Saturday, November 26, 2011

Heel Striking and You - Is a Heel Strike Really That Bad?

Heel-striking in action
Are you a heel striker? Most of us are. Our feet are built that way, just look at the overbuilt heel pads on our bare feet for proof. But is it bad to be a heel striker? Let the debate continue.

As a heel-striker myself, I've found this general rule. The slower you run, the more efficient a heel strike is. And "slower" is subjective and should be relative to your own speed. I don't usually cite information from message boards, but here is where I started my search (Heel-Striking Running is More Energy Efficient Than Midfoot-Striking Running).

Another interesting article of note comes from Podiatry Today (for a layperson I read a lot of medical journals, what do you do...). The author points out early that a lot of people attempt self treatment as their de facto first aid, and then come into the podiatrists office with a self-diagnosed problem. He continues on the article point out the "barefoot running fad". Although I object to the "fad" comment, the article clearly points out that a quick transition to different running shoes/no running shoes is an extremely common cause of injury. What does this have to do with heel striking? Continue reading below.

A new study in the Journal of Sports Sciences looked at not only if most runners were heel strikers (they are), but if their gait changed during long distance races. They observed about 900 runners, mostly recreational (or "sub-elite") and noted that about 90% were heel strikers at 10km into the race. Near the 20 mile mark, almost all had switched to a heel strike ("Foot strike patterns of recreational and sub-elite runners in a long-distance road race" subscription required to read entire article). I will point out that one of the authors of the study is also the head blogger over at Runblogger, a great source of running info for the technically minded. The shorter a race distance, the more forefoot and midfoot striking you will see, going up to about the 1500 (metric mile). Throw in a few more miles, say 25.2 more, and you have almost 100% heel striking in the non-elite running caste.

Below is a video of Usain Bolt (in slow mo) winning in Beijng a few years ago. Note how he is on his forefoot. Below that I inserted a slow mo of Bernard Lagat and Chris Solinksy running the 5,000 m, and famous marathon runner Ryan Hall. Notice the progression from forefoot to midfoot to slight heel strike.

I'll point out that I am skeptical of those who claim that running completely shod/barefoot/zero drop is the path of least resistance to reducing injuries. I know runners of all sorts, and all of them have some sort of injury at one time or another. The only way to reduce injury is through smart training and recognizing your body's limits. My own personal opinion is that everyone has a different running gait, and that their running shoe and form should reflect that. I am tall and have long legs, my stride will be different than a short dude with stubby legs. Also, and I haven't looked for a study on this but have done enough reading to know, women have shorter stride length than men. They simply lack the muscle mass to take the larger stride men do (except this chick). Don't need a lot of science to point that out.

Although I don't agree with him on all of his points, in an interview with Sneaker Freaker magazine (Simon Bartold - The Bullsh!t Detector)) Simon Bartold (again, as pointed out in the great Runblogger) says specifically that we have "evolved" to run with shoes on our feet. I think he meant "adapted", as cushioned running shoes are a fairly new thing to Western civilization. I do agree that we adapt our running strides to what we put on our feet. Just watch any kid run. They run barefoot up on the balls of their feet. Throw some shoes on them at beginning of cross country season and you'll have yourself a heel striker.

My takeaway from all of this is simple - you should run with the stride your body gives you. If you want to change your stride, do so slowly. Take the time to build up the unused muscles and joints properly and you can make a successful transition. SLOWLY!

I'll leave you with one of the most graceful runners of our time, and one of the greatest distance runners in history, Haile Gebreslassie. Notice how he contacts the ground with a FULL FOOT stirke, not heel or forefoot. It appears that he even has a slight heel strike at times.


Pose Running Reduces Running Economy...the missing study

A Guide to Conservative Care for Heel Pain


  1. Great post Roosh. You hit on a lot of great ideas, the most important of which is listening to your body and knowing your limits. I have spent more painful miles in shoes than I have barefoot, but that is not at all about my lack of footwear (sometimes minimalist footwear). All of my pain was due to form. I was a super heavy heel striker and that doesn't work for me. Removing the shoes and thick cushion lead to an improved landing in my gait and I said good-bye to shin splints and turf toe. That does not mean that the transition was quick. It literally took months and though my form and endurance are improved, my longest trek is only 6 miles barefoot. Regardless, I now love to run and that is the important thing!

  2. Thanks! Heel striking is such an interesting aspect of modern running. It isn't how we evolved to run, but put some shoes on and we do. Even the elite. It was interesting to see the medical and academic take on it.

    Your story is what made me more interested in the "why", so thanks for losing the shoes!

    I am currently moving to a midfoot landing and my speed has taken off. Feel like I am working harder but that hopefully will get better as my calves get stronger.

    Keep me posted on the half marathon training this winter!

  3. I really believe that the reason we start to heel strike when we add cushion to our shoes is because we are looking for the input to know where our body is. Our feet are full of receptors to let us know where we are in space so when you decrease the sensitivity (cushion) you increase the gain (impact transient) needed to get the same stimulation and proprioceptive information. The heels are cushioned enough that we don't fire pain receptors though. The problem with that is, pain tells us when we are doing something that injures our bodies, and is a great motivator in stopping that activity. Take the most elite runner ever, and the most amateur runner ever (me). Make us both run barefoot for a 1/2 mile on concrete and I bet neither one of us is heel striking at the end. Now make us run 26.2 on concrete barefoot. I have to imagine the elite runner is still not heel striking, and now the amateur runner (me) is dead. Bad experiment, but my premise is that heel striking is unique to the shod world. Now, it is common to see people who want to jump on the barefoot bandwagon that go out and buy some of those "toe shoes" and heel strike right down the street with no thought of form while keeping up their previous training schedule. These people will be injured quickly and curse the barefoot movement as the reason but the problem was their crappy form. Now I'm pontificating on your blog and that's a mean thing to do so I'll shut up, but I love these conversations. The trouble is, I don't think there is a perfect answer for everyone, and there never will be.

  4. Heel strike is too general a term. You can land on your heel in a glancing, proprioceptive way leading the foot to roll forward, with the foot underneath your hips and center of mass (maybe this considered a midfoot strike?) or your heel strike can be extreme as a result of over striding with your foot striking way out in front of your center of mass and producing a braking effect which sends shock up your body.

    When I run barefoot, especially on grass, I find that I tend to still involve some slight heel contact.

    As far as evolution goes, everyone ignores the fact that the heel bone is by far the largest bone in the foot. It's unlikely that it has no use running. If we were evolved to just be forefoot runners our feet would be more like cats and dogs.

  5. This argument is incredibly weak and misleading; it is completely lacking support. Simple observations of how most runners land is not evidence at all.


Please add to the conversation!