Emerging Evidence On Footstrike Patterns In Running

Kevin A. Kirby, DPM

Given the popularity and perceptions associated with barefoot running and minimalist shoes, this author takes a closer look at the research on foot striking patterns in runners and finds that rearfoot striking is not only far more prevalent but may be more efficient as well.

Much of the relatively recent increase in the popularity of running in America can be traced back to the “running boom” of the early 1970s when United States distance runner Frank Shorter won the marathon in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.1 With the “running boom” came increased demand for a wider range and number of better running shoes. Now, in the U.S. alone, running shoe sales total over $3 billion and over 50 million Americans currently participate in running as a recreational activity.2

   One of the most interesting trends or fads in running since the “running boom” started has been the surge of interest in barefoot running, minimalist running shoes and running footstrike patterns over the past five years. The surge in interest in barefoot and minimalist shoe running and footstrike patterns was at least partially due to the popularity of a 2009 book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall.3 Throughout his book, McDougall made claims that because our ancestors ran barefoot, modern humans should also be running barefoot or least be running in thinner-soled shoes that mimic barefoot running and allow a more “natural” running form. In his book, McDougall also claimed that there was no evidence that the modern, thicker-soled, cushioned running shoe, which became popular in the 1970s, actually prevented running injuries.

   As a result of believing McDougall’s claims, many runners became captivated by the idea of “natural running.”3 Many of these runners began to try barefoot running or running in thin-soled “minimalist” running shoes with the most popular minimalist shoe for a time being the five-toed Vibram FiveFingers shoe. Even though there were many anecdotal accounts within the popular media that these five-toed shoes helped decrease running injuries, there were also reports within the medical literature that these shoes actually caused injury in some runners.4,5 In fact, in a 2013 study, runners who underwent a 10-week transition period of running in Vibram FiveFingers shoes showed significant increases in foot bone marrow edema versus those runners who trained only in traditional thick-soled running shoes.6 ­(For a related News and Trends article on the recent Vibram class action settlement, see http://www.podiatrytoday.com/june-2014 .)

Countering The Notion That Forefoot Striking Is More ‘Natural’

Along with the interest in barefoot and minimalist running shoes, there have been suggestions within the popular media that running with a forefoot striking pattern was more “natural” and better than running with a midfoot or rearfoot striking pattern. The most referenced article that seemed to support the idea that forefoot striking running was the “most natural” way to run came from a 2010 study by Lieberman and colleagues, who showed that there were reduced impact forces in habitually barefoot Kenyan runners who ran with a forefoot striking pattern.7 Researchers measured the Kenyan runners’ footstrike patterns at a relatively fast running speed of 5.5 m/sec (4:52 mile pace). In their study conclusion, Lieberman and coworkers maintained that “Forefoot and midfoot-strike gaits were probably more common when humans ran barefoot or in minimal shoes, and may protect the feet and lower limbs from some of the impact related injuries now experienced by a high percentage of runners.”7

   However, directly contradicting the findings of the study by Lieberman and colleagues, a more recent study by Hatala and coworkers in 2013 showed that when another group of habitually barefoot Kenyans ran at a much slower and more common recreational running speed of 3.3 m/sec (8:08 mile pace), 72 percent of these barefoot runners were rearfoot strikers, 24 were midfoot strikers and only 4 percent were forefoot strikers during running.7,8Therefore, the idea of Lieberman and coauthors that our ancestors who ran barefoot were predominantly forefoot strikers and were not rearfoot strikers seems unlikely. In addition, the speculation that forefoot striking running is a more “natural” form of running than rearfoot striking or midfoot striking running is not supported by the scientific research literature.

What The Research Reveals: Rearfoot Striking Preferred By Majority Of Runners

In order for the clinician to better understand the footstrike pattern debate and the scientific research on the subject, it is important first to review some of the most significant running research studies involving footstrike patterns.

