Changing foot ‘strike’

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By Keith Bateman and Heidi Jones

While we are often told that the secret to good running is to change the way your foot strikes the ground, in truth, foot strike is not only a poor indicator of running form, it can distract from good technique and even lead to injury.

Avoiding heel strike

Most people who are concentrating on foot strike are doing so to avoid a heavy heel strike. They correctly know that if they land hard on their heels this leads to increased impact on bones, joints and muscles. Thus, in order to avoid this hard landing many runners try to achieve a forefoot or mid foot strike.

For these reasons a heavy heel strike is not desirable, but as you will see, deliberately avoiding it by trying to land on the forefoot or the midfoot is not the path to better, injury free running.

Forefoot and midfoot strike are not the answer

Many semi-enlightened runners know that a heel strike is bad, which is correct, and so consciously try to forefoot strike. But a little learning can be a dangerous thing. It is just as easy to over stride and run inefficiently when using a forefoot or midfoot strike as the illustration below shows.

Over-striding: heel, midfoot, forefoot

Illustration from Chapter 1, How Poor Technique Affects Your Running. In each case the runner is sitting back, braking and over-stressing joints, muscles and tendons.
Illustration by Ainsley Knott

But the news is worse. Not only can concentrating on a forefoot strike lead to poor technique, it also carries its own risk of injuries. Although they have avoided the dangers of the heel strike, forefoot runners can also suffer from the following problems:

  • metatarsal head (2nd & 3rd) stress fractures
  • plantar fasciitis
  • subluxed cuboid
  • peroneal tendonitis
  • Achilles tendonitis
  • calf pain or calf tears

Foot strikes must vary

The type of foot strike you will require depends on many factors, some of which are constantly changing. How your foot lands will vary with the slope of the ground, the softness of the running surface, your running speed, the flatness, flexibility and thickness of your shoes amongst a host of other factors.

Individual physiology is also important. Keith says, “like most people my feet and legs are not symmetrical, and this contributes to me landing differently. Maybe I will land off balance – a little forwards, a little back, slightly over supinated (foot tipped outwards), slightly over pronated (foot tipped inwards). However, on average, I land near-vertically aligned giving me minimum braking and maximum spring off the ground”.

Thus we can see there are too many factors to consider to prescribe an ideal foot strike that is appropriate for every individual in every situation.

Copying fast runners

While searching for the perfect foot strike some runners mistakenly try to copy the strike of faster runners. Advanced runners travel at higher speeds and get further off the ground than the average runner, and thus require a different foot strike. While it may appear as though they are going to heel strike as they come into land, due to their increased speed, their hips are over their foot more quickly, resulting in most of the force of impact being directed downwards and not backwards as a braking force. This increased downwards force allows them to use the elasticity in their feet and legs to give them a significant rebound off the ground.

In what might be considered a perfect forefoot-wholefoot-forefoot landing and take-off, the forefoot brushes the ground in a similar way but, again, there is little pressure on the ground during this initial part of the landing.

Consequently, copying what elite runners are doing at high speed will not translate to good technique at the lower speeds of the average runner.

Forget about foot strike

As we have seen, it’s impossible to say what kind of landing is best in every scenario and trying to prescribe a one-size-fits-all landing for everyone in every situation is pointless and counterproductive.

Rather than concentrating on the intitial contact point of the foot with the ground to improve running form, instead devote your efforts to achieving a balanced landing. Keith says, “I always ask my clients to forget about foot strike and instead concentrate on being as close to vertically aligned as possible with the spine in a neutral position”.

The feeling of landing, the sensation of how the foot is in contact with the ground is part of the feedback used to adjust the degree of balance, but it is not an end in itself. The way the foot strikes the ground is a sensory tool used to correct your landing, so don’t treat it as the ultimate goal.