I am often asked by runners if they should convert from being a heel-striker to a forefoot or
midfoot striker. This question really came to prevalence when Born to Run by Christopher
McDougall came out around a decade ago. (This a great read, by the way, if you have not read
it). The topic of barefoot or minimalist running is a blog post for a different time, but we can
address the concept of heel striking vs non-heel-striking now.
The common thought over the past 10 or so years has been that heel striking is somehow the
devil and it will injure and break your body. We should change it at all costs. This is a sentiment
that could have some merit, however, does the evidence support this stance? Before we do this
though, we should define foot strike!
Foot strike pattern: the area of your foot that hits the ground first when you land. If your heel
hits first, then you would be considered to be a heel-striker. If any other part hits first, you
would be considered a non-heel-striker.
In a study published in 2019(1), researchers examined the relative benefit or risks of foot strike
when running. They divided runners into two groups: heel-strikers and non-heel-strikers.
Thankfully, this research report featured 53 studies (that’s a lot!), so we can feel confident in
what the study is telling us. Here’s what they found:
- There is limited evidence that non-heel-strike runners had lower reported repetitive
- There is also limited evidence that running economy was not different between heel-
strikers and non-heel-strikers
- However, when changing from a heel-striking to non-heel-striking gait pattern, running
economy is reduced in the short term
- Non-heel-strikers had lower average and peak loading rate (less forces on your body!)
- Non-heel-strikers had reduced patellofemoral joint stress
- Non-heel-strikers had lower knee flexion range of motion (more efficient!)
- Non-heel-strikers had higher calf muscle activity
This study revealed a lot of information! If you’ve been a patient with me before, you have
likely heard some of this information before. The most important findings from this study are
reduced forces from the ground, reduced patellofemoral joint stress, and reduced injury rate.
HOWEVER, the researchers made one big statement in conclusion. They believe that while
evidence is significant, it is not good enough to support changing from heel-striking to non-
heel-striking if you aren’t injured. Whoa. This is a big deal, because it means that heel-striking
alone may not be that bad. So what gives? We have to look at running gait to understand what
may be happening.
In the above edited picture, we have two runners. The left runner is landing well in front of his
center of gravity (black line), while the right runner is landing close to underneath himself
(green line). In reality, it does not matter what part of his foot hits first. What matters is how far
in front of his center of gravity he is landing! This is because when you land way in front of
yourself, you have increased braking force, increased ground reaction force, and lessened
running economy. Let’s look at another example.
This is Eliud Kipchoge. If you don’t know, he is currently the only human being to run a
marathon in under 2 hours. He is quite fast. He is also about to land in a heel-strike in the above
photo. Plenty of elite runners heel-strike! But the difference is that they are landing underneath
themselves, just like the right runner in the first picture.
So what can we take away from this? We should not be so concerned with foot strike pattern –
and instead we should be trying to land underneath ourselves as much as possible. And initially
this change will be hard! If you need help doing this or are injured, reach out to me so we can
get you running again!
Thanks for reading,
1. Anderson, L. M., Bonanno, D. R., Hart, H. F., & Barton, C. J. (2019). What are the Benefits and Risks
Associated with Changing Foot Strike Pattern During Running? A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis
of Injury, Running Economy, and Biomechanics. Sports Medicine, 1-33.