Don’t Believe The Heel Strike Hype

Aug 15, 2013   //   by James Dunne   //   Running Technique Advice  //  32 Comments

I’ve been banging on for quite some time now about my frustration with the running and triathlon media. Far too frequently I read yet another ill informed article describing running with a forefoot or midfoot strike as the universal solution to unlocking your most efficient, injury-free running form.

Many of these articles seem to paint a very black and white picture, that running with a heel strike is bad should be avoided to run to your potential.

I get it. There’s no doubt currently something cool for magazines to be writing about barefoot / minimalist / midfoot / forefoot running, and the technique encouraged by these styles. The influential running footwear manufacturers with minimalist products to sell, will of course also be keen for such pieces to be written!

Unfortunately though, life (and in particular running gait) isn’t ever about one size fits all solutions…

As my colleague Ian Griffiths would say:

“Nothing works for all of the people, all of the time”

Not All Heel Strikes Are Equal

What I find most interesting is that while some heel strikes are indeed bad news, with the runner typically over striding, landing heavily on the heel and taking maximal impact loading rate through the rear-foot, other (less aggressive) varieties of heel strike appear to facilitate an effective midfoot loading – despite the initial contact with the ground visibly occurring at the heel.

This variation in heel strikes and the subsequent loading patterns, is particularly highlighted in research discussed by Dr. Pete Larson on his blog recently. The variation in heel strikes within the running population is well demonstrated visually by his great compilation of race photos (below) from the 2009 Manchester City Marathon.

Heel Strike Footage from Pete Larson

Image sourced with permission from Runblogger.com

Research from Bastiaan et.al. (2013) suggests that up to 25-33% of visibly heel striking runners don’t really experience any significant loading as their rear-foot (heel) contacts the ground, with their foot instead loading maximally in a midfoot position. Of course, with a sample size of 55 healthy runners, making assumptions about the whole running population based on this research alone is questionable.

Read Pete Larson’s Analysis Here

I do however see the effect of this variation in heel strikes on a very regular basis in coaching distance runners and triathletes. Simply adjusting variables such as cadence and posture can alter the loading of a runner’s heel strike, without actually preventing them from heel striking per se.

Coaching Implications

I posted an article a while ago about Forefoot Running for Ironman Athletes, describing the logic behind why I often advise and coach habitually heel striking Ironman triathletes (and indeed marathon runners) not to worry too much about perfecting a midfoot / forefoot strike – instead to spend time and effort optimising their heel strike.

Both research and anecdotal experience suggest that even if a habitually heel striking runner starts a marathon (for example) with a midfoot or forefoot striking pattern, chances are that they will often revert back to heel striking to some extent as the race distance progresses. This ‘reverting to type’ may be down to a drop in cadence as fatigue kicks in, or lack of strength endurance in the plantar flexor muscles.

Bearing this in mind, I often prefer to coach a habitually heel striking distance runner or triathlete to achieve a light, glancing heel strike (sometimes referred to as a proprioceptive heel strike), encouraging an more achievable midfoot loading, without requiring the conscious cue of landing on the balls of the feet.

Working in this way to promote positive changes within a strike pattern the athlete’s body is already familiar with, seems to be far more successful and achievable in many cases, than making wholesale changes to the strike pattern!

Trading a heavy over striding heel strike, for a lighter glancing heel strike with a slightly increased cadence and better posture, is far less of a shock to the system than trading a heavy over striding heel strike, for an unsustainably contrived midfoot / forefoot strike.

Other athletes will thrive with a midfoot / forefoot strike… and that’s the challenge of coaching!

About The Author

James has an academic background in Sport Rehabilitation and a special interest in Applied Biomechanics. He currently coaches a large number of Runners and Triathletes across all levels of ability and performance. He's grown a strong reputation for enabling athletes to improve their running performance and overcome running injuries through improving their Running Technique and developing Running Specific Strength.

 

32 Comments

  • Couldn’t agree more James!

    • Thank you mate! Hope all’s well with you guys down under?

      • Yes all good thanks James, bashing away at another running book at the moment.

