Heel Strike or Toe Strike?
January 23, 2010 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Should I heel strike? Or toe strike? With all the recent controversy about athletic shoes with lots of padding vs. athletic shoes with no padding (e.g. Nike Frees), I'm unclear how I'm supposed to be running.

If time wounds all heels, should I not heel strike?

When you run, you have the option of letting your foot come down however it naturally does; trying to have it come down on the heel; or trying to run on the balls of your feet, like our four footed friends.

Previously I've tried to throw my foot forward so that I heel-strike, because theoretically that's how you maximize the bounce that athletic shoes give you. But I could also hit the ground with my leg more vertical, so that I land on the balls of my feet, and maximize the bounce my Achilles tendon gives me.

Which is better for running efficiency? Which is better for a 46 year old guy in less than perfect condition not injuring himself running?

posted by musofire to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Hi. I wear 'barefoot' type shoes in my experience with this you strike with the soft pad in the middle of your foot, so neither the heel or the ball. I can't recommend it enough..running feels really natural and the gentle shocks to the body feel healthy.
posted by Not Supplied at 9:43 AM on January 23, 2010

Have you ever tried barefoot jogging? It becomes very clear very quickly what heel-strikes are doing to your body. Modern shoes make it difficult to toe-strike.

Try taking shorter strides (legs more vertical) and increase your turnover.
posted by just.good.enough at 9:44 AM on January 23, 2010

If you're sprinting you run on the balls of your feet.

Else you land on your heels and roll forward. But you don't want to slap your heels down like a goose step.
posted by dfriedman at 9:48 AM on January 23, 2010

Response by poster: What is the soft pad in the middle of my foot? In the middle of my foot is the arch.
posted by musofire at 9:50 AM on January 23, 2010 [8 favorites]

I'm only 40, but I'm most comfortable running with flat shoes like Chuck Taylors and running on the balls of my feet. Try to land your foot directly underneath you and then quickly spring your heel up to your butt. My running times and endurance increased dramatically right away when I learned this. Take it easy at first, though. It gives your calves a workout they're not used to and you won't be able to walk for two days if you overdo it.

In this video the guy claims that it isn't the heel strike/toe strike issue that causes injury, it's the stride length and landing out front and staying on the ground too long.
posted by ctmf at 9:52 AM on January 23, 2010

I know and have run with folks who are absolutely religious about forefoot striking, including one who's injured himself running forefoot. Ditto for heel strikers. I know a couple (and am one myself) of natural midfoot strikers, and we're the same.

I would encourage you to try out different approaches and see which better suits your body. I found that when I run "naturally"--for me that means striking on the midfoot when I'm running with good form or the forefoot when I'm accelerating or running hills--it just feels more fluid and less jarring than if I try to force my way in to running forefoot. Other have exactly the opposite experience.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 9:55 AM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Barefoot Running Debate from Runner's World.

I don't yet know where I come down on this. I spent an afternoon running barefoot on a flat, manicured grass surface last fall, and it was a bit of a revelation, as my running stride just naturally changed without any conscious effort. It felt much more natural.

That said, I can't run barefoot on an immaculately kept baseball outfield every day, and certainly not in the winter. I haven't yet tried Nike Frees or Vibram FiveFingers. Ultimately, it may come down to me running in a combination of environments and shoes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:58 AM on January 23, 2010

Nicholas Romanov says land on the forefoot and take short strides.

* Short stride: Your foot should land under your body, not ahead of it. Remember that "distal" (far from body) equals weak, poor leverage, while close to core equals strength and good balance.

* Land on forefoot, not heel: Initially contact the ground only on the ball of the foot. Landing on the heel transmits maximum shock and has a momentum-killing "braking" effect

* Fast cadence: Minimum leg turnover should be 180 to 190 strides per minute. Increase as you get fitter and want to go faster. Remember: The longer the foot's on the ground, the more momentum you lose.
posted by Zambrano at 9:58 AM on January 23, 2010

I used to heel-strike, and would always get shin splints on the insides of my legs. I tried using various motion controls shoes, which helped some, but not enough.
I eventually learned about Chi Running (the book) which promotes a forward leaning, midfoot striking running stride.
This has helped me immensely, and now I can run 10k+ without the leg pain I used to get.

The philosophical approach that the book uses may not be for everyone ( certainly not for me ), and can be ignored, but the change in how I run worked for me.
posted by toddje at 10:03 AM on January 23, 2010

What is the soft pad in the middle of my foot? In the middle of my foot is the arch.

