Ideal running style: Should your foot hit the ground heel or toes first?

Is a forefoot strike really better than hitting the ground heel-first?
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Is a forefoot strike really better than hitting the ground heel-first?

Is hitting the ground heel-first like running with brakes on?

Not if many elite athletes, including barefoot Olympic gold-medalist Abebe Bikila, are anything to go by.

While it is still a common belief that a forefoot or midfoot strike (that is, landing on the ball of your foot when you run) is better and creates less force through the body, a new study bolsters a body of research that there is no "ideal" running style.

The study, by Western Australia's Curtin University, used sound and 3D motion technology to measure the impact and load of the different running styles of 26 participants.

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First the participants were asked to run "normally" before being asked to run "quietly" to see whether the force through the joints also "lightened".

"We expected the results to show that when sound reduced, the force or pressure on the ankle and hips also reduced – what we didn't expect was for more than three-quarters of people to change their running style to make this happen and the implications this had," said the lead author, Dr Leo Ng of Curtin's School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science.

The participants changed to a forefoot strike when they were trying to run quietly, but although the sound was reduced the force was not, instead simply shooting through the body in a different way.

"Using a rear-foot and forefoot strike technique changes the loads experienced by your joints and muscles when running which can pre-dispose you to certain types of injuries," Dr Ng said.

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"Forefoot strike runners are at greater risk of Achilles-type injuries while rear-foot runners are more likely to get knee pain."

"The surprise is that this is the first scientific study to show that the sound of foot strike can be different between different running techniques," he added.

"The messages to runners, coaches and clinicians is that they should listen to how people are running as it can provide them with a lot of information."

Running coach and founder of the Running Movement, Damon Bray agrees that there is no ideal style.

"Look at the Olympics with the very best runners together," Bray said. "Not one of them will run exactly the same. They'll try to apply the same principles but will in essence move differently."

This notion is in contrast to another new study that suggested ditching cushioned training shoes (which encourage a rear-foot strike) for minimal or barefoot trainers (which encourage a forefoot or midfoot strike) as "landing on the balls of your feet reduces loading rates and may, therefore, reduce the risk of injury."

Bray adamantly disagrees with the advice to change footwear or (necessarily) strike pattern.

"As human beings, we're put in shoes from the time we could walk (unlike some third-world countries)," Brays said.

"Suggesting runners - especially recreational runners - could or should ditch supportive running shoes and try barefoot or nearly non supportive shoes will, in my opinion, cause a high degree of injury. Unless: The runner stops running and starts in their neutral shoes by running around the block week one, perhaps on grass, then [very] slowly builds [or] they have a near perfect running gait [and] a strong core.

"Now how many rec runners or everyday runners will take the time or have the patience to do the above?"

 - dailylife.com.au

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