July 23, 2014
Running: Heel or Forefoot Strike?
Be Well

Running: Heel or Forefoot Strike?

by William Pereira, M.d., M.ph.  |  

We recently ran a tip on “barefoot” running shoes, footwear that allows runners to mimic the movements of barefoot running, while still providing some degree of protection from dangers like broken glass, small stones and cold weather.

We advised our readers—correctly, I think—to think twice about switching to these shoes from what they have already been using and to transition very slowly if they do switch, in order to decrease the chances of injury.

But there’s a fascinating larger story and ongoing controversy behind what we so briefly touched upon.

Modern running shoes, which typically have built-up heels, stiff soles and plenty of arch support, originated in the 1970’s. I recall wondering, when I took up jogging toward the end of that decade, how anyone used to manage to run without all the heel cushioning.

Have you ever tried running without shoes on a hard surface? I tried it for a few paces using my usual running-shoe technique, and I promise you I won’t do it again. You land with a great deal of force on a very small area of your heel, and at least in my case, there’s just not enough natural padding to make it comfortable.

However, as we know, up until relatively recently, people ran without the benefit of supportive running shoes—or any shoes, for that matter. In fact, humans’ ability to run long distances was essential to early hunting. Our ancestors would chase dinner across the veldt until the unfortunate ungulate was exhausted and could be killed.

Which raises the question: how did they do all that running all those millions of years ago without injuring their heels, at least most of the time?

Fast forward to the 21st century, when a group of researchers headed by Daniel Lieberman in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University in essence asked the same question. In 2010, their research findings on the issue were published in the journal Nature.