        • Sounds interesting. I’d love to get my approach formalised into a book. I don’t know where you find the time :)

  • Another excellent article James. Thanks and keep up the good work!
    best
    Simon B

  • [...] According to James Dunne, one of Europe’s leading running technique coaches, not all heel strikes are equal. “…while some heel strikes are indeed bad news, with the runner typically over-striding, landing heavily on the heel and taking maximal impact loading rate through the rear-foot, other (less aggressive) varieties of heel strike appear to facilitate an effective midfoot loading – despite the initial contact with the ground visibly occurring at the heel.” (Don’t Believe the Heel Strike Hype) [...]

  • Good stuff James!

  • Completely agree with the fact that every runner is different and should be approached as such. I also recognize that heel striking, for some, may be more efficient. That being said I’m less interested in efficiency and more interested in short and long term injury prevention. I’ve seen a a large amount of runners that switched over to zero drop or to a mid foot/forefoot strike and saw a significant reduction in injury. But again, it’s not one size fits all.

    Lastly, there is a big difference between minimalist and zero drop. While most minimalist shoes are zero drop, not all zero drop shoes are minimal.

    • I too have seen my fair share of runners who have overcome long standing, recurrent injuries through a change in strike pattern and/or footwear. I’ve also seen a significant number for whom the change has ended in injury.

      The research community is yet to provide any concrete evidence about running injury rates being reduced through one means or another. Craig Payne makes a good point here about the differences in footwear and loading patterns simply loading different soft tissues in new ways – perhaps trading one injury risk for another.

      • James – Didn’t the study at Harvard with their cross country team show that heel strikers were much more prone to injury as compared to their forefoot counterparts?

        Here’s the study. http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~skeleton/pdfs/2012b.pdf

        Conclusions: Competitive cross-country runners on a college team incur high injury rates, but runners who habitually rearfoot strike have significantly higher rates of repetitive stress injury than those who mostly forefoot strike. This study does not test the causal bases for this general difference. One hypothesis, which requires further research, is that the absence of a marked impact peak in the ground reaction force during a forefoot strike compared with a rearfoot strike may contribute to lower rates of injuries in habitual forefoot strikers.

        There are so many things that go into injury, and like you were alluding to, overstriding and landing with our foot way out in front of us is the culprit, not necessarly the slight heel strike (or landing pancake flat).

        • Hi Ryan,

          I’m not sure if you’ve seen my blog post from Jan 2012 about this study. Here is it: http://www.kinetic-revolution.com/new-research-foot-strike-and-injury-rates-in-endurance-runners/

          My feelings regarding this piece of research remain that it provides interesting insight, posing more questions than it answers, and not a lot more. Certainly not a strong enough piece of research to change evidence based coaching practice on the back of… despite the press sh*t-storm companies such as Vivobarefoot tried to create through cynically mis-interpreting the findings, with some self-serving bad science.

          Since writing that post over a year and a half ago, I now have a better grasp of the concept that (put simply) rear-foot loading, heel striking runners experience increased torque at the knee in comparison to midfoot/forefoot striking runners. In a trade-off for giving their knees an easier ride, these midfoot/forefoot runners experience increased torque at the ankle, loading up the plantar flexors more-so. If a runner has the strength, stability and local muscle endurance to do so – they may well be successful moving away from a heel strike for injury prevention benefit. In my experience, many don’t – and a proverbial ‘box of worms’ is opened. As I said somewhere else in the comments, we’re exchanging one loading pattern for another, and without the appropriate conditioning, potentially one pattern of injuries for another.

        • The Harvard studies was on 54 elite runners.

          What about:

          Kleindienst (2003): 471 typical runners that found no difference between rearfoot and forefoot strikers concerning the frequency of injury.

          Walther (2005): 1203 runners that also found no difference in incidence of injury between rearfoot and forefoot strikers in the rate of injury.

          Grier et al (2013) 1332 runners; no injury differences between minimalist and traditional running shoes.

          Warr et al (2103) 342 subjects; no differences between the injury rates and days lost from injury between the heel strikers and non-heel strikers.

          Why would you cheery pick the Harvard study for?

          • Great point well made. All interesting studies that add to the ‘big picture’ as we currently understand it.

            We know why the Harvard study gets cherry picked so often – it fits certain agendas!

