Heel-Toe Runners, Rejoice
In recent years, the evidence has mounted in favor of forefoot running, but a new study suggests that the average runner should rethink his stride.
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Heel-toe runners rejoice—your form likely saves you serious time over a midfoot or forefoot stride. In the search for speed, a new study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that runners landing on the backs of their feet were more efficient than the biomechanically similar midfoot and forefoot strides.
Researchers at the University of León set out to measure the energy economy and biomechanics of 20 subelite runners, half with rearfoot strides and half with midfoot. The results showed the heel-striking group to be up to 9 percent more efficient than the midfoot group.
As much as that might surprise runners after recent research showed the opposite, it shocked the study’s lead author, PhD candidate Ana Ogueta-Alday, even more.
A body of research supports the contention that forefoot and midfoot runners have an advantage over rearfoot runners. One of the most-cited studies observed that slower runners landed on the rear of their feet and faster runners landed on the midfoot.
“However, when I started my PhD and doing the tests with the runners,” says Ogueta-Alday, “I saw that it was completely different.”
A key difference for Ogueta-Alday’s study is that both types of runners were tested in real world conditions, at equal speeds that are more relatable for average racers: 8:47, 7:26, and 6:26 minutes per mile. At the higher and lower speed, the heel-strikers were 5 percent and 5.4 percent more efficient, and then 9.3 percent better at the middle pace.
“With the cost of energy that a forefoot [subject] needed to run, at a fixed speed, they could be running 1 km/h faster,” says Ogueta-Alday. That’s the equivalent of dropping from a 7:30 minute mile pace to 7:00 flat.
Ogueta-Alday believes the reason for the improved efficiency stems from the increased ground contact time the study observed in rearfoot strikers. More contact time with the ground allows for more force to be applied, while also decreasing the metabolic cost of running.
These findings don’t mean sprinters, or other speed demons, should switch stride. Ogueta-Alday points out that the study only looked at “slow speeds” and acknowledges that at faster paces require shorter contact times.
“It seems clear that forefoot strike is important to run fast,” she adds. And though Ogueta-Alday can’t tell where the tipping point between the two worlds of footstrike is, she said that running sub-5-minute miles or faster was likely more efficient with a midfoot stride.