How Do Elite Marathoners Foot Strike?

About 10 years ago, when Born to Run was published, there was a flurry of activity across the running community regarding foot-strike pattern. For those of you less familiar with this terminology, foot strike refers to what part of your foot hits the ground firstwhen you are about to land. The narrative in Born to Run was often assumed to be the following: rear-foot striking is bad, and fore-foot or mid-foot striking is good. While the arguments for both sides definitely have merit, the wave of fashion quickly became one focused on training away from rear-foot strike, the theory being that if you rear-foot strike, then you are more likely to put strain on structures like bone and joint rather than on muscle and tendon. You can then take this idea and assume that if you put stress on more elastic structures (muscle and tendon), it will result in faster and less injury-prone runners. But does this theory hold up to the evidence?

Well, not so much. The evidence has gone back and forth over the past decade to support both arguments. What we can glean from this mixed information, however, is that the answer is notactually cut and dry. Therefore, foot striking may not matter as much as we initially thought.

For today’s blog post, we are going to review a recent study that was published in the Journal of Biomechanics.(1) This study took place at the 2017 IAAF World Championships for marathon. The researchers set up high-speed cameras to capture foot-striking pattern of elite runners as they raced. They were then able to analyze this data to provide some answers on how elite marathoners foot strike.

Now, before we go any further I know you may be thinking: “Well, Ryan, we aren’t elite marathoners, so how does this apply to us?” And you are absolutely correct. You and I may not be elite marathoners. But, that doesn’t mean we cannot get some useful information from this study. The reason for this involves the assumption that if an athlete is elite, it means that what he or she has been doing thus far, career wise, is clearly working. And we can also assume that someone who wasn’t doing something right would get injured and then would likely not achieve elite status.

So what did the study reveal? The results were actually quite interesting! If you subscribe to the theory of mid-foot striking superiority, then you would assume that these elites would be primarily mid foot or fore foot, right? Well, in reality that wasn’t the case. The most common striking pattern was rear foot, and the number of rear-foot strikers never dropped below 54 percent for men and 67 percent for women. In addition, the proportion of rear-foot striking was notdifferent between the top 50 percent and bottom 50 percent of finishers. So, it appears that pace and performance don’t exactly correlate with foot strike, either!

One interesting thing that happened during the race was that rear-foot striking patterns increased as race duration increased. So, it appears that as the runners got tired, more of them drifted into a rear-foot pattern. But again, the most prevalentstriking pattern was rear foot throughout the race. In fact, the top four finishers were all rear-foot strikers.

So how does this apply to us? Well, it looks like how we foot strike may not be so important. If the elites are doing so at such a high rate, we can assume that perhaps it isn’t so bad for us, either. But what does matter, then? An excellent question! It appears that we may be more successful examining variables such as knee flexion angles, landing distance from center of gravity, ground impact force, etc.

So now it looks like the good news for us is that we don’t really need to worry about foot-strike pattern. Is this a conclusive answer to this decades-long question? Most certainly not. However, it is adding further evidence to the argument that changing your foot strike may not provide the results we had once hoped for.

If you are interested in having a gait analysis to see what variables may actually be contributing to your speed or injury, we can help! We offer both in-person and online gait analysis for your convenience. Want to learn more? Email me today!

Keep running!


1. Hanley, B., Bissas, A., Merlino, S., & Gruber, A. H. (2019). Most marathon runners at the 2017 IAAF World Championships were rearfoot strikers, and most did not change footstrike pattern. Journal of Biomechanics.

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