          • 2 years and 9 months ago I started wearing minimalist shoes and changed to mid-foot strike. 9 months ago I developed plantar fasciitis, my first real injury in 45 years of distance running. Could I be one of the guys you are talking about who should have stuck to heel-strike?

  • the main thing to me is that shoes are being built with a lower heel – toe drop. we weren’t made to run in high heels anymore than women are made to walk in them. I can’t stand wearing high drop running shoes anymore , even when walking.

    • Bob – I know exactly what you mean!

      I run in 4mm drop Asics Hyperspeeds or zero-drop Inov-8 trail shoes. Love them both. Can’t stand being in anything ‘higher drop’.

      I have a pair of chelsea boots I love to wear with jeans when out and about socially. Having gotten used to running around in 0-4mm drop shoes, and wearing flip-flops most of the day when coaching, these fashion boots destroy my knees after an evening out!!

      At 6’6″ it’s not like I need the extra height either ;)

  • After reading all of the responses, I am most in line with James’ responses to Ryan and Bob. I have been fitting customers 18-80 in running, walking, and exercise shoes for almost a year now. In that time I have heard a thousand stories about injuries, success, and skepticism in regards to minimalism, high heels, and barefooting.

    What I got out of this article is that if you’ve been running in high heeled shoes (8+mm) and have been heel striking for years, then there’s no reason to transition unless you really want to take the time for your body to adapt…In the process you’ll use more energy and increase your potential for injury since you’re not used to the midfoot gait cycle.

    (If you want to read my story then continue :) )

    I myself was a soccer player from age six to twenty three. I could never find a comfortable and functional shoe, and ultimately became obsessed with finding one. My feet went through all sorts of pain playing soccer and trying different cleats. What I came to find at an early age without any guidance was that I needed a wider cleat. My foot measured D, but I couldn’t stand having the pressure on the first and fifth metatarsals. In college we were sponsored by adidas…I refused to wear the cleats nor the trainers. Instead I tooled around in Teva flip flops and Saucony Fastwitchers.

    After a final moderate ankle sprain on day 4 of a semi pro tryout, and chronic ankle sprains from playing on soft fields in Miami,Fl, and having difficulty with cleats, I decided it was time to do some serious research, and trial and error.

    I spent nearly a thousand dollars over a couple of years trying to find the right running shoe to supplement my Vibram transition. The Brooks Green Silence was the winner, even at 10mm I was increasing my endurance, and running 6 to 7 minute miles consistently for 3-5 miles a day. The vibrams were giving me major metatarsal and calf pain so I decided to slow down with them.

    When I got into endurance running after my semi pro injury I was running in Vibrams, Luna Sandals, and Brooks Pure Grits. (An aside, I tried the NB Minimus line and every one gave me plantar fasc!!!). I completed my first marathon in the Grits (4-5mm drop).

    After the marathon I took a break from major mileage trying to get a sub 5 mile. I tried the Newton Distance and have been pretty satisfied! Still haven’t gotten the sub 5 – peroneal tendon issues from a soccer game :( – but am back on track!

    Currently running in the Newton Distance 2013, Vivobarefoot the One, Altra 3sum, and Luna sandals…barefoot in the grass sometimes.

    • Thanks Will! I’d like to hear more of the guys and girls involved in shoe fitting speaking the with same straight logic :)

  • James,
    With all due respect, your credentials exceeds you. However my question is, how many of those sample runners that you operated your direct observational study were actually good runners? Such as runners of an elite level? I’ve been in the sport of running going on 15 yrs, 12 years competitively and from my own personal experience as a runner I have found that midfoot to forefoot striking has improved my race performance astronomically. That also goes with everyone else that has adapted to this adaptable technique. Galen Rupp, surely you’ve heard of him, runs forefoot and he’s an American Record holder in various events. Also how many of those runners from the pictures are elite runners?

    • Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Firstly, if you’re question is about the observation that produced the pictures featured in the article above, I’d like to point you towards Pete Larson at Runblogger.com as it was his study – not mine. He can give you details, I’m sure.

      I’m simply using the images to demonstrate variability in heel strikes. WIth your point about elite runners, the image below (courtesy of Iain Hunter) shows the huge foot strike variability of the the competitors in the 2012 US Olympic Trials both Men’s and Women’s 10,000m.