   In 1980, Cavanagh and Lafortune published the first modern scientific study of footstrike patterns of runners.9 In their study, 17 people ran over a force plate to classify their running footstrike patterns. The researchers divided the anterior-posterior length of the shoe sole into equal thirds with those people who first contacted the ground with the proximal third of the shoe being labelled as rearfoot strikers, those contacting in the middle third being midfoot strikers and those contacting in the distal third of the shoe sole being forefoot strikers. At a 4.5 m/sec (5:58 mile pace) running velocity, 12 of the study participants were rearfoot strikers, five were midfoot strikers and none of the runners were forefoot strikers. In 1987, the term “strike index” first arose within the scientific literature to describe the percentage of the running shoe sole length, from anterior to posterior, where the runner first contacted the ground at footstrike.10

   In regard to the footstrike patterns of the running population as a whole, there have been seven research studies to date that have measured footstrike patterns in large numbers of runners. Kerr and colleagues measured the footstrike patterns of 753 runners in 10 km and marathon distance races, and found that 81 percent were rearfoot, 19 percent were midfoot and 0 percent were forefoot strikers.11 Hasegawa and coauthors studied the footstrike patterns of 283 elite half-marathoners and found that 74.9 were rearfoot, 23.7 percent were midfoot and only 1.4 percent were forefoot strikers.12 Larson and colleagues measured 936 half-marathon runners and found that 88.9 percent were rearfoot, 3.4 percent were midfoot, 1.8 percent were forefoot and 5.9 percent were asymmetrical foot strikers.13

   Out of 903 novice runners, Bertelsen and coworkers found there were 98.1 percent rearfoot, 0.2 percent midfoot, 0.4 percent forefoot strikers and 1.2 percent asymmetrical foot strikers.14 Kasmer and colleagues studied 1,991 runners in a marathon and found that 93.7 percent were rearfoot strikers.15 In a 50 km trail race, Kasmer and coauthors also determined that 85.1 percent of 165 runners were rearfoot strikers.16 Finally, Almeida and coworkers showed that in 514 recreational runners, 95.1 percent were rearfoot strikers, 4.1 percent were midfoot strikers and 0.8 percent were forefoot strikers.17

   Of the 5,545 runners who had their footstrike measured in these seven research studies, 90.8 percent (5,034) were rearfoot strikers (see “Seven Studies Show Rearfoot Striking Preferred Form In Runners” below).11-17 This conclusively demonstrates that the preferred footstrike pattern for the vast majority of runners is rearfoot striking.

Is There A Correlation Between Rearfoot Striking And Injury Rates?

There has also been much speculation from the barefoot running and minimalist running shoe advocates that forefoot and midfoot striking running must be the best ways to run since rearfoot striking running results in increased impact forces, which they suggest causes more running injuries. Helping to promote these ideas, Lieberman and coworkers claimed that midfoot and forefoot striking running “may protect the feet and lower limbs from some of the impact related injuries.” However, the available research studies on footstrike patterns and running injury rates do not support the conjecture of the barefoot and minimalist running shoe advocates.

   In 2003, Kleindienst prospectively studied 471 runners and found no difference in injury rates between forefoot and rearfoot striking runners.18 In 2005, Walther prospectively studied 1,203 runners and found no differences in injury rates between forefoot and rearfoot striking runners.19 In 1997, Nigg prospectively studied a group of runners and found that there were no significant differences in running injury frequency among those with high-, medium- or low-impact peaks, and those people with higher impact loading rates had fewer running-related injuries than those people with lower impact loading rates.20 Within his latest book on the sports shoe biomechanics, Nigg offered the following opinion: “Currently, there is no conclusive evidence that impact forces during heel-toe running are responsible for development of running-related injuries.”21

Current Insights On Running Form And Efficiency

Much of the media hype over the past few years regarding barefoot and minimalist shoe running has also spawned the development of a number of “alternative running techniques” that have been promoted and marketed to the running communities. These alternative running techniques invite runners to pay for instructional courses on how to learn to run with “better form.” The two most popular alternative running techniques include the Pose Method® of Running and Chi Running®, both of which are based on the notion that rearfoot striking is not only an inefficient “running form” but will lead to an increased incidence of running injuries.22,23

