances. Check out his website for his take on what I've been writing about in this article. The other day on one of my runs, at the end of my run I did about 1km barefoot on concrete. My feet were a bit unaccustomed to the rough concrete, but it did not cause any joint or other discomfort as I ran it. I like to think that before all the concrete jungles and Nike shoes, I suspect most people who ran any significant distances would have ran forefoot.


In the Simple Test we did above, we noticed a big difference in momentum. While on the balls of the feel there's a springing action while on the heels the momentum is stopped with each step. If we consider the shape of the foot we see why this is: the arch is simply a big spring. By landing on the front of the spring you allow your foot arch to cushion the landing, and spring you forward to your next step. This is why forefoot running feels so springy compared to heel strike. You'll also notice big differences in the amount of shock to the joints as well, giving you another reason to consider forefoot running.

How to do it

I sincerely hope I've at least convinced you to try out a little forefoot running, instead of merely looking like an idiot jogging on the spot in front of your computer. In order to run forefoot your entire posture and form while running needs to change.

With heel strike, your leg strides forward in front of your body. This really gives you no option but to land on your heel. With forefoot running you should land on your foot as it is right underneath your body. In order to help land like that try these different tips:
1. Kick up your legs higher behind you (this one worked best for me), this changes the timing of your stride and I found that my foot was now landing beneath my body instead of in front.
2. Imagine leading with your body instead of with your legs
3. Keep your back straight and head up. Fight the temptation to look down at your feet. You'll feel it when you're switched to forefoot.
4. At first try taking shorter but quicker steps.
If you still find this hard, try sprinting for 50m and most likely you'll switch to forefoot. The challenge is developing it at slower speeds for longer distance running. The fact that sprinting automatically makes you run forefoot is a good clue: that's the way our bodies were meant to run.

In terms of your actual foot, you should land on the forefoot, and the heel should come down and just kiss the ground for a moment before you're springing forward again. Feel good? If you're already sold, I recommend taking it slow in changing to forefoot. Your calves and achilles tendon won't be used to the new load, so give them time to adapt. Muscles/tendons will heal and strengthen. Joints and ligaments that suffer from the pounding of heel strike do not heal so easily. I've quoted some articles below that touch on forefoot running as well, that people who run this way were able to very long periods of time everyday, and right into their senior years.

Still having trouble? has a flash animation comparing the two styles of running, see it here.

My Story

I'm not a hardcore runner. I come from a biking background and was an aspiring tri-athlete. 3 years ago I hurt my knee when I suspect I ran too hard (and I'm sure heel strike contributed to that injury). I took more than a year off, not allowing myself to even run for more than 5 minutes. I was really discouraged and considered giving up my triathlon dream, concluding that perhaps I just wasn't born with the tough joints required for serious running.

A month ago I started doing forefoot. It used completely different muscles as your calves become your main supporters. After a few weeks of doing part heel and part forefoot strike I've now completely switched to forefoot running. I completed my first 10km doing forefoot just a week ago and I didn't experience any joint pain whatsoever (a first for me). I'm now currently training for a half marathon which is about a month away. When I used to run heel strike, I used to have this nagging thought in the back of my mind as I pounded the pavement: "running is really terrible for my body, why am I am doing it?" Now as I spring along the pavement I feel more free than ever to enjoy the running, confident that I'm safely using my body as it was designed.

Read More:
I do not pretend to have discovered forefoot running myself. Special thanks to my friend Oz who introduced it to me, as well as several articles and websites that taught me about it. I merely hoped to provide a brief summary on the subject.
Men's Health Magazine - The Men Who Live Forever
Gordon Pirie's Ebook: Running Fast and Injury Free on Forefoot Running
Medical Study - Does foot arch affect benefits of forefoot running
Article on Pose method of running using forefoot strike


vince said...

Hi Allan,

I read about forefoot running by way of the POSE Method and subsequently about the Tarahumara tribe which runs on their forefoot. I recently decided to explore this topic again as I was getting demotivated by my running. Just yesterday, i went out to buy the most affordable pair of "flats" i caan find at shoe store - low cost investment just in case it doesn't work for me - then I came across your blog today; just to understand a bit more before i actually start running. What i intended as short session of a couple hundred meters to understand forefoot running ended up being a 5km run! I feel fresh except for the pain in my calves and the blisters that formed below the big toe and the forefoot. Ill fitting socks perhaps? Did u get blisters and what did you do about it?
I thoroughly enjoyed this new experience and must thank you for your views that made it easy for me to process and experiment just a few steps into this adventure!

allantan said...

