|Heel-striking in action|
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.
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