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The Footstrike Debate

By Bobby McGee

runnersWhich is a better way for me to run, midfoot or heel striking? The answer is a definite and resounding, yes to either one.

Currently there is no research that proves either is better. All we know is that faster runners in shorter events, up to about 10k, tend to run with either their midfoot touching first and in most cases then lowering their heel like applying an L-shaped piece of carbon fiber onto the surface for elastic loading.

At slower speeds in distances over a mile, most runners heel strike first. Good runners also tend to heel strike when they run slow and long.

The only thing we know for certain is that runners who habitually run shod (with shoes) and then learn to run on their midfoot, reduce the shock around their knees and this shock shows up as increased stress in their plantar fasciae and Achilles’ tendons as well as the calf muscles.

Even when looking at middle distance runners, we notice that they are likely to start off running midfoot, and as they fatigue, they heel strike more.

Let’s try to get some clarity through considering some known quantities:

  • footstrikeArguably the greatest distance runner of all time, Haile Gebrselassie, altered his foot strike from midfoot to heel when he failed to transition from 10,000 meters to the marathon with the same degree of success; he now owns the official world marathon record and was the first person to break 2 hours, 4 minutes for the distance
  • Running on your actual toes is almost impossible
  • There is such a thing as poor midfoot striking and good midfoot striking
  • There is definitely such a thing as poor heel striking and good heel striking
  • Top triathletes succeed with either midfoot or heel striking, but the majority use heel/full-foot striking
  • Transitioning from heel to midfoot is precarious and seldom achieved without incident of injury
  • In those transitioning from heel to mid there are no scientifically supported reports of a decrease in injury. Quite the contrary in fact. Coach and author Matt Fitzgerald did a far-reaching inquiry into the incidence of injuries after the minimalist/barefoot craze began and found, not surprisingly, that there has been a significant increase in Achilles’ tendon and plantar fascia injuries reported by physical therapists and similar professionals

So what’s the difference between full foot, midfoot and heel striking?

  • Good heel strikers first contact the surface with the outside of the heel and roll inwards, slightly loading the arch and then forward to toe off somewhere between the big and middle toe
  • Effective midfoot strikers land with the outside of the foot just behind where the little toe attaches to the foot and then load or flex rearward until the heel touches briefly. Then the foot also rolls slightly inward, loads and comes off those first three toes
  • Decent full-foot strikers look like they apply the entire lateral part of the foot from behind the little toe to the heel at the same time, but there will be a winner in terms of first pressure (heel or mid) and the shoe evens that out

Few top triathletes are able, or should even try, to keep the heel completely off the surface. Good runners come onto their midfoot to sprint, surge or run in shorter races. Of the six elite U.S. men in the 2010 ITU World Championship Series Grand Final in Budapest, two were midfoot strikers and four were heel strikers.

What can we learn from this? Can an athlete’s increased awareness of how his or her foot should land lead to effective change? Most likely not; but here’s the skinny on a few things that might:

  • Land effectively. Place your foot on the ground, rather than just dropping it out of space. This entails accelerating your foot downward in a slight pawing move so that your foot is moving backward relative to your body just before contact. This will reduce shock and braking and provide you with a better pivot by having your contact point closer to your center of mass. This also will help minimize the quad-killing up-and-down motion in your gait.
  • Try to land with your foot as close to flat as possible — too much toe in the air, with a subsequent slap from an excess heel strike is bad for your body and bad for your run. Roll your foot from heel to toe as if your sole were curved like a partial wheel. Similarly, do not point your toe downward and have your foot in an excessively plantar-flexed position either.
  • If you do land on your forefoot, especially as a triathlete, be sure to allow your ankle to flex or spring load down sufficiently for the heel to take some of the put-down weight — don’t stay up on that midfoot throughout the stance/support phase.
  • Imagine stiffening (but not locking) your ankle so that the arch and Achilles’ tendon can load like sprung steel or rigid carbon fiber in order to release this elastic energy milliseconds later in a release off the surface in toe-off.
  • Pay attention to your shin. Whether you land on your midfoot or heel, if your shin is leaning rearward, even slightly, you are running with the brakes on — it has to be vertical at 90 degrees to the surface.

All of the above are best learned through specific drills, rather than trying to tweak your gait while running. Increase your gait awareness while you run; even have someone videotape you so that you have a better sense of what you are doing. You’ll soon realize what’s least jarring and most kind to your body. By trying to run soft with good spring, you’ll bring in the elements that make best use of your legs; you’ll return to the feel of what your legs do most naturally, and that’s run!

Certified & internationally respected, coach Bobby McGee has produced a DVD, (TRIATHLON, The Run) that extensively explains the running gait and provides specific drills pertinent to this article. Also check out his books, Magical Running (sport psychology) and Run Workouts for Runners & Triathletes (workouts & training plans). For more information go to: www.BobbyMcGee.com

Photo by Paul Phillips/Competitive Image. Illustrations by Charlie Jahner.

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