Since I started with the vivo barefoot shoes my feet have widened out significantly and I can move and flex them. There's still some arch, but when I land my foot flexes and I can take it on the soft part in the centre.

If you're gonna stick with padded shoes with heels I don't know what's the best compromise. IMO barefoot shoes are healthiest even with hard surfaces.
posted by Not Supplied at 10:20 AM on January 23, 2010

Unless you want shin splints, running on the balls of your feet is really the only way to do it.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 10:58 AM on January 23, 2010

Here's a video comparing the same woman running on a treadmill. Left side shows her running barefoot, right side shows her running in traditional running shoes. Heel-striking is a result of the kind of shoes you wear. When you run barefoot, your body naturally moves away from heel-striking because it intuitively knows doing so is bad. You can put a helmet on and whack your head against the wall. Doesn't mean it's a good idea.

I run live in my Vibram Fivefingers Treks. I'm never buying regular running shoes again. I have to wear dance shoes at work because I can't go back to the pain, discomfort, and dysfunction that regular shoes introduce.

The footwear-industrial complex has convinced us that our feet and knees and bodies in general are weak and that we need padded shoes to compensate.


It's those very shoes that are the source of the problem, not the solution:
“Natural gait is biomechanically impossible for any shoe-wearing person,” wrote Dr. William A. Rossi in a 1999 article in Podiatry Management. “It took 4 million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait, a remarkable feat of bioengineering. Yet, in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot.”
Check out the book Born To Run.

It's the shoes that cause the body to heel-strike when we run, and it's the heel-striking that causes the problems. Get rid of the thick, padded shoes, get a pair of Fivefingers (KSO Trek is my recommendation) or something like a Vivo Barefoot.

They take some getting used to, but you will end up with stronger, healthier feet and back and ankles.

Best of luck & power to you.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:08 AM on January 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

another CHI RUNNING proponent here.
posted by LittlePumpkin at 11:13 AM on January 23, 2010

try going to a high school football or soccer field, or a well-groomed soccer field at a public park, and running barefoot on it.

the field should be clear of dangerous debris, and most public high schools aren't maniacally protective about not letting taxpayers have some access.

anyway, warm up, run some sprints, run for awhile until you're a little tired, then start running the length of the field and back at about the speed you will mostly be running. with the slight tiredness and warmth, you should feel your natural gait come out.

try to remember how that feels when you run with shoes on and don't overthink your gait too much or you'll end up hurting yourself from "correcting" a stride that has nothing wrong with it.
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:18 AM on January 23, 2010

NOTE: vid I linked to above was the wrong one. this one is the side-by-side, shoes/no shoes vid. The vid I linked originally is the same runner, 2-weeks later.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:53 AM on January 23, 2010

There's some misinformation here so far. The majority of elite long distance runners generally land on their heels. However there are exceptions, and your own personal foot strike should be based on what is most efficient and comfortable *for you*.

I always raced half marathons and marathons with a pronounced heel strike (as evidenced from photos of my stride that were later passed around on a few running-related message boards during this very debate, oddly enough) at a pace of -/+ 6 minute miles. It was only during short wind sprints or repeats of less than 400 meters that I'd be anywhere up near my forefoot. Since top competitors wear very flat, very minimalist racing shoes for their competitions, the heel striking can't be blamed on the heels of their shoe being abnormally high.

Here's an interesting overview of one of the few studies done using high speed cameras to document foot-strike at the 15k point of a half-marathon race. (Handy infographs, too!)

The finding - what do you expect?
Before giving their main finding away, take a moment to guess what they would have found...If you are anything like me, and have read the substantial amount on the internet and in books about how it's "better" (there's that word again) to land on your forefoot, then of course, your expectation might be that they found:
The majority of runners land on the forefoot
Those that DO NOT land on the forefoot are the runners who finish towards the back of the field
Well, if that's what you thought, you'd be completely incorrect...! Because the finding is the following:
The vast majority (75%) of the elite runners land on the heel
About 1 in four (24%) runners landed on the mid-foot
Only 4 out of 283 runners landed on the forefoot

posted by stagewhisper at 12:30 PM on January 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

"Previously I've tried to throw my foot forward so that I heel-strike, because theoretically that's how you maximize the bounce that athletic shoes give you. But I could also hit the ground with my leg more vertical, so that I land on the balls of my feet, and maximize the bounce my Achilles tendon gives me."

