One aspect of the barefoot/minimalism/form debate of the last few years that most experts agree is unfortunate is the notion that one type of foot strike is universally better. A new Finnish study provides the helpful reminder that different types of foot strikes result in different force loads on various body parts, and that which one is best for you might depend in part on your injury history.
The study, which will be published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, measured force loads at the knee and ankle in 19 rearfoot strikers and 19 forefoot strikers. The executive summary is that the forefoot strikers had less loading at the knee than the rearfoot strikers, and the rearfoot strikers had less loading at the ankle than the forefoot strikers.
As sport podiatrist Craig Payne has often stressed on his blog Running Research Junkie, reducing the load on one tendon means increasing the load on one or more tendons elsewhere in the body. This principle is what lies behind custom orthotics, which are sometimes designed to alter one’s running gait in the aftermath of an injury to redistribute some of the load on a compromised tendon to stronger structures elsewhere.
In the context of this study, then, the relevant question isn’t, “What type of foot strike is best?” but “What type might be best for me?” If you’re able to stay healthy while meeting your running goals, most experts would advise sticking with what has been working for you. But, this study suggests, if you have chronic knee or ankle (most likely Achilles tendon) issues, it might be worth experimenting with changing your foot strike.
Specifically, this study suggests, rearfoot strikers with a long history of knee problems might be able to reduce the loading on their knees by switching to more of a forefoot strike. Similarly, forefoot strikers with frequent Achilles injuries might be able to lessen the load on their Achilles by moving toward more of a rearfoot strike.
This idea of switching foot strike pattern in response to a specific injury has support from research we reported on last year. In that study, runners with compartment syndrome, or excessive pressure within a group of muscles, found relief by switching to a forefoot strike.