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Running Technique: Forefoot or Heel Strike?

Forefoot or heel strike? Today the debate is hotter than ever! Due to the repetitive nature of the sport there is no question that as your mileage goes up the chance for injury increases. There are few other sports that require us to do the same motion for potentially continuous hours on end. It is also no secret that due to marketing from shoe companies, and performance gear there is no shortage of information. In fact, it can be hard to tell what good info is, and well let’s just say crap info. In this quest to lessen the impact and decrease injuries, heel striking has seemed to have been demonized. The thought is that landing on the forefoot will allow the foot to absorb some of the force, and that landing on the heel will cause too harsh of a contact. This is a real challenge for our bodies since we walk on only two feet. In four-legged animals the front feet are soft to absorb shock. Just watch a cat jump and land. Their hind feet are ridged to better power them forward. Our feet must accomplish both tasks. They must land softly absorbing shock, then pronate and become ridged in order to be efficient in transferring energy to the ground propelling us forward.

To answer this question about heel strike vs. forefoot we must first understand the human gait. The human gait cycle can be broken up into stages.

FIRST STAGE Initial Contact: The initial moment your foot hits the ground.

SECOND STAGE Initial Loading Response/Midstance: Load acceptance phase of the gait cycle. All your body weight is on one leg. Your body is trying to control three to ten times your body weight in force. THIRD STAGE Toe-off: Hip extending behind you which drives your body forward.

FOURTH STAGE Swing: Should include a “flight phase.” Your leg swings through the air preparing to make contact to the ground again to complete the gait cycle. The difference in walking and running is in this phase. While walking one foot is always on the ground. While running there is a moment when both feet are in the air.

There is no doubt the current trend in magazines articles are barefoot, minimalist, and forefoot running. These styles are encouraged by techniques such as pose running technique. This is where people land further up on the foot at the forefoot area. The thought is that the foot will be able to help decrease the force of the foot striking the ground apposed to the heel striking the ground. Shoe companies attempted to step in and help with the distribution of force by placing a large amount of cushion in the heels of running shoes. We have seen that this didn’t exactly fix the problem since runners where still getting injured.

So, which is correct?

Honestly in my opinion there isn’t one. The research isn’t clear either way. Forefoot runners typically have more load placed on the Achilles, calf muscles. This can cause more calf and Achilles injures as opposed to more knee and hip injures with heel striking. You almost trade one for the other. When you watch high end marathon runners you will see both heal strikers and forefoot runners who both perform at a high level. There are many factors such as running type, foot shape, and many more that effect a runner’s gait and which landing they will prefer. In my clinical experience the most important part of preventing running injures is where the foot lands in relation to the runner’s center of gravity more than where on the foot the runner lands.

One of the big contributors to running injures that I see is over striding. This is where the runners foot lands far out in front of their body. Usually when people transition to forefoot running, they naturally shorten their stride length since it is hard to land on your forefoot with the leg stretched way out in front. When a runner over strides it is like driving down the road in a car and constantly stomping the break. All the force comes straight up the kinetic chain. This causes a loss of efficiency but leads to injury. Runners who land softly on their heel with their foot striking the ground under their center of gravity are less likely to suffer injury.

  1. Instead of focusing on where your foot is striking focus more on how far you foot is landing in front of your body.

  2. Increase your Candance. Runners injures are caused by the force their body experiences when encountering the ground. It is best to limit the amount of time your body is under load with a higher cadence.

  3. Work on single legged strength training. Most of a runner’s time will be spent on one leg. It is best to train your body’s ability to control your body weight with one leg.

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