By Keith Bateman
While we are often told that the secret to good running is to change the way your foot strikes the ground, this is putting the cart before the horse.
Using your landings to feel and adjust your technique during a run is a valuable tool, however the initial contact point of the foot does not determine the quality of your running form.
Foot strike is a poor indicator of running form
If your heel is your first point of contact with the ground it means you will be leaning back and over-striding . This results in a degree of braking, hence inefficiency, not to mention increased impact stress on bones, joints and muscles. A heavy heel strike is therefore definitely bad.
But just avoiding a heel strike does not solve all your problems. It is also very easy to over-stride with a mid-foot strike or a forefoot strike. So, concentrating on foot strike is misguided and distracts from the real problem with technique.
Landings vary with speed, terrain and footwear
It is impossible to say what kind of landing is best in every scenario. How your foot lands will vary with the slope of the ground, the softness of the running surface, your running speed and your shoes amongst other things. I land differently every time and like most people my feet and legs are not symmetrical. 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. So there is no point in trying to use a “one size fits all” foot strike for every running condition.
Copying fast runners will mislead
Trying to copy the foot ‘strike’ of top runners is also problematic. As they travel at higher speeds and get further off the ground than the average runner, they 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. Copying what these good runners are doing at high speed will not translate to good technique at the lower speeds of the average runner.
Changing foot strike keeps the same basic faults
Many semi-enlightened runners correctly know that a heel strike is bad and so consciously try to forefoot strike. But a little learning can be a dangerous thing. Although they have avoided the heel strike, the forefoot strike brings its own problems like forefoot stress fractures. But, injuries aside, a forefoot strike is not the cure for over-striding. It is easy to continue to over-stride without a heel strike simply by pointing the foot and landing on the forefoot.
So, just like other measures such as changing cadence, vertical oscillation, foot height and so on, artificially changing the initial contact point of the foot with the ground is not a way to improve your technique.
Forget about foot strike
When I help clients change technique there is no mention of foot strike. I show them how to land balanced – as close to being vertically aligned as possible. The feeling of landing, the sensation of how the foot is in contact with the ground is part of the feedback we used to adjust the degree of balance, and not an end in itself.