Monday, April 23, 2012

Transitioning to a Forefoot Strike and/or Minimalist Running Shoes Part 1

I read an interesting post on Cold Thistle this morning about barefoot running and minimalist shoes.  It was an article by G.S. Seltzer at  It's an interesting article.  The link is  Or you can read it at one of my favorite blogs,

  Then, with that on my mind, I went climbing for a few hours.  While I was sitting at a belay, I got a text from my wife.  One of the girls she works with is a runner.   The text said, "(Her friend's name) disagrees with you on your running style.  She says the ball of the foot is bad.  Heel-toe is better for long distances."

This friend of my wife has taken up running and her husband ran track for a local university.  He was a sprinter, not a long-distance runner.  He told his wife that his track coaches said that landing on the ball of the foot is good for sprinting, but a heel-to-toe strike is better for long distances (a widely believed idea that has been challenged more recently during the barefoot/minimalist running movement).  This friend also said she tried the midfoot strike thing and got injured.

The fact is, even if midfoot striking is better than heel striking (which I believe it is), it can still lead to injury if your body is not used to it and the transition isn't done carefully.  Therefore, I'm writing this two-part post to explain how I transitioned to forefoot striking and more minimal shoes.

Why Running Shoes Have Thick Heels

In 1967, William J. Bowerman (a successful track coach at University of Oregon) and W. E. Harris wrote a book called Jogging: A Physical Fitness Program for all Ages.  In the book, Bowerman and Harris claimed that the most efficient way to run was to land on the heel of the foot and that a person would jog faster if they lengthened their stride.  A longer stride meant that a runner must land on their heels.  There was no scientific evidence for these claims, but it sounded good.

A few years later, Bowerman, now one of the founders of Nike, was involved in creating a new running shoe with a thicker heel, called the Nike Cortez.  Later, with some more ingenuity and his wife's waffle iron, he created the Waffle Trainer.

The thicker heel look caught on and other companies adopted the design.  The thicker sole also forced the user to adopt a heel strike (because it's really difficult not to with such a thick heel).  It's interesting to note, that running-related injuries have gone up since the invention of thick-heeled running shoes and a heel strike.

Why I think a Mid/Forefoot Strike is better

A few years ago a study came out by Daniel Lieberman and colleagues from Harvard University.  The study, Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually versus shod runners, showed a few interesting points.  The study compared shod runners and barefoot runners and measured their impact forces.  

According to the study, "At similar speeds, magnitudes of peak vertical force during the impact period are approximately three times lower in habitual barefoot runners who forefoot strike than in habitually shod runners who rearfoot strike either barefoot or shod."

If you run without shoes on, your body is naturally going to find a form or technique that is most comfortable and does the least amount of damage for the body.  Try heel striking without shoes on.  It just hurts.  If one runs without shoes, their body will naturally transition to a technique that is less damaging and painful to their body, which will be a forefoot strike.  (For clarification, I often use the terms midfoot strike and forefoot strike synonymously, even though a mid foot strike means landing with the forefoot and heel landing simultaneously.  A forefoot strike means the ball of the foot lands first.  A forefoot strike is actually the more natural gait and is what I mean when I say midfoot strike)

This is the same lady, running without shoes on the left and with shoes on the right.  Look how much smoother she looks without shoes.  Her posture is better, her arms are tighter to her body, she lands softer and her body is smoother.  Without shoes, notice that her knee is bent when she lands so the impact force is absorbed by her muscles.  With shoes, she lands with her leg mostly straight so the impact force (that is 3x the amount as without shoes) is absorbed less by her muscles and much more by her knees and hips/lower back.  There are no shock absorbers in the knees or lower back.  It's no wonder that a different friend of my wife, who is an avid runner, just had hip surgery to repair some damage they think was caused by running (she heel strikes, by the way).

Another downside to heel striking is that it is less efficient than forefoot striking.  It's a little more visible in this video.  As a person lands on their heel with their leg out in front of them, it's like they are putting on the brakes.  Proper forefoot-striking technique is that the runner lands on the forefoot directly under the body, not out in front, so it shouldn't act as a brake.

After Deciding to Make the Transition

Chances are, if you've been running in standard running shoes for a long time your feet have weakened a bit.  We often hear about needing arch support in a shoe or some sort of pronation/supination control.  All this "technology" in shoes should lead to less injuries, right?  Well, according to some studies, approximately 70-80% of runners in America will get a running-related injury this year.  In contrast, about 3% of runners in third world countries (who usually run barefoot and with a mid/forefoot strike) will get a running-related injury this year.  It's possible that those numbers are so much lower because some of the injuries may go unreported, but probably not 67-77% of injuries go unreported.  That's a staggering difference.  I should note, these statistics are from memory (I think from the book Born to Run, which I read about two years ago or from one or the other studies I've read over the last few years) and could be off a bit.  If anybody knows what the statistics accurately are, I'd appreciate a comment on them.

Anyway, the body adapts to what it's subject to.  So, when a foot is "protected" by a shoe with lots of arch support, the arch gets weak.  It's like putting a cast on your foot.  If you did that to your arm, it too would get weaker.  Weak muscles being subject to a hard workout are a recipe for injuries.  Therefore, don't go on a long run barefoot or in minimal shoes when your feet are weak.

Anyway, it is important to strengthen one's feet before really committing to a full-time forefoot strike.  This can be done by wearing shoes less, occasionally running barefoot on grass or other soft, safe surfaces, by running with minimal shoes part-time, etc.  Going from a heel strike to minimal shoes and forefoot strike SHOULD NOT be an abrupt change.  It should be a gradual transition.  If somebody that is not used to a forefoot strike suddenly runs 10 miles with a forefoot strike, they will most likely not be able to walk for a few days (because their calves are so sore) and could potentially injure themselves in other ways.  It's like taking on a technical ski run with weak legs.  The risk of injury is so much higher than if the skier has strong legs, even if the technical skill is equal.

Part 2 of this post will be about how I transitioned to a forefoot strike and some other suggestions from experts in the field.


  1. As a recreational runner, I appreciate the post. I average about 10-20mi wkly alternating with wt lifting during the wk. I made the transition, about 1yr ago, and have noticed more strength in my lower legs and less knee/hip pain.

  2. Glad to hear it's been helpful. Thanks for reading and for your comment.