Do You Run On Toes Or Heels? The Science Of Running


Running is a full-body workout that newbies and pros can do. Many new runners dismiss the science of running as only being something professionals should worry about, however, understanding your running style is super important for preventing injuries and helping you run farther.

Running on toes engages stabilization muscles and is considered a faster gait while running on your heels is easier and more intuitive for most people. Both styles of running have different potential injuries as well as other advantages and disadvantages.

Running is a popular means of getting fit and finding a calming way to exercise. Understanding the running cycle and determining whether you are a heel runner or toe runner are not just matters of passing interest; instead, these are important concepts to grasp to enjoy a long, fulfilling, injury-free running career.

I’m going to be using a lot of running terms you may not be familiar with–if you run into one, just scroll down to this section (you might just open that section in a new tab to refer to)

rearfoot-running
An example of a heel running

The Pros And Cons Of Running On Your Heels vs. Your Toes

Whether heel running or toe running is better is still a topic of debate amongst the running community. However, most health professionals have a more moderate view. If you can run consistently without pain or injury, your running style is most likely the best for your body, and there is no need to change it.

By comparison, professional runners or injured runners may need to analyze and change their running styles to achieve their running goals, manage current injuries and prevent future injuries. 

Heel running used to be the only way to run and so all the shoes were designed with a heel drop (basically the shoe is highest at the heel and sloped downwards towards the toes.) However, “toe running” exploded in popularity around 2010, and even now at the shoe store heel drop is a customized option. Many shoes are advertised as “zero drop”, or otherwise have a neutral heel drop, which wasn’t the case a couple of decades ago.

During the 2010s, it seemed like everyone was barefoot running. However, scientists have found that there is a disadvantage for every advantage to toe running, just as there is with heel running.

1.    Injury Prevalence In Forefoot vs. Rearfoot Running

Forefoot running, in its heyday, was said to be better for reducing the risk of running injury. A 2012 study found that heel (rearfoot runners) had twice the risk for repetitive stress injuries as forefoot runners. A separate 2013 study found that rearfoot runners had increased patellofemoral loading and frontal plane knee movement, which may increase the risk of knee injuries.

These two studies and many others may support professional runners’ claims that forefoot running is better; until you consider a 2019 metanalysis of 53 studies. This metanalysis found that it doesn’t change injury prevalence but rather injury patterns.

The same 2013 study found that ankle kinematics were increased, as were the forces exerted on the Achille’s tendon in forefoot runners. Thus, forefoot runners had an increased risk for ankle injuries and Achille’s tendinopathies.

A 2014 Honour’s dissertation found that while forefoot running decreases frontal knee motion and tibial stresses, it increases spinal stresses. Thus, if you have anterior knee pain or anterior tibial splints changing to a forefoot running style may be beneficial. By contrast, chronic low back pain sufferers should stick with a rearfoot running style

2.    Rearfoot Running Is Slower Than Toe Running

Many running coaches claim that rearfoot running is slower than toe running, which is technically accurate when considering a sprinter. The heel won’t touch the ground during the stance phase in forefoot running, and the stance phase is shortened with longer float phases.

Most runners spend less than 50% of the gait cycle in stance phase, while some elite runners spend less than 22% in stance phase! (source)

Why Is Toe Running Faster?

Removing the shock-absorbing aspects of stance phase allows the maximum conversion of the ground reaction force into propulsive energy. It’s important to remember that shock absorption is designed to dissipate impact forces through joint flexion.

Forefoot running increases the elastic energy (and strain) contained within the calf muscles and ankles. As the calf is stretched, the stretch reflex causes the muscle to recoil, allowing an explosive burst of forward momentum.

Not All Runners Are Candidates For Toe Running

You may be wondering, if both foot strike patterns result in injury and forefoot running is faster, then why aren’t all runners toe runners? The answer lies in the divide that separates elite runners from amateur runners.

Toe running is the fastest running style for sprinters and elite long-distance runners, who have the strength and skill to maintain this footstrike pattern for a long time. Numerous studies have found that heel running or rearfoot strike pattern is the easiest and thus fastest style for the AVERAGE amateur long-distance runner.

A 2013 study explored the relationship between forefoot and rearfoot running concerning marathons. This study found that while 83% of elite runners demonstrated heel running, an overwhelming 94% of amateur runners also had a rearfoot strike pattern.