DO NOT throw your foot forward, this is called over-striding and is the source of all sorts of evils, including shin-splints, stress fractures, and the braking of your forward momentum. Your foot should strike naturally under your center of gravity, not in front of it. If you are and running erectly in a relaxed manner, you should not be able to see your leading foot flying out in front of you if you glance down. Your speed will come from the forward propulsion generated by your back leg pushing off, never by reaching ahead with your front leg. Using your achilles tendon to "bounce" (?) is also asking for some quality time spent in a cast. Your large muscles should be doing the work and taking on the stress, not your bones and tendons.
posted by stagewhisper at 12:41 PM on January 23, 2010

Bought Vibram Five Fingers last Labor Day, my trainers haven't left the closet since. Definitely give running on the balls of your feet a try.
posted by arcticseal at 12:54 PM on January 23, 2010

Since top competitors wear very flat, very minimalist racing shoes for their competitions, the heel striking can't be blamed on the heels of their shoe being abnormally high.

I don't think that's necessarily true. If they only wear these shoes for competitions, there feet may not undergo the longer term adaption that mine have. Also vivo shoes are also wider. If their competition shoes are made for their 'normal' foot width again it would not allow their feet to broaden.
posted by Not Supplied at 1:51 PM on January 23, 2010

Not Supplied,
well, it's possible that a number of top competitors do the bulk of their training in a beefier shoe and that could have an effect over time on their foot-strike. The jury is out on that, since the minimalist craze started a couple of years before this studied and hadn't gained full traction in 2004. However, the Japanese runners have traditionally used light-weight shoes similar to racing flats for all of their training, and a large percentage of the runners in the race that was studied were from Japan.

About 70-80% of the milage that the runners I trained with used the more standard shoes with a slightly elevated heel. About 20-30% of the time was spent on speed workouts and faster sessions with minimalist shoes. Barefoot strides were somewhat common too.

Some adaptations like improved muscle strength and stability in one's feet after years of running barefoot are likely. Running while barefoot causes the runner to alter their stride and make minute adjustments as they touch down to adjust for landing shock. They'll soften and deepen their knee bend and land closer to the middle of their foot, rather than on the heel, but usually not way up on the balls of their feet, which places an inordinate amount of stress on one's achilles tendon and calf muscles. In order to have this altered stride remain efficient and natural during any race or training runs, one would probably need to also remain barefoot for those as well. Which is not to say there's little or no benefit to doing some barefoot training to help strengthen one's feet and lower leg muscles.
posted by stagewhisper at 2:18 PM on January 23, 2010

Thanks for the feedback. I'm not sure you get what I mean about foot widening or if I can explain it better, but interesting stuff anyway.
posted by Not Supplied at 2:26 PM on January 23, 2010

stagewhisper is largely on the money. Forefoot is real big on the internet, but the actual lab results are definitely out (except for people like Romanov, who sell this method, so, yeah, no exactly unbiased).

I've tried both, and had injuries from both. Podiatrists and physios that have treated me were a bit whatever about this debate, but they all did say some things that were the same:

Feet striking under centre of gravity
high cadence (lots of little steps)
slight lean forward

and most importantly: gentle striking.

Don't hammer your foot down, don't land on a straight leg, If you can hear your feet slapping, prepare for imminent injury. Running should feel gentle, light, and smooth.

My own limited experience over running between 15-50km a week for about eight years now has largely tallied with this advice. Also, when I did forefoot striking in flats (adizero pros) I injured the ligaments in the ball of my foot. When I did aggressive heel-striking, I had to take six weeks off from ITB trouble.

Everybody's bodies are different. My injuries were the result of my biomechanics, style, and the shoes I wore; your results will be different. See a podiatrist who specialises in runners and get a shoe recommendation before you commit to running long distances or major style changes.
posted by smoke at 4:33 PM on January 23, 2010

Best answer: A Commentary on Barefoot/Minimalist Running

My name is Mark Plaatjes and I am a physical therapist and co-founder of the Boulder Running Company in Boulder, Colorado. Originally I am from South Africa and competed in the Zola Budd era. In my practice I treat athletes ranging from five hour marathoners to many Olympic athletes and gold medalists. Personally I have won thirty eight marathons worldwide including the 1993 IAAF World Championships with a personal best of 2:08.58.