   It is interesting to note that the only scientific research that has studied whether these alternative running forms are indeed more metabolically efficient came from a group of researchers, one of whom was Nicholas Romanov, the inventor of the Pose Method of Running.24 In their 2005 study, 16 sub-elite triathletes were divided into one group that was trained to run with the “Pose” method and a control group that maintained their self-selected running technique over a 12-week period. The researchers found that the “Pose” runners became less metabolically efficient in comparison to the runners who maintained their self-selected running form. The oxygen cost for the “Pose” athletes was 7.6 percent greater than the oxygen cost for the control athletes. This indicated that the Pose Method of Running, instead of being a more efficient form of running, was actually a less efficient style of running than what the runners had self-selected as their preferred running form.

   With these facts in mind, there is support within the research literature that runners have the ability to self select their most efficient running form as they become more experienced runners. In 1982, Cavanagh and Williams performed a classic running research study that demonstrated that experienced distance runners are able to self select their most metabolically efficient running stride.25 In their experiment, 10 experienced distance running athletes ran at seven different stride lengths on a treadmill at 3.83 m/sec (7:00 mile pace). The stride lengths the athletes were asked to run at included their self-selected stride length, three shorter stride lengths and three longer stride lengths (80 percent, 86.6 percent, 93.3 percent, 100 percent, 106.7 percent, 113.4 percent and 120 percent of their self-selected stride length). The researchers found that when the study participants ran at stride lengths that were either shorter or longer than their self-selected stride length, the runners became less metabolically efficient. These research findings suggest that well-trained runners may be able to find their most metabolically efficient running form without needing to be “coached” in order to run with optimum efficiency.

   Since the vast majority of runners choose to rearfoot strike and less than 3 percent of runners choose to forefoot strike, it makes sense that there may be some metabolic advantage to rearfoot striking running.11-14 In fact, there are now a number of recent studies that support the idea that rearfoot striking running may be the predominant footstrike pattern since it is the most metabolically efficient running form at recreational running speeds.

   In 2009, Miller and colleagues performed a computer simulation study of rearfoot and midfoot running at 4.0 m/sec (6:42 min/mile).26 They found that rearfoot striking running was 6.3 percent more metabolically efficient than midfoot striking running. In 2013, Gruber and coauthors studied the rates of oxygen uptake during running in 19 habitual rearfoot and 18 habitual forefoot striking runners at three different running speeds, and found that the rearfoot striking pattern was more economical than the forefoot striking pattern at all running speeds.27 From their study, Gruber and coworkers rejected the commonly held idea that habitual rearfoot strikers should have training to be forefoot strikers to make them “more efficient runners.”

   Most recently, in 2014, Ogueta-Alday and colleagues studied 20 sub-elite distance runners, 10 who were rearfoot strikers and 10 who were midfoot strikers.28 They found that the rearfoot strikers were 5.4 percent more economical than the midfoot strikers at 3.0 m/sec (8:56 min/mile) and 9.3 percent more economical than the midfoot strikers at 3.6 m/sec (7:26 min/mile).

   Overall, there is now overwhelming research evidence that rearfoot striking running is not only the most common footstrike pattern but also the most economical footstrike pattern at recreational running speeds.

Altering Running Form: Can It Have An Impact For Runners With Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome?

Even with the scant research evidence supporting the notion that rearfoot strikers may benefit from converting to a midfoot or forefoot striking running form, there is some evidence that altering running form has the potential to benefit select individuals.

   In two recent case studies, both by Diebal and colleagues, runners with anterior chronic exertional compartment syndrome who underwent gait retraining from a rearfoot striking pattern to a forefoot striking pattern showed a significant decrease in pain and disability when running.29,30 Therefore, with this gait retraining research in mind, sports podiatrists may consider suggesting that a rearfoot striking runner with anterior chronic exertional compartment syndrome should make a gradual change to a midfoot or forefoot striking running pattern due to the initial positive results reported by Diebal and colleagues in treating this disabling running injury.