Elite forefoot runners had better finish times, but almost none of the runners could sustain forefoot running for the entirety of the race. Instead, most runners completed the race with a rearfoot strike pattern or switched from toe running to heel running towards the end of the race. Fatigue forced many runners to adopt a more energy-efficient style of running as they approached the finish line.

What Does It Mean To Run On Your Heels Or Toes?

I wanted to make sure and define what I mean by running on your heels or toes, just so we’re all on the same page.

Heel running refers to runners that obtain a clear heel strike during the initial stance phase. By contrast, midfoot and forefoot (toe) runners make initial ground contact with the middle of their foot or forefoot, respectively.

forefoot-running
Notice this runner’s toe is leading the gait, this is an example of a mid or forefoot strike

How Do You Know If Your Run On Your Heels Or Toes

Most people will intuitively know if they make initial contact with their heels or toes, especially if they have had some body-awareness training.

Professional Running Analysis

An orthotist, physiotherapist, biokinetist, or running lab are the best professionals to analyze running style in-depth based on objective data.

The best method to analyze running style is with a 3D analysis and pressure plate system. The cameras should ideally be set up to provide a lateral and posterior view. Video analysis is most commonly used to study joint and limb kinematics.

The pressure plate allows objective determination of which part of the foot contacts the ground first and the magnitude of ground reaction force experienced by various parts of the foot during stance phase.

However, these procedures can be time-consuming and are often unnecessary unless you are an elite runner or a runner suffering from injuries.

Home Analysis Of Running Style

An easy, low-tech solution to studying running style is to ask someone to watch you run. Alternatively, you can set a smartphone up to record you as you run past; slowing the video down allows you to observe which part of your foot you land on.

Filming yourself at multiple speeds is a fun exercise to see how your running style changes in response to speed. It will also provide critical feedback regarding your running technique.

One of the most reliable ways to determine your most consistent running style is to examine your running shoes. You may change how you run when being filmed or undergoing a professional running analysis, but your shoes won’t lie.

Increased wear and flatting at the sole of the heel indicate more frequent heel strikes. Whereas damage to the upper (top of the shoe) along the toe box (front of the shoe) and increased wear on the sole under the forefoot indicate a more frequent toe running style.  

What Are The Best Shoes For Heel Running And Toe Running?

Choosing the best running shoes for your style of running and normal foot anatomy is crucial for preventing injury. If you have a structurally sound foot, most salespersons at the various shoe shops will be able to give you good advice on the different types of running shoes they stock.

However, if you have foot, knee, hip, or back problems, it would be worthwhile consulting with an orthotist or running technician on which shoe-orthotic combination will provide optimal support.

General Pointers To Choosing A Running Shoe

Choosing the best running shoe for your running style and foot is virtually impossible if selecting the shoe in a 4m long shop aisle. You may ask, why? Because this is a RUNNING shoe and not a walking shoe.

As seen in the discussion on gait cycle, walking is decidedly different from running and even further from sprinting. The only true test for a running shoe is to run in the shoes; most high-end retailers will allow you to take your running shoes for a trial run.

When trialing your shoes, run your average distance (or a little more) at a slightly faster speed than you typically run. The extra running effort allows you to test your shoes in a somewhat higher intensity environment than you usually run in. If they perform well, they will definitely support you correctly during your daily runs.

Pay attention to how your feet, knees, and hips feel as you run.

  1. Do your joints feel restricted or like there is too much movement?
  2. Are you tripping more than usual?
  3. Are your knees hitting each other or your ankles “rolling”?

If possible, bring your running coach with you to take notes on how the shoes affect your form. Do the shoes improve or worsen your form?

Lastly, once you are done with your run, take off your shoes and socks and visually inspect your feet for redness, blisters, or other irritated areas. Use your fingers to push on different parts of your foot to check for bruising and tenderness.

Your shoes should not rub you or constrict the width or length of your foot when running.

Do I Need Stability Shoes To Help My Strike Pattern?

Stability features are related to medial longitudinal arch height and relative foot pronation during running, not heel vs. toe strike patterns. Painful overpronators should look for shoes with high control elements, while painful under-pronators should look for shoes that offer adequate cushioning.

Running Shoe Features To Consider for Rearfoot Runners

Rearfoot runners should look for a shoe with:

  1. Moderate heel cushion padding
  2. Mid-level heel to forefoot profile
  3. An intimate heel cup fit
  4. A beveled posterior border of the heel sole

ASICS produces many running shoes that are specifically formulated for rearfoot runners.