I have been observing the minimalist and barefoot running trend over the last two years and I feel it might be time to clarify some issues relating to barefoot and minimalist footwear. The mere fact alone that ninety five percent of runners train and race on asphalt, pavement, concrete, and trails; could close the debate over barefoot running. However, listed below are the obvious and relevant facts about barefoot and minimalist running.

1. Running barefoot/minimalist strengthens the intrinsic or postural muscles in the feet and lower leg.
2. Running barefoot/minimalist increases proprioceptive awareness and balance.
3. Running barefoot/minimalist forces a change in mechanics to adapt to the forces of on the feet.
4. There are no clinical trials that show an effect of barefoot/minimalist running for a prolonged period of time.
5. There are no research studies that prove that wearing traditional running shoes increases injuries or that barefoot/minimalist running reduces injuries.

No one, including myself, contest the above facts. If a runner has exclusive training on soft trails and/or grass, then by all means eschew running shoes as long as mechanics and gait allow for it.

There is also the issue of gait and the best way to run. The majority of people walk and run by landing on the heel and toeing off on the big toe. The anatomy of the foot reinforces this technique because the calcaneus is the largest bone in the foot with the largest fat pad in the foot underneath it. The metatarsals are small bones and have much less fat pad protection when compared to the calcaneus. These small bones are not designed to accept three times the weight of the body. The real issue we have to address is mechanics. Far too many people over stride and land with their center of gravity behind the foot strike, which leads to a braking effect and impact up the chain of the body. This type of running is also commonly mislabeled as heel-strike running. Correct heel strike running occurs by shortening the stride, increasing the cadence, and landing with the center of gravity over the feet. This greatly reduces the impact forces and enhances forward propulsion. This type of running is heel-strike running, but the contact point is not at the back of the heel but rather directly underneath the fat pad. Many people are trying to achieve this type of gait by modifying footwear instead of teaching runners the proper mechanics.

At In Motion Rehabilitation and at the Boulder Running Company, we see hundreds of runners each week. People come to us not to buy a pair of shoes, but to help them find a tool that will help and allow them to run with the least risk of injury. At this point it is important to point out the major distinction between the people that are able to run barefoot or wear minimalist shoes and the people who are not. Due to ligamentous laxity and/or biomechanical inefficiencies, sixty-five to seventy-five percent of people are not able to run bare foot/minimalist.

When a customer/patient walks into the store or clinic we ask them to take off their shoes and weight bear one foot at a time. If the longitudinal arch collapses and the navicular bone on the inside of the foot becomes prominent and moves medially toward the ground, no amount of strengthening is ever going to lift that navicular bone. The ligaments cannot support the bones in the normal alignment anymore. It would be irresponsible for me or any of the staff to recommend barefoot/minimalist shoes to these customers. We do have customers who have great mechanics and good foot structure and we certainly place them in the appropriate neutral/minimalist footwear. Our goal is to place the customer in the appropriate footwear and to correct any gait inefficiencies that they may have as well as not to fit them to a shoe that changes their gait.

At the Boulder Running Company and In Motion Rehabilitation, we certainly do not always get it right and we try to learn from our mistakes. For over fourteen years we have helped thousands of runners and walkers continue to do what makes them happy and to achieve their goals. We want runners to consult with their doctors, physical therapist, and podiatrists about their particular mechanics, gait, and foot structure before embarking on the barefoot/minimalist route. In the end, Boulder Running Company is a retailer, and whether we sell a motion control shoe or a minimalist shoe, it makes no difference to us. Our main interest is keeping our customers walking and running with the least amount of problems possible.

Walking and running barefoot certainly can serve as a useful tool in strengthening muscles and increasing proprioceptive awareness. It should be done gradually and with the guidance of a professional to analyze if a person’s mechanics will allow for the transition.
posted by djb at 5:21 PM on January 23, 2010 [27 favorites]

Adding some anecdotal information I picked up over the weekend. I ran a 1/2 marathon on Sunday in my Vibram 5 fingers (barefoot style) shoes. Of the 5000+ other runners, I saw exactly 1 other person wearing barefoot style shoes. It certainly seems like on the internet, everyone is wearing these, but in the real world, they have not caught on at all. Someone even asked me (during the race) why I was wearing surf booties while I ran.

That being said, I am happy to say I finished my first 1/2 marathon, injury free. Whether or not it was because of training in barefoot style shoes, or putting my training miles in, or a combination of the two is not really known.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 12:55 PM on January 26, 2010

This webpage from Harvard might interest you: http://barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/
posted by studentbaker at 1:09 PM on January 27, 2010

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