There is much controversy about the proper footfall when running. Some experts say it’s best to land on your forefoot. Other experts say you should land on your midfoot. And while not many experts say it’s OK to land on your heel, some experts say that heel striking really isn’t so bad.
I am currently reading a book titled, The Lost Art of Running by Shane Benzie and Tim Major. Benzie is a running coach whose expertise is running form. In his book, he writes about every aspect of running form but I am particularly interested in what he has to say about foot strike. I’ll get to his theory on foot strike shortly but I want to start by reviewing what other running experts have to say about foot strike.
Heel Striking Found to be OK
Landing on your heels has always been considered the wrong way to land while running. According to an article on RoadRunnerSports.com’s website, rearfoot striking, or heel striking, is the most metabolically efficient of the foot strikes.
I have always read heel strikers are more prone to injury, but this article states that heel strikers are actually less prone to injury because the shock of the foot strike is absorbed by the knees rather than the ankles. The argument is knees are generally stronger.
Forefoot Strike is Easier on Knees
Many running experts believe that runners should strike the ground with their forefoot. A major advantage of the forefoot strike is that the running impact is easier on your knees. People who develop knee issues are told if they switch to a forefoot strike their knee pain will eventually go away.
The forefoot strike running revolution came about partially due to the influence of the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. McDougall spent some time in Mexico with the Tarahumara, who for hundreds of years had been running up and down the Copper Canyons in the northwest of the country.
Two of the characters in the book, Barefoot Ted and Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard anthropologist, were true believers in barefoot and minimalist running. One of the tenets of running barefoot or in minimal shoe wear is that you will naturally land on your forefoot when running. This has since been shown to not necessarily be the case, but the belief is strong enough that it still persists. It turns out that some barefoot runners land on their forefoot but other runners will still naturally land on their heels or midfoot.
There are some definite disadvantages to a forefoot landing. The major disadvantage is the forefoot strike puts a lot of pressure on the Achilles tendon and the calves. Since these muscles don’t get developed as well when landing on your heels or midfoot, runners who try to switch to a forefoot strike often ending up damaging their Achilles tendon or their calves, or both.
Many runners who are trying to switch to a forefoot strike end up landing on the ground on their toes without the forefoot or the heel ever touching the ground. The proper technique for a forefoot strike is for the dome of the foot to hit the ground and then the foot rocks back so that the heel briefly touches the ground. Here is a good site that explains how runners can develop an appropriate forefoot strike.
The Middle Ground — The Midfoot Strike
The midfoot running strike is one where the runner lands on the ball of their foot rather than the heel or the forefoot. Some running experts believe this is the best foot strike because it minimizes injuries and maximizes energy use.
With this foot strike, the calf and the shin take about the same amount of stress when the foot lands, so you may be less likely to be injured in one or both of those places. Another advantage to a midfoot strike is that you are less likely to overpronate when landing on the midfoot, which also leads to fewer injuries such as calf tendonitis.
There are, of course, some disadvantages to the midfoot strike. For many runners, this is not a natural footstrike so it will have to be practiced. This can be hard on long-time runners as it's not easy to change the way your feet have been landing after many years of running.
Another disadvantage of the midfoot strike is that changing to this strike is no guarantee that you will not end up injured or that it will improve your running. Most runners will have to take some time, practice the midfoot strike, and then see if they stay injury-free and/or make improvements in their times after they’ve adopted this foot strike.
The Full Foot, Tripod Landing
There is another type of foot strike that is close to a midfoot strike but is really a full-foot strike. Running form expert Shane Benzie favors this type of foot strike and describes it as a foot strike where the runner lands on the full dome of the foot. Benzie calls this a tripod landing, which he describes in his book The Lost Art of Running.
You can draw the tripod as a triangle where the endpoints are the heel, the area around the first metatarsal bone, and the area around the fifth metatarsal bone. If you connect straight lines between these points you get a triangle or a tripod, as Benzie calls it.
This area forms a dome around the arch of the foot. Benzie prescribes the best footfall as one where the foot lands evenly so that all sides of the dome are contacted when a runner's foot hits the ground. Benzie describes this action as dropping a bowl onto the floor. If the bowl lands so that all edges of the bowl contact the ground, the bowl stays in one piece. But if the bowl lands on one of the sides, the bowl is more likely to break.
The same goes for your foot. If your foot lands solidly on the ground with all sides of the dome making contact, you’re less likely to injure your foot. But if you are consistently landing more to one of the sides or, say, your heel, you are more likely to get injured.
Benzie also points out that the full-footed landing is also more energy-efficient. Every time your foot hits the ground, your body decelerates. Landing on your heels causes more deceleration than landing on your full foot. All this deceleration obviously slows you down and it also causes you to use more energy than necessary.
What is the Best Foot Strike?
After spending some time researching what the internet has to say about foot strikes, I have to conclude that there is no best foot strike. I believe most running form experts and running coaches say a mid-to-full foot strike is the best strike for most running. I have seen a few elite runners and coaches favor a forefoot strike as long as calf and Achilles tendon exercises are performed in conjunction with running on the forefeet.
You will also occasionally find that some runners and coaches say that heel striking is OK if you are getting the performance you want and you are staying injury-free. I don’t doubt this can be true for some runners but I believe the majority of runners who are running with a heel strike should look into changing their landing to a full-foot or a forefoot strike for the best results and the least chance of injury.
Thanks for reading and please respond to this article or email me with your comments and suggestions.