Final Notes

In conclusion, the barefoot/minimalist shoe advocates and the “alternative running technique” advocates have made a number of claims about footstrike patterns in running over the past five years. Unfortunately, very few, if any, of these claims have any support within the scientific research literature.

   Sports podiatrists who treat recreational and competitive runners need to be aware of the latest running research in order to be able to offer their patients thorough information and advice. Both recreational and competitive running athletes trust that sports podiatrists, as the foot and running shoe experts of their medical communities, are their best source for accurate information on running biomechanics, running injuries and proper footstrike patterns, and that the information they provide is based on scientific fact, not the latest fad.

   Dr. Kirby is an Adjunct Associate Professor within the Department of Applied Biomechanics at the California School of Podiatric Medicine at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, Calif. He is in private practice in Sacramento, Calif.


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6. Ridge ST, Johnson AW, Mitchell UH, et al. Foot bone marrow edema after 10-week transition to minimalist running shoes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013; 45(7):1363-1368.
7. Lieberman DE, Vankadesan M, Werbel WA, et al. Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature. 2010;463(7280): 531-536.
8. Hatala KG, Dingwall HL, Wunderlich RE, Richmond BG. Variation in foot strike patterns during running among habitually barefoot populations. PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e52548. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052548.
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10. Williams KR, Cavanagh PR: Relationship between distance running mechanics, running economy, and performance. J Appl Physio. 1987;63(3):1236-1245.
11. Kerr BA, Beauchamp L, Fisher V, Neil R. Footstrike patterns in distance running. In: Nigg BM (ed): Biomechanical Aspects of Sport Shoes and Playing Surfaces, University Press, Calgary, 1983, pp. 135-142.
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14. Bertelsen ML, Jensen JF, Nielsen MH, Nielsen RO, Rasmussen S. Footstrike patterns among novice runners wearing a conventional, neutral running shoe. Gait Posture. 2013;38(2):354–356.
15. Kasmer ME, Liu XC, Roberts KG, Valadao JM. Foot-strike pattern and performance in a marathon. Int J Sports Physio Perform. 2013;8(3):286-292.
16. Kasmer ME, Liu XC, Roberts KG, Valadao JM. The relationship of foot strike pattern, shoe type, and performance in a 50-km trail race. J Strength Cond Res. 7/15/13, doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a20ed4
17. de Almeida MO, Saragiotto BT, Yamato TP, Lopesa AD. Is the rearfoot pattern the most frequently foot strike pattern among recreational shod distance runners? Phys Ther in Sport. In Press. 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ptsp.2014.02.005 .
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Thank you for the article Dr. Kirby.

With the evidence overwhelmingly in favor of a rearfoot strike pattern and runners finding their own metabolically efficient running style, what do you think is the driving force behind the popularity of minimalist shoes and Pose Running style among some podiatrists?

Kevin A. Kirby DPM's picture


I believe there has been an overwhelming amount of misinformation and hype over the last five years being generated by a certain subset of individuals that for some unknown reason want to imagine that somehow, rearfoot striking is bad and forefoot and/or midfoot striking is good for all runners. These erroneous opinions were largely generated by books such as "Born to Run" by Chris McDougall where the author cherry-picked the large database of running biomechanics literature and hand-selected only researchers to interview for his book that favored his barefoot/minimalist shoe message.

In addition, Pose Running, even though popular among a small group of runners, has not been shown to be metabolically more efficient but rather has been found to be more metabolically inefficient. The creator of Pose Running was a coauthor of the article that found his own running form technique classes that runners pay to learn produced less metabolically inefficient running (Dallam GF, Wilber RL, Jadeles K, Fletcher G, Romanov N. Effect of a global alteration on running technique on kinematics and economy. J Sports Sciences. 2005;23(7):757-764).

