Ground reaction force metrics are not strongly correlated with tibial bone load when running across speeds and slopes: Implications for science, sport and wearable tech

PLoS One. 2019 Jan 17;14(1):e0210000. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0210000. eCollection 2019.


Introduction: Tibial stress fractures are a common overuse injury resulting from the accumulation of bone microdamage due to repeated loading. Researchers and wearable device developers have sought to understand or predict stress fracture risks, and other injury risks, by monitoring the ground reaction force (GRF, the force between the foot and ground), or GRF correlates (e.g., tibial shock) captured via wearable sensors. Increases in GRF metrics are typically assumed to reflect increases in loading on internal biological structures (e.g., bones). The purpose of this study was to evaluate this assumption for running by testing if increases in GRF metrics were strongly correlated with increases in tibial compression force over a range of speeds and slopes.

Methods: Ten healthy individuals performed running trials while we collected GRFs and kinematics. We assessed if commonly-used vertical GRF metrics (impact peak, loading rate, active peak, impulse) were strongly correlated with tibial load metrics (peak force, impulse).

Results: On average, increases in GRF metrics were not strongly correlated with increases in tibial load metrics. For instance, correlating GRF impact peak and loading rate with peak tibial load resulted in r = -0.29±0.37 and r = -0.20±0.35 (inter-subject mean and standard deviation), respectively. We observed high inter-subject variability in correlations, though most coefficients were negligible, weak or moderate. Seventy-six of the 80 subject-specific correlation coefficients computed indicated that higher GRF metrics were not strongly correlated with higher tibial forces.

Conclusions: These results demonstrate that commonly-used GRF metrics can mislead our understanding of loading on internal structures, such as the tibia. Increases in GRF metrics should not be assumed to be an indicator of increases in tibial bone load or overuse injury risk during running. This has important implications for sports, wearable devices, and research on running-related injuries, affecting >50 scientific publications per year from 2015-2017.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Running*
  • Tibia / physiology*
  • Wearable Electronic Devices*
  • Young Adult