Forefoot, midfoot, rearfoot, barefoot, minimalist, cushioning systems - you may have noticed that buying running shoes is a lot more complex these days. There are various running styles that you can follow, and shoe designs to suit them, but which one is right for you?
A brief history of running styles
Around 10 years ago, there was a famous “fitness guru” in Europe who heavily promoted forefoot running, which involves landing and pushing yourself off the ground with the front third of your feet. He supported his view of why people should run this way with various studies, however after a few years, runners who had followed his advice were being admitted to hospital with forefoot issues resulting in permanent damage. While this running style is beneficial for some athletes, the muscles and tendons of average runners may not be ready for forefoot striking.
With these issues in the spotlight, the focus reverted to rearfoot striking. This is where you touch the ground with your heel before rolling off and pushing up with the front of your foot. Given that this running style forces your heel to bear your weight, shoe sellers created various “support systems” to lessen the impact such as zigzag soles, gel bolsters, air pockets and more.
You may have recently noticed people who are running around either barefoot, or with strange looking shoes with thin soles and fabric between their toes. This is all part of the latest trend in minimalist footwear which tries to simulate the experience of running barefoot.
Barefoot runners believe that the body is better aligned when you run without shoes, and the act of switching to this style can alleviate many of the aches and pains caused by rearfoot running. They also believe that wearing shoes that were made for rearfoot striking hinders the natural stride which is shorter and more flexed in the various joints, providing a softer landing.
Putting it to the test
Being in the industry myself, I experimented with both styles and here is what I found from my experience.
Forefoot running put a lot of pressure on my (already problematic) joints. I quickly stopped running with this style as it hurt my forefoot and big toes over long distances, but I still use it to run uphill. If you observe hikers and hill runners, you’ll notice that the body does this naturally.
Running barefoot (literally) felt awesome at first – and even better when on sandy or grassy areas - but there is an inherent risk of stepping on sharp stones or other items. Therefore, going totally barefoot isn’t very practical if you live in urban areas, especially when our feet have lived inside shoes for most of their lives, and haven’t been conditioned for the harshness of the ground beneath us.
I also experimented with minimalist shoes to see how they would go. After running and walking a lot in them, I developed tendinitis due to the impact on my heel. While it is said that you naturally shift your running so that you land on the balls of your feet, my feet were so used to doing heel strikes given that I had worn those kinds of shoes for so long. The difference this time was that I was heel-striking without any support and it forced me to switch back to running shoes which had more heel cushioning.
Many doctors have reported this as well. “We’ve over-supported our feet [in running shoes] to the point that our foot doesn’t have to do what it’s designed to do," says Irene S. Davis, PhD, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and director of the Spaulding National Running Center.
For most of my life, I have used running shoes that provided heel and arch support to prevent my ankles from tilting inwards. Having tried all of the above options and speaking to many other runners, this seems to be the best long-term solution as we may have successfully unlearned how to run without the technology.
Which Running Style Is Best For You?
When choosing your running style, one of the important things to take into account is your injury history. For example, a study published in the Sports & Medicine Journal back in 2013 comparing forefoot and rearfoot strikers suggested that forefoot running could just be the right thing for runners with knee pain.
In addition, it is recommended to get a running analysis before buying a new pair of running shoes to ensure that you get exactly what your feet need.
Above all, go with what feels best for you. If you can run long distances without getting pain in your toes, ankles, knees, hip or lower back, then you probably have the right running style and shoes. If not, make some changes. Don’t be afraid to experiment with other styles and shoes to see how it feels.
If you are – like me – a rearfoot striker, but would really like to shift to barefoot running, start slow. Treat it as if you are learning to run for the first time (eg. run in intervals of run-walk-run-walk) so that your feet can prepare the right muscles and tendons that are required for this style of running.