All in all, the barefoot running and minimalist running fad is slowly dying a slow death here in the USA and in other countries. Runners that tried to convert to barefoot running and minimalist running shoes under the advice of supposed "experts" are now realizing that they drank the proverbial Kool-Aid by listening to and actually believing these "experts" that barefoot and minimalist running shoe running would be the cure-all for all their injuries. Many of them became injured, disillusioned and angry by listening to the hype from these "experts".

However, that being said, the barefoot/minimalist shoe and footstrike controversies over the past five years have served a useful purpose in that it generated significantly more interest in running and running shoe biomechanics that has led to much more research and helped us answer many research questions that could not have been answered five years ago. Hopefully, further research will allow us to better advise our patients and the public on the best running foot strike patterns and running shoe for their specific biomechanical makeup.

Kevin A. Kirby, DPM
Adjunct Associate Professor
Department of Applied Biomechanics
California School of Podiatric Medicine at Samuel Merritt College

Excellent article Dr. Kirby. Finally a balanced piece on the subject and backed by the current evidence instead of hyperbole and opinion.

Kevin A. Kirby DPM's picture

Thanks for the kind comments, David. I agree with you that scientific research evidence should be what drives our opinions on the important subject of foot strike patterns in runners.

In that regard, since I submitted this article for publication, an excellent article on footstrike patterns in ultra-marathon runners has been recently published which showed that a rearfoot strike pattern was again the predominant footstrike pattern in 373 runners in a 100 mile ultra-marathon race. At 16.5 km, the percentage of RF strikers was 79.9%, at 90.3 km was 89.0%, at 90.7 km was 84.8% and at 161.1 km was 83.9%.

In addition, it was found that the post-race creatine phosphokinase levels were significantly higher in the non-RF strikers than in the athletes that were RF strikers, indicating possibly that non-RF strikers may exhibit more muscle damage than RF strikers in ultramarathons (Kasmer ME, Wren JJ, Hoffman MD: Foot strike pattern and gait changes during a 161-km ultramarathon. J Strength Cond Research, 28 (5):1343-1350, 2014).

Much more research is necessary to determine what the optimum foot strike pattern is for each individual runner and how foot strike patterns affect the production of specific overuse injuries in the foot and lower extremities of recreational and competitive distance runners.

Kevin A. Kirby, DPM
Adjunct Associate Professor
Department of Applied Biomechanics
California School of Podiatric Medicine at Samuel Merritt College

Thanks for your valuable summary and for referring to our recent publication Kevin. I agree that the barefoot/minimalist shoe and foot strike controversies have stimulated new knowledge that we otherwise wouldn’t have at this point.

As for our recent study, you mentioned our finding of higher post-race blood creatine phosphokinase (CK) concentrations among non-rear foot strikers compared with rear foot strikers. While this analysis was pre-planned and we recognized a theoretical basis for the findings, it was indeed somewhat remarkable that the group difference reached statistical significance since there is such a wide variability in CK concentrations among the participants in this race.

The finding suggests that a small percentage of highly experienced runners naturally select a foot strike pattern that may neither be most economical nor optimal at limiting muscular damage. I suspect it’s not because these runners need to be re-educated about how to run correctly, but that they had adapted a movement pattern that was most effective for their needs under the circumstances of the event. I favor the concept that humans generally adapt to the most appropriate movement pattern over time, unless overly influenced by outside factors, and that part of our job as scientists is to explain why they do what they do. Some of our thoughts on this are discussed in our publication (Millet GY, Hoffman MD, Morin JB. Sacrificing economy to improve running performance – a reality in the ultramarathon? J Appl Physiology 2012;113:513).

Martin D. Hoffman, MD, FACSM, FAWM
Chief of PM&R, VA Northern California Health Care System
Professor of PM&R, University of California Davis
Research Director, Western States Endurance Run
Chief Medical Officer, Ultra Medical Team

Kevin A. Kirby DPM's picture


Thanks for the further information on your research. As you know, foot strike pattern is just one of the many kinematic variables when one is assessing the gait function of runners. Other kinematic variables such as arm swing, stride length, stride frequency, time of double float phase, angle of gait, base of gait and rearfoot pronation/supination may also be important variables that may or may not affect running performance, running efficiency and the production of running-related injuries. In addition, velocity of running also affects foot strike pattern with sprinters nearly always being forefoot strikers and slow joggers nearly always being rearfoot strikers.

