Have you ever tried altering your running form? It’s kind of like trying to write your name with your non-writing hand: It feels like a wobbly, drunk four-year-old has possessed your body, and it can be a pretty uncomfortable endeavor, at least at first. But a study recently published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests that switching up your running form, while a bit difficult in the beginning, could be just the fix for runners experiencing knee and Achilles’ tendon pain.
According to the New York Times, studies show that an overwhelming percentage of humans are heel-strikers (in one study, 90 percent and in another 94 percent), meaning that they hit the ground with their heel first, rather than their forefoot. However, when we don’t wear shoes, the majority of us strike with our forefoot instead. Considering these findings, many running coaches and experts argue that forefoot-striking is the more natural and, therefore, the less injury-prone form of running.
To test this theory, researchers matched 19 forefoot-striking female runners with an equal number of female heel-striking runners of similar ages, heights, weights and running paces. The women were fitted with motion-capture sensors and, using formulas validated in other experiments, researchers determined how much force the women were creating with each stride and, more importantly, where that force hit the leg.
They found that the heel-strikers took about 16 percent more force through the knee joint than the forefoot strikers. But the forefoot-strikers weren’t perfect either: Those who landed on their forefoot absorbed nearly 20 percent more force through their ankles and Achilles tendons than the heel-strikers.
So far, the study tells us what many of us already know: Runners are seriously susceptible to joint-pain in their knees and ankles. But it also suggests something that we might not have thought of: If you are a heel-striker with consistent knee pain during your daily runs, you might want to try switching to a forefoot-striking stride to absorb less force in the knee joints. And vice versa if you are a forefoot-striker with aching Achilles’ tendons—try a heel-strike next time.
While the study doesn’t confirm that altering your stride will decrease your leg pain, it’s worth a try. Even if you feel like a drunk toddler for a few minutes.