Lots of research has emerged about the kinematics of running, fueling debates over footwear and strike patterns. A recent study published in The Journal of Experimental Biology (2010; 213, 790–97) sought to slow things down a bit and look at the energy costs of different gait patterns. “Our heel touches the ground at the start of each step,” stated David Carrier, biology professor at the University of Utah and lead study author. “In most mammals, the heel remains elevated during walking and running.” So which gait pattern—heel first, ball-of-foot first or toes first—is most energy efficient for humans?

Carrier and his research associates asked 27 volunteers to perform each gait variation during walking and running. The researchers used a “force plate” to determine ground impacts and measured participants’ oxygen consumption. A secondary portion of the study took place in Germany and focused primarily on the activity of muscles that support the ankles, knees, hips and back during walking.

At study completion, the scientists
determined that for walking, the heel-first gait pattern was the most efficient of the three. According to the results, ball-of-foot-first walking required 53% more energy than the heel-first pattern; walking on the toes was 83% more demanding. Carrier posited that “walking heel first is not more economical because it is more stable or
involves fewer, longer strides, but because when we land on our heels, less energy is lost to the ground, we have more leverage, and kinetic and potential energy are converted more efficiently.”

While a heel-first gait may be best for walking, however, the researchers conceded that running this way does not increase running economy. “The important thing is that we are remarkably economical walkers,” added Carrier. “We are not efficient runners. In fact, we consume more energy to run than the typical mammal our size.”