      Men’s Race

      Women’s Race

      Agreed, Galen Rupp has clearly benefitted hugely from adapting his form – in more ways than simply foot strike. I know Alberto Salazar is a big advocate of consciously developing running form in his athletes – not only running form, but also strength and conditioning in every respect.

      A great example of this focus on form in Salazar’s camp is Mo Farah (Galen Rupp’s training partner, reigning World and Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m Champion, you’ve heard of him right ;) ) in his BBC interview after winning the the 10,000m at the World Championship in Moscow recently. When asked what he was thinking about in the final stages of the race, Farah described focusing on “not over striding” as he kicked.

      Those are the thoughts of an athlete with a coach whose words echo in his head!

      In my experience, athletes who have put in the milage to get to an elite level without seriously braking down with injury (as many aspiring elites do) have by virtue of the training volume developed a certain level of run specific resilience which makes their transition to a midfoot/forefoot strike potentially somewhat easier than a desk-bound beginner runner looking to complete their first marathon.

  • Great article James!

    “…adjusting variables such as cadence and posture can alter the loading of a runner’s heel strike, without actually preventing them from heel striking per se.” and “Trading a heavy over striding heel strike, for a lighter glancing heel strike with a slightly increased cadence and better posture, is far less of a shock to the system than trading a heavy over striding heel strike, for an unsustainably contrived midfoot / forefoot strike.” pretty much says it all. And it’s not that difficult too adapt! This form/technique advice alone can do wonders for many different types of injuries and aches and pains.

    I have been teaching this for years with great success. Keep up the great writing!

  • I enjoyed this post James! A lot of this still comes back to the muscular system. Everybody has a multitude of asymmetry from the start. Even if the shoe allows for motion throughout the foot, the athlete will still find a position(s) of stability from which to work from. Let’s face it, the human chain is exceptional at compensating and adapting in order to get us from point a to point b.

    The running shoe can be flexible, zero-drop and have little to no support, but, the brain is still not going to allow the joints to go into a position that the muscles can not stabilize. This is the human chains best attempt at protecting the body from further injury.

    Then, you have the opposite scenario where the athlete has a “custom” molded orthotic or a “stability” running shoe, and the foot is now restricted from moving. In this scenario (that is all too common!), the foot and the entire chain are now driven even farther away from what should be occurring at the joints. Then, the chain has no choice…it is forced to adapt for the pebble in the shoe on every single leg landing.

    As long as the foot is closer to the center of mass, it doesn’t matter what part of the foot makes contact with the ground first. Regardless of what part of the foot comes in contact with ground at initial contact, the foot and the lower leg have be able to use up all of the motions at the right time.

    Once the entire foot is in complete contact with the ground, the lower leg/foot will store elastic energy. The question: How much elastic energy can the athlete store in the tissues? In this case, the amount of spring always comes down to the same thing: How much eccentric lengthening was available at all of the joints in combination?

    Ultimately, it’s about timing. And the right timing can be traced back to the swing leg, and the preparation of the landing gear. If the muscles can not pull the foot into dorsiflexion at the the ankle joint, and inversion at the subtalar joint, the lower leg will not rotate at the knee joint in the right way, i.e., sequencing.

    When the lower leg/foot are not prepared for landing, the foot will come into the ground much harder. This scenario is very common. The end result: the entire chain is not capable of absorbing and dissipating the ground reaction forces in the most efficient way.

    To say it another way, the timing can be off prior to the foot even coming in contact with the ground.

    The same thing is true for the swing leg when the opposite side foot is still in contact with the ground. If the muscles throughout the chain on the side of the swing leg can not fire at the right time, the right plane, and at the right joint; the foot will remain on the ground longer.

    And that is where fatigue comes into play. Both sides have to work together. And it’s not only about the foot. In fact, if you want more stiffness and spring, you have to have stability throughout the entire chain. Unfortunately, the conversation is always around the foot and which running shoe is “better”.

    It’s also important to consider this: the people doing the research are not even close to having a complete understanding of what is occurring when the foot is in contact with the ground in the running gait.

    And then there is the treadmill to consider. Running on a treadmill is not even close to what is happening when the foot comes in contact with the ground.