One of my biggest frustrations of being involved with the barefoot/shod running and foot strike debate over the past five years is the notion among many of the barefoot/minimalist/anti-rearfoot striking advocates is their belief that 1) foot strike pattern is the most important running kinematic variable and 2) all runners would benefit from choosing to run with an "ideal" non-rearfoot striking pattern. Not only are these ideas not consistent with the current scientific literature, they also don't make sense from my forty years of observation of elite, sub-elite and recreational runners.

Certainly, we must all give the central nervous system of a runner credit that it can, over time, select the most metabolically efficient running form for that runner given that runner's paticular foot and lower extremity structural and functional biomechanical makeup. The fear of mine is that some running coach would read "Born to Run", believe all of the cherry-picked half-truths from that book and then start teaching all his runners to run without rearfoot striking. Unfortunately, I have seen that come true in my own running community. Hopefully, now that the barefoot/minimalist running fad is slowly dying, a little more sanity will prevail in running communities across our great country.

Kevin A. Kirby, DPM
Adjunct Associate Professor
Department of Applied Biomechanics
California School of Podiatric Medicine at Samuel Merritt College

It would have been nice if any of these studies correlated equinus with preferred strike patterns.

Nice article. What about the research on where your foot lands in relation to your hip? I have read articles and supposedly research that it isn't which part of your foot that strikes the ground first but is it in front of your hips or under your hips when it strikes the ground.

Kevin A. Kirby DPM's picture

Foot placement relative to the center of mass (CoM) of the body or to the hip joint during running is important but is not a constant. During acceleration, such as during the start of a sprint, the feet will be well behind the CoM and during deceleration in running, the feet will be well ahead of the CoM. In addition, at faster running speeds, where there is increased force on the body from the force of air pressure posteriorly, the feet will tend to be more posteriorly located relative to the CoM.

I believe that foot placement during running needs much more research before we can say that there is "one best foot placement relative to the CoM" for any one running speed, any one running surface angle or any one wind velocity.

Kevin A. Kirby, DPM


Thank you for an excellent article on this subject.

It would be also interesting to obtain more basic information about the physics pertaining to different running styles. Propulsion involves downward force applied by the forefoot which relates to leverage. The lever arms to look at involve the distance from the ankle joint, the fulcrum, to the forefoot surface involved in propulsion as well as the distance from the insertion point of the Achilles to the ankle joint fulcrum. Midfoot or forefoot striking effectively shortens the lever arm involved in propulsion, thereby potentially decreasing propulsive power or requiring greater force through the gastrosoleus-Achilles complex to achieve the same power.


Thank you for your interest in my article.

The scientific research on running biomechanics seems to indicate that rearfoot, midfoot and forefoot striking runners don't differ so much during propulsion but differ more in the initial loading stages of the support phase (i.e. stance phase) of running. In rearfoot strikers, there is an initial impact peak (i.e. passive peak) from ground reaction force (GRF) that is not seen in midfoot and forefoot striking runners. However, there seems to be little evidence to suggest that this impact peak is a cause of running injuries.

Contrary to what you state, there seems to be little evidence to suggest that "midfoot or forefoot striking effectively shortens the lever arm involved in propulsion." The gastrocnemius and soleus are used by all runners, regardless of whether they are rearfoot, midfoot or forefoot strikers, to propel themselves off the forefoot into the double-float phase of running so no change in lever arm during propulsion occurs. Rather, the big differences between these different foot-striking runners is in how they all absorb ground reaction force caused by the body decelerating the center of mass of the body falling downward during the first half of the support phase of running.

Kevin A. Kirby, DPM

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