Ask the Experts

Running: Better to Land on Heel or Forefoot?

by Jeanine Barone  

Q: When running, is it safer to land on the heel, midfoot, or forefoot first—or go barefoot?

A: “There is no sound published epidemiological data that would answer this question,” says Dr. Benno Nigg, Professor Emeritus at the University of Calgary and a leading expert on human biomechanics.

The debate continues as to how to land when running, as well as whether one kind of shoe (such as so-called minimalist or maximalist shoes)—or even going barefoot—is best.

The key may simply be comfort. In 2001, Dr. Nigg came up with a concept he called the Preferred Movement Path. This refers to joint movements that require the least amount of muscle energy and are thus the most biomechanically economical way of running for an individual. Rather than dictating specific kinds of shoes and ways of landing, it emphasizes the importance of choosing shoes that are comfortable as a way of reducing the risk of running injuries.

According to Dr. Nigg’s review paper, published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, many studies don’t support the idea that factors related to the impact from the foot striking the ground are important determinants for running injuries. Furthermore, a study presented at a symposium of the International Society of Biomechanics in Sports in 2007 found no difference in the rates of injury between runners who landed midfoot versus those landing on their heels.

Similarly, in a study in Military Medicine in 2015, more than 300 soldiers were videotaped while they ran at their usual training pace and took a survey about any injuries they may have sustained during training. The vast majority—87 percent—landed on their heels, while the rest landed on their forefoot or midfoot. No running style was associated with improved performance or reduced injury rate.

Different styles of running affect different structures in the feet and lower legs. When you land on your heel, initially it’s the muscle on the front of the lower leg that absorbs the load. When you land on your forefoot, the Achilles tendon first gets loaded. Any of these structures can suffer overuse injury over time.

Proponents of barefoot running often claim that it is beneficial because it encourages landing on the forefoot, but this isn’t necessarily the case, as noted in a study in PLOS ONE in 2013. It found that running speed, distance, and frequency, along with training level and biomechanical factors, all influence the selection of foot strike pattern in barefoot runners.

Barefoot running was in style five to ten years ago, says Dr. Nigg, but there’s no solid evidence that it’s better or worse than conventional running. “Do what feels most comfortable,” he suggests. Consider changing from heel strike to forefoot strike or going barefoot only if your current way of running isn’t working for you, he advises.

Bottom line: Many factors contribute to running injuries. If you’re trying to improve your running and make it safer, instead of focusing on your foot strike, make sure that you aren’t overstriding (that is, your foot shouldn’t land too far ahead of your center of gravity), that your foot is landing more lightly on the ground, and that you are well conditioned but not overtraining. In other words, don’t increase your mileage, intensity, frequency, or run duration by more than 10 percent a week.

For other expert advice on this topic, see Running: Heel or Forefoot Strike?

For general advice on running, see How to Start a Running Habit.