Running Shoe Features To Consider for Toe Runners

Toe runners should look for a shoe with:

  1. Stable forefoot, with a firm midsole characterized by a large surface area or stabilizing flare
  2. A low heel to toe profile
  3. Forefoot cushioning, particularly if running long-distance. Sprinters may prefer a low-profile sole design to mimic barefoot running.
  4. A snugly fitted upper (top of the shoe)

Hoka One, Newsole, and Nike all feature running shoes designed explicitly for forefoot and midfoot runners.

The “Best” Shoe May Not Be The Best For You!

Few feet are “textbook” feet, and painful problems can arise by forcing non-painful feet into a “textbook” form and running style. Your body is your best instrument for gauging the efficacy of your equipment and running style.

Pain typically means that something is not working for you. If you start experiencing pain, don’t persist in trying to force yourself into the “most popular” or “ideal” running form. The best equipment and running styles are those which allow you to enjoy pain-free runs and achieve your running goals.

What Is The Difference Between Running And Sprinting?

There are both biomechanical and goal orientation differences to be made between running and sprinting. Joggers, road racers, and marathon runners are primarily concerned with endurance and maintaining aerobic respiration. 80% to 95% of these runners will be heel runners, which is the most energy-efficient means of running.

As individuals speed up, they begin switching from heel running to midfoot running. Almost all individuals running at maximum speed (sprinting) will be forefoot runners.

Forefoot running is ideal for generating explosive muscle power, but the energy demands are extreme. Forefoot runners are capable of short bursts of maximum speeds before metabolic demands cause an involuntary slowing of running speed.

When Does Walking Become Running?

Scientists make clear distinctions between walking, running, and sprinting. Walking ends, and running begins when the person no longer demonstrates a double stance phase and instead shows two clear float periods at the beginning and end of the swing phase.

Why Is Running Harder Than Walking?

This question may seem redundant in its simplicity, but in reality, the answer is slightly more technical than most people realize.

Running requires greater balance due to an increased float period and decreased stance phase. A person needs more advanced balance mechanisms to maintain balance without compensatory support of a stabilizing limb (leg).

In addition to this, a runner needs more elevation to ensure ground clearance. The muscle strength required to gain this elevation and lift the head, arms, and torso higher is much greater than when walking.

The faster the runner sprints, the greater the moments of hyperextension and hyperflexion occurring in different joints, and the greater the muscle effort that is exerted to prevent injuries and control body parts.

Biomechanics Of Running and How To Avoid Running Injuries

So, if you’re not sure what stance phase is or float stage is, make sure and read on–I’ll explain the different biomechanics of running to help you better how rearfoot or forefoot running works in the context of a running gait.

Additionally, I tried to find the best resources for how to analyze your own gait so you can run without injury.

The Running Gait Cycle (Not Sprinting)

The biomechanics of running have been of a lot of interest to scientists for decades and even centuries. However, only in recent decades has technology advanced enough to enable the study of running styles.

Modern researchers and even medical practitioners use force plates, 3-dimensional video analysis, and sequential photography to study an individual’s gait style and running technique.

The gait cycle refers to all the events that occur between your foot first making contact with the ground until the same foot makes contact with the ground again.

Stance Phase – Initial Contact (Phase 1)

Initial contact occurs when your foot first makes contact with the ground, which is made with your heel, midfoot, or forefoot. For the sake of understanding the basic gait cycle, I’ll just say heel strike during initial contact.

The hip has approximately 50° flexion, the knee 40°, and the ankle 10° dorsiflexion. Most running experts recommend that the ankle be held in a neutral position in preparation for optimal loading of the foot. (source)

Stance Phase – Loading Response (Phase 2)

Immediately after heel strike, the foot moves to a foot flat position by first making contact along the lateral edge of the foot and then moving to full surface contact.

During this phase, the knee and ankle increase flexion to 60° flexion and 25° dorsiflexion, respectively. Just before the loading response, the hip’s flexion increases slightly before beginning to extend for the next phase.

Most joints in the kinetic chain show increased flexion during the loading response in order to dissipate and manage the ground reaction force and impact generated during initial contact.

Stance Phase – Midstance (Phase 3)

During midstance, the center of mass is at its lowest, and the joints within the chain begin to extend to prevent buckling. The hip is close to neutral, the knee starts its extension journey, and the ankle moves into plantarflexion.

Midstance is characterized by peak loading, i.e., the maximum ground reaction force is experienced by the body. During running and sprinting, individuals can experience peak loading at or even above 250% of their body weight!