    • Hey Rick, thanks for taking the time to put such a considered response together :)

      Some great points! I love the term “preparation of the landing gear”, so much is indeed down to timing and sequencing during swing phase. Not only to determine where and how the foot contacts the ground, but also how the torso is carried. The not-inconsiderable mass of the leg swinging through under the pelvis will affect posture if swing mechanics are less than optimal.

      Don’t get me started on treadmill running… let alone trying to justify conducting running research on treadmills then making assumptions about the relevance to outdoor running!

  • Hello from Austria/Europe!

    I’m so glad I’ve found this site, it is extremely helpful. Unfortunately I’m a veeery slow runner with not the best form, but I’m sure I will get lots of good advice from these articles.
    I was all about to believe this heel strike hype, but the trial changing to a midfoot strike didn’t feel right.
    Your article really makes sense, thank you!

    Gabrielle

  • Hi James,

    I posted the comment quoted below in the wrong place really and should have addressed it to you. Thanks for an interesting article..

    “2 years and 9 months ago I started wearing minimalist shoes and changed to mid-foot strike. 9 months ago I developed plantar fasciitis, my first real injury in 45 years of distance running. Could I be one of the guys you are talking about who should have stuck to heel-strike?”

    I always used to heel-strike, but not that I noticed it, and was able to do a pb of 2:40 for the marathon.

    Geoff.

    • Hi Geoff,

      Unfortunately yours is the kind of story the likes of which I hear far too frequently. In short, I do believe (with the caveat of having not met you) it may have been better for you to work on improving your heel strike, rather than making the change away from a heel strike all together.

      Cheers,

      James

  • Hello, James! How are you? I have to admit, I’m a “heel strike runner”! No matter how hard I keep up with midfoot strike, I always end up looking at my feet, so to speak, and find out they are “heel striking”. I’ve been running like that for 10 years now. I haven’t got any injuries on my feet or legs, maybe, just a couple of times that I feel so much tired. That’s all.

    When I run, I’m always conscious with how my feet would land on the road. It can really distract me with everything as I tend to correct my feet strikes once in a while while running. So, I can say that when I run, I run on heel strike unintentionally and I run on midfoot unintentionally. Could this be good or bad?

    Your immediate response is highly appreciated! I have bookmarked this article! Thank you very much!

    • Hi Godihard,

      The first thing I take from your comment is that you haven’t got any lower limb injuries, and that you’ve been running for 10 years. My suggestion would be to allow your foot strike to do whatever it chooses to do naturally, for a given pace. As the article above suggests – all heel strikes are not equal!

      Focus instead on posture and cadence for example, rather than obsessing over foot strike.

      Cheers,

      James

  • Interesting article James. Variation – creates a reaction that we can’t really correlate to injury unless someone gets injured and blames a form, one or the other. I’d really like to see efficiency, impact graphs for those heel striking over those not as we do know some simple science like kinetic energy turning into sound, as in skiers landing quietly in downhill skiing. So my thought would be just because you can does it mean you should?

    Although I agree with concentrating on what is easiest to change that may have a larger impact over some runners than others I’m not convinced that we should not try to reduce as many opposing forces as possible to forward motion as we can. Any sort of breaking can’t be ideal, if heel striking does in fact induce any breaking action, hence the liking of impact graphs, indentations on a beach for example. So would the impact be as large heel striking as a forefoot strike? If the indentations are similar then there must be fewer odds between techniques but then surely the converse implies do what creates less indentation. You don’t want to waste energy going down you want it going forward, surely?

    I still think there are many bio mechanical answers we don’t fully understand. What I do know is that few of us have really good ‘listening’ feet that report back tremendous proprioceptive feedback. It seems all too easy to blame a style of running or change of style for injuries that could have manifested themselves from other issues.

    I’ve run for years, competed, taught and still I find that it’s a bit of shame we can’t really pass on a definitive answer to people. So although a good bit of writing it still sort of sits on the fence.

    Steve

  • Thanks so much for this! Hugely helpful!

  • […] under your body. You may not want to heel strike (questionable logic of this discussed here and here), but that doesn’t mean the heel shouldn’t ever touch the […]

  • […] with so many recreational runners. As observed in research by Bastiaan et. al. (2013) and discussed here, many runners land heel-first, but load at maximal rate not as the weight is applied to the heel, […]

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