Experiment shows: walking heel first more efficient

2010 February 16
tags: ,
by Simba

This will not, of course, settle the agelong debate of whether to walk toe first or heel first in tango. Still, I found it interesting that there has recently been  published research on the efficiency of the human walk, specifically investigating walking heel first versus walking toe first.  If you are striving for the most efficient walk, their conclusion might be worth noting:

When human subjects walked with their heels slightly elevated in a ‘low-digitigrade’[toe first] posture, COT [cost of transport] increased by 53% above that of normal plantigrade [heel first] walking.

Cunningham, C. B., Schilling, N., Anders, C. andCarrier, D. R. (2010).
The influence of foot posture onthe cost of transport in humans.
J. Exp. Biol. 213, 790-797

The researchers were wondering why we are not walking and running toe first like many other animals and wanted to test the hypothesis that walking heel first is more efficient. They did experiments with different walks and runs on a treadmill where they could measure the oxygen consumption of their subjects at normal walking speed. They also did experiments with running subjects, where this difference does not exist.

In short, the reasons for the increased efficiency of walking heel first are (p. 796):

  1. lower collisional losses of the body as a whole
  2. increased recovery of kinetic and potential energy
  3. lower ground reaction force moments specifically at the ankle joint.

Not very surprising, maybe, to anyone who has tried both ways, but now you’ve got the reference 🙂

Their paper says nothing about style, of course…

Illustration taken from the original paper.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. 2010 February 16
    Sophie Tango permalink

    Thanks, very interesting, because you can translate this result into: toe first, 50% more work. Who really wants to get extra tired (and look weird imho)?

  2. 2010 February 18
    cindy permalink

    just heard this a couple of weeks ago- puts a small, interesting twist in the story?

    Lieberman found that runners in shoes usually landed heel-first. Barefoot runners landed farther forward, either on the ball of their foot or somewhere in the middle of the foot, and then the heel came down — much less collisional force.

    And people who switched from shoes to barefoot running eventually, without prompting, adopted the barefoot style.

    ….”Turns out that the way in which barefoot runners run seems to store up more energy,” he says.

  3. 2010 February 18

    @Sophie: Well, there are some very fine dancers that advocate toe first, so it’s not that clear to me at last. There are some practical advantages, too, not when walking straight forward, but for pivots, giros, apojes etc etc, much of the fine footwork.

    @Cindy: Interesting. But that study is about running, and tango is supposedly a walking dance. In the study I referred to, they found a difference between walking and running, and the running results do not conflict with the one you mention, I think.

    Barefoot tango does not seem like a good idea to me, the pivots would kill you 🙂

  4. 2010 February 18
    cindy permalink

    hi simba,
    yes- i guess i was thinking of dancing in heels…! 🙂 and also, that ‘ready’ or ‘at rest’ position, with one’s weight in that spot, somewhere just behind the ball of the foot…

  5. 2010 March 21
    Davide Baroncelli permalink

    I recently went to a class where, after years of toe-first dancing, the teacher told us “I am going to teach you how to dance the old tangos, from the 20s and the 30s”. Now, when I hear really old tangos in milongas I normally remain seated (because I feel them distant to my sensibility like, say, an Italian song from the same era, such as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9EfjMClIDk ), but that could have been interesting, if it hadn’t involved, exactly, heel first and short steps, two of the things that produce the ugliest tango that I’ve seen around.

    Still, I diligently followed the advices, and experienced in my legs what that means. Heel first means that for a natural muscular reason, stretching the leg is much harder, and doing a reasonably long step harder still. This naturally brings to people dancing with their knees bent and protrudent when doing a step, and in a lot of cases also to put their buttocks out from the axis line.

    So: do you want heel first? You get knee bent, short steps, buttocks out as a minimum. What could there be worse? Of course all the other implications: without toe first you can’t do the basic thing that allows for elegant steps when moving rapidly and with long steps, that is “not falling on the foot”. Try to tell Roberto Herrera in the nineties (he doesn’t dance like this anymore, alas) to put his heel first: how could have he reached the level of perfection of this performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cl-cFnbUYE ?

    Toe first is not an option: it is a necessity to have a fluid steps in the fastest conditions, and even more a necessity to avoid what my italian teacher would call the “scammellamento” (which you could translate with something like “walk with a camel-style bounce”), that is constantly moving up and down the body (and the head in particular): the most elegant dancers are those that, regardless how complicate are the steps they perform, always have their eyes line at the same height (and don’t look down, btw), and for this to happen it is imperative to be able to balance the weight with the help of the toes.

    So, it’s not only “toe first”, it’s also “toe last”, because when the toes of the foot ahead approach the floor, the ones from the foot behind are pushing slightly on the floor, which also creates (if done well) that slight “sliding” effect while walking (that is the foot ahead slightly slides when touching the floor, pushed by the one behind) that also contributes to the fluidity and elegance of the movement and is impossible to do with heel first approaches.

    Those who think that a study on walking styles can help them dance better have a weird approach to dance, IMHO: what it can help them do is walk better when they get to the milonga. Once they’re on the dancefloor, it’s a completely different world, and (hopefully) “walking” or “running” is not what they want to do there.

  6. 2010 March 24

    Thanks, that’s an interesting comment. I agree 100% about the toe last thing, but that was not the poing. Actually I didn’t really want to go into the toe-first/heel-first discussion, but I guess I asked for it…

    To me it is not quite as straight forward, there are pros and cons for both approaches, but for a lot of steps you have no choice but walk toe first as you say. The main pro of the heel first is that it is more natural and easier to create a strong walk (walking forwards). Then you would roll onto the ball of the foot. So the ‘heel’ first I’m talking about is actually a mixed approach.

    Walking heel first into a giro would be hideous and very unconfortable, methinks. (And yes, some people do just that…)

  7. 2010 October 25
    Frank permalink

    Herera is a great dancer. No doubt about that. If you look a bit more carefully you will see that he is using heel first quite often. Since he is performing (dancing very dynamically and wide he has to use lots of force out of his legs) he dances on the balls of the feet with slightly bent knees. That is quite common for performers.
    In a milonga you would not dance like that.
    If you need a teacher who can show you how to dance with traight legs without your buttocks out and with an elegant posture and legs let me know. I can recommend some.

  8. 2011 June 26
    Sue permalink

    I have been treated for planter fascititis for a year and a half. I just had my third shock treatment. If this does not help, (results can take up to 6 weeks) the next step will have to be surgery. I stand on my feel and walk all day at work.
    My son-in-law happen to notice I walk heel to toe. He said that is definetly putting pressure on my heel. I have been actively practicing walking toe to heel (this is kind of hard and I feel funny) but I already notice a difference in my heel. It has only been 2 days. I am sooooo excited. This definetly makes sence and works for me. I don’t walk as heavy this way and no impact on my heel.

  9. 2013 May 1
    Naomi D'Amour permalink

    i realy like your image of the foot – going into a step. i would like to use it for a flyer for my tango technique workshop (in berlin – http://www.tangotanzenmachtschoen.de ). would this be possible regarding rights? shall i pay rights to use it?
    i would be very gratefull for a quick answer.

  10. 2013 May 7

    The illustration is taken from the mentioned article. so I’m not really the one to ask. Sorry.

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