Stance Phase – Propulsive Phase (Phase 4)

The first part of stance phase is primarily orientated towards shock absorption and stabilization. Mid to late stance phase switches from shock-absorbing biomechanics to propulsion generating biomechanics.

During this phase, you begin to see triple extension at the hip, knee, and ankle. The hip moves to maximal extension, the knee extends from 60° flexion to 40°, and the ankle plantarflexes to approximately 20° to 25°.

During this phase, the heel moves off the ground, and the weight is shifted from total surface foot contact to medial forefoot contact in preparation for toe-off. Following the weight shift and heel off, toe off occurs.

Swing Phase – 1st Float Phase/ Initial Swing(Phase 5)

The first float phase occurs when the original stance foot leaves the ground, and the opposite leg completes its swing phase. The hip hyperextends to 10°, and the ankle plantarflexes to 25° in the first few seconds of swing phase.

Swing Phase – Midswing (Phase 6)

Midswing is characterized by maximal knee flexion at approximately 125°. The hip begins to moves from hyperextension towards a more flexed position, and the ankle moves from maximal plantar flexion to a more neutral position.

During this phase, the opposite foot is moving through stance phase.

Swing Phase – 2nd Float Phase/ Late Swing (Phase 7)

This phase is the second float phase in which the observed leg is still in swing phase and moving forward in preparation for heel strike while the opposite leg leaves the ground in the early swing phase.

The knee extends from 125° to 40° flexion, while the hip moves from peak hip flexion to 55° flexion. The ankle is positioned in 10° dorsiflexion in preparation for heel strike.

Body Movements In The Three Anatomical Planes

The most visibly apparent movement occurs in the sagittal plane as the arms and legs move backward and forward. However, there are also coronal and transverse plane movements.

During the alternating stance and swing phases, there is a coronal plane Trendelenburg movement. There is a slight lifting of the stance hip and dropping of the contralateral swing hip during midstance. Excessive hip drop has been associated with an increased risk for injury.

The lower limb demonstrates transverse plane rotation during swing phase and early stance but begins to laterally rotate as the leg moves through midstance and late stance.

In addition to lower limb rotation, there is also pelvic rotation originating in the lumbar spine. As the chest moves forward on one side, the contralateral swing leg moves forward; rotating in the opposite direction to the chest.

This rotation has two effects:

  1. It dissipates the spinal forces during heel strike protecting the vulnerable spinal structures improving runner economy.
  2. If the runner has strong core muscles, it acts as a diagonal elastic support system reducing energy consumption.

Let’s Talk Terminology

Running terminology may seem overly complicated, but for a committed runner (amateur or professional), it is an essential vocabulary to master.

Not only will it allow you to more easily understand your trainer’s instructions, but it will also allow you to do your own research and make informed decisions.

Stance phase: When one or more legs are in contact with the ground

Swing phase: When one or more legs is off the ground and advancing forwards

Float: When both legs are in the air, and no part of the body is touching the ground

Kinetic Chain: Refers to the total effect of a series of joint movements

Flexion: When the joint angle decreases, e.g., the knee flexes backward, but the hip flexes forwards

Extension: When the joint angles increases, e.g., the knee extends forwards, and the hip extends backward

Rotation: the twisting motion of an anatomical structure

Plantarflexion: Pointing your toes

Dorsiflexion: Lifting your toes up

Medial: Towards the body’s midline, e.g., the medial aspect of the knee is the inside surface of your knee

Lateral: Away from the body’s midline, e.g., the lateral aspect of your knee is the outside surface of your knee

Abduction: Movement away from the body’s midline

Adduction: Movement towards the body’s midline

Foot Pronation: The forefoot abducts, and the foot everts so that the sole points away from the midline

Foot Supination: The forefoot adducts and the foot inverts so that the sole points towards the midline

Saggital plane: Divides the body into left and right

Coronal plane: Divides the body into front (anterior) and back (posterior)

Transverse plane: Divides the body into top (superior) and bottom (inferior)

This list is not an exhaustive list of running terms, but it’s enough to get you started in understanding the basic principles of running.

Conclusion

There is little evidence to determine which strike pattern is more energy-efficient; however, forefoot running is faster than rearfoot running.

Both strike patterns are associated with injury, although the injury patterns vary according to the different running styles.

Injury-free runners with non-painful strike patterns should not be forced to change their running style, as this may cause unforeseen issues due to individual anatomical variances.

Injured runners and runners aiming for specific running goals may wish to change their running style to manage and prevent injuries or achieve their goals.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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