It’s Okay to Be a Heel Striker
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked by runners is, “How should my foot land on the ground?” In the wake of the previous decade’s barefoot/minimal shoe movement, people continue to emphasise certain foot strikes over others. (Heel striking is the primary “other” in these discussions.)
Claims are often made about injury prevention, improved speed, improved running efficiency, and certain ways being more “natural.” As with most universal claims in running, there’s a great deal of misinformation here. Let’s look at the facts about foot strikes.
People will proudly proclaim that they’re midfoot or forefoot strikers. They’re almost always wrong.
The ways you land
The three main types of foot strikes are heel, midfoot, and forefoot. Those whose feet first make contact with the ground at the rear part (heel) are known as heel strikers. Those whose front and rear part of the feet land at the same time are known as midfoot strikers. (Whether midfoot strikers exist is a matter of debate; most researchers contend that there’s always a bias toward one end of the foot at landing). Those whose feet first make contact with the ground at the front part of the foot (forefoot) are known as forefoot strikers.
The majority of distance runners are heel strikers. This is true regardless of elite or recreational status, with at least 70 percent hitting the ground first at the heel. This may be because heel striking has been found to be more energy-efficient at slow to medium speeds. Sprinters tend to land farther forward. As speed changes dramatically, there is often, but not always, a change in foot strike. This makes sense, given that a rearfoot strike has too much ground contact time and sprints efforts are so short that energy efficiency isn’t an issue.
For distance runners, however, particularly as the distance run increases, there are suggestions that a forefoot strike is less efficient, given the increased energy expenditure. Variation in foot strike exists at all levels of distance and competition, and will depend on what movement pattern the individual has optimised.
Different types, but not different rates of injury
There’s no valid current evidence to suggest that injury rates are different among foot strikes. In fact, the only thing associated with greater injury risk is trying to actively change your foot strike too quickly.
There are differences in injury types and locations among foot strikes; each one places different loads onto different parts of the body. Forefoot striking has been associated with greater loads through the Achilles tendon, calf, ankle joints, and forefoot, and therefore a greater risk of injury in those areas. Rearfoot strikers demonstrate increased load through the patella (kneecap), patellar tendon, knee, and hip, and have a greater risk of injury at those respective locations.
Each type also uses and stresses joints to different degrees. Forefoot strikers use more joint movement through the ankle, with far less movement through the knee and hip. Heel strikers use less ankle motion, with far more motion through the knee and hip. Different or changing foot strikes don’t change load, they simply shift it elsewhere. The same can be said of injuries. Injury risk isn’t reduced by a different foot strike, it’s simply moved to different body parts.
Yes, elite distance runners are heel strikers
There have been many claims about a certain foot strike being more efficient or faster. Most recently, many claims have been made that forefoot striking is more common among elite athletes and therefore must be faster. In sprinters, this has found to be true. Due to their extremely high speed, most sprinters use a forefoot strike, with its shorter ground contact time. This ends up being efficient over shorter distances, but the amount of energy expenditure required has been found to be inefficient over longer distances.
Heel striking at slow to moderate speeds has been found to be more energy-efficient, hence why a majority of distance runners may be heel strikers. Additionally, no link has been found between elite runners and a certain type of foot strike. Even among elites, there’s variation in foot strike, with the highest percentage being heel strikers. There’s even some anecdotal evidence that the best runners in the world are proficient at using all different types depending on terrain, fatigue, and other factors.
Mechanics of heel striking
Landing heel-first may be efficient for many reasons. The heel bone, also known as the calcaneus, is naturally curved. This curve allows for an efficient roll forward during a heel-first contact. This phenomenon is known as the heel rocker of the foot, which, along with the midfoot and forefoot rocker, improves energy efficiency in distance running and walking.
Forefoot strikers may get a boost from the elasticity of loading their calves like a spring, but doing so takes a high amount of energy. Additionally, landing forefoot-first means that you miss out on appropriately utilising the heel rocker. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and different runners can optimise each of the strategies to incredibly high levels. It does, however, mean there are benefits and negatives to each foot strike.
It’s often said that forefoot striking is more natural. Proponents of barefoot and minimalist running claimed that barefoot runners tend to run with a more forward initial strike. It was even claimed that everyone who switched out of traditional shoes immediately began forefoot striking. Better studies demonstrated that this isn’t true.
Additionally, anyone who has done gait analysis or worked in a running store and watched people suddenly run barefoot knows how variable this response is. Those who run barefoot or in low-heel, light minimalist shoes still heel strike at a fairly high rate and have variable foot strikes just like those wearing traditional shoes.
What most people do instead of switching their foot strike is shorten their stride and increase their step rate. Doing so decreases the impact with each foot strike. Changing step rate also changes the angle of inclination, or the angle of the foot relative to the ground. This has been suggested to be more important than foot strike, as even slight variations in the inclination angle during a heel strike has been shown to change impact forces.
Foot strike fallacies
The final point about foot strike is something that I run into often in my clinical practice. People will proudly proclaim that they’re midfoot or forefoot strikers. They’re almost always wrong. Studies and clinical experience have suggested repeatedly that runners have poor body sense when it comes to knowing what part of their foot hits the ground first. Even experienced runners have frequently been shown to be wrong about this. So don’t believe them. No one needs to be embarrassed about their foot strike, and there are far more important things to worry about.
In summary, having or changing to a midfoot or forefoot strike from a heel strike doesn’t improve running speed or economy in distance runners, doesn’t decrease impact forces, and doesn’t lower injury risk. Besides, most runners who think they’re changing usually aren’t. Again, injury rates among types of foot strikes aren’t different, but the areas that are at risk are. Heel strikers have a greater risk of injury at the knee and hip, while forefoot strikers have a greater risk of injury at the Achilles tendon, calf, ankle, and foot.
There are far more effective ways to improve performance than switching your foot strike. Among them are intelligent training, optimising your recovery, having appropriate strength, balance and alignment, wearing appropriate shoes, and eating and sleeping properly. So don’t worry—it’s okay to be a heel striker.