Hi Vince

Thanks for the feedback! I hoped to present a summary of all the reading I've done on forefoot, glad you found it helpful.

When I first got into forefoot, I just used the same running shoes I was using before. I just got a pair of Nike Frees last week that I'm dying to try out soon. How do you find the flats so far?

Pain in calves sound right, where tho? In the muscle in the back? Or tender on the shins? Both?

I think pain in the back of the calves is fine. Those muscles will recover and you'll build up nice shapely calves :P I'd be worried about back of the heel pain (achilles tendon) or front of the shins (shin splints). If you get those kinds of pain I'd really take it more gradual. You can go hybrid, run 10 mins forefoot, then 10 mins heel strike. You really learn to appreciate the smoothness of forefoot that way too.

I'm someone who rarely blisters, so I don't have much experience with dealing with them. A few tips:
-moisture can increase chance of blistering, a good pair of synthetic socks will help wick the moisture away from the skin
-friction contributes as well, you can get two layer sock that reduce the friction
-if you really want to run anyway, duct tape your foot. Not just a small patch (that'll come loose from the sweat), but around the whole foot to secure it

The other thing would be to see where you're landing, perhaps you're landing too close to the toes and that's causing too much pressure. Try to really land on the ball of your foot (flexible soles help). I think my toes are slightly curled up when I land. Or it could be the shoes, try an old pair and see if you feel it rubbing the same place.

Let me know how it goes :)

vince said...

Hi Allan,

My pain is back of calves; ankles are feeling a little "stretched" today, otherwise i'm fine. It reminded me of those ocassions when i played football (i'm in asia); calves, shin, ankles hurt more than the thighs. It makes sense now as there were much more sprinting than jogging.
I don't think i'll go back to heel strike, there is an appreciable difference in how i felt after the run, and it really isn't that difficult to get into - i knew when i got iw wrong when the heels touched first - so i could correct it. The legs does know how to "correct" itself. I guess those structured shoes does rob us of our foot feel. And it really feels natural to be on the forefoot, i must add.

I'll let the blisters heal before attempting another session. God bless my friend, i'll keep you posted on my progress.

Anonymous said...

wow im a couch potato who's never been a runner and i naturally forefoot run. i have high arches, wonder if high arch people tend to run more this way because running with high arches bloody hurts otherwise...

jay said...

Can't thank you enough mate, i have always suffered from running injuries i have been and had my feet examined at running store and everything. First thing this morning i went for a 15 min run (because of injury three weeks ago and building back up) I have been running 15 mins for a week and everytime i get to 10 mins my shins are in a world of hurt! I came across your website and blog on forefoot running 30 mins ago and have just been for another run in my normal trainers instead of my cushioned runing shoes and have completed 20 minutes (forefoot stride) at a much quicker pace and felt no pain in my shins at all. My calves are tight though but in a good way! Im so excited to run again because it felt brilliant and no pain! I feel like my muscles are working instead of my joints taking a beating! Cannot thank you enough and i will update you on my progress in a month or so thanks a lot for giving me my freedom back!

Allan Tan said...

Hi jay

Awesome to hear it! Thank you for the kind words.

Yes I never felt calf pain like after my first 15+ minute forefoot run.. hehe. Glad to hear you're injury free, keep at it! ^_^

Look forward to any updates.


Jack said...

I have been recovering from another onset of shin splints. Today I decided to go for a light jog, and try forefoot running to see if I would feel any pain.
I ended up running 7.5 km in 45 mins, with no pain in my shins what so ever. My calves and ankles ache a bit but thats to be expected. I did get massive blisters on the balls of my feet so maybe I'll wear two layers of socks next time. Happy running

Anonymous said...

Good article. Mid foot or fore foot running is indeed the natural way of running. I also think we should keep out feet well ventilated while running. I think socks made from natural fabrics like cotton help to do that better than synthetic materials. Also the Tarahumara runners wear flat, thin and hard soled sandals while running. May be we too should wear that kind of footwear.