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June 06, 2013

Does it Matter If I Am a Heel Striker?

Written by Dena Evans

heel_strike40 years ago, the Boston and New York Marathons had only a couple thousand finishers between them, and the average running shoe was pretty spare (we’d say “minimal” today), without a great deal of cushioning and support.  Today, the average wall of a specialty running store yields a bewildering array of shoes.  Options include maximum cushioning, support, stability, and motion control.  Meanwhile, New York will likely have upwards of 45,000 finishers this year, and the increased popularity of Boston means that having a qualifier no longer means you will actually be able to secure a spot in the race.

 

These trends are related.

 

The increased technological complexity of running shoe design has provided a gateway to the sport of running for many individuals who are outside the physical  “ideal” for world class running.  In fact, the definition of “ideal” itself has arguably been shifted as many recreational runners who strive for personal bests and accomplishment take pride in the capabilities of their bodies to finish, regardless of how fast.  Along the way, the number of runners who may not be built for speed in the Olympic sense have been protected from injury by new technologies offering previously unheard of support and cushioning in a shoe.   That said, the shoes they wear may also have unintended consequences.

 

One of the major ways in which the average running shoe has changed from a generation ago is the amount of heel cushioning coupled with a higher incline off the ground for the back of the foot.  While many runners have a natural stride that lends itself to landing first on the heel, these shoes make it much more easy for anyone to land first on the heel.  Here’s why:

  • -The psychological feeling of protection  - try running barefoot on your heels…just doesn’t feel nearly as good!
  • -The amount of material extending off the bottom of your foot hits the ground first, mainly because it is in the way.

 

Hitting the ground first with your heel can have a couple of problematic results.

  • -If your foot lands on your heel first, it is likely in front of your body when it hits. This means that it will take an extended amount of time for your body to travel over the foot and for it to push off again.
  • -With your leg extended in front of you, it is possible your knee and hip can take some jarring forces
  • -You are spending needless energy each stride, transferring your weight horizontally from behind the foot.

Essentially, landing heel first isn’t the most efficient way to get from Point A to Point B.

 

Preferably for most of us, the first surface to touch ground on each stride should be the midfoot to forefoot, or right around where your shoe is the widest.  This is for a couple reasons:  one, it is really hard to land that far forward on your foot when your foot is extended out in front of you.  In fact, unless you are a ballet dancer, it is hard to even walk like this. So, in order for you to land on this part of your foot, it will be closer to your body, or ideally, pretty much right underneath your body.  This means that you will spend less time horizontally transferring your weight over your foot before push off, and can use the large muscles of your body to both land with everything aligned, and push off immediately, lessening the chance for the type injuries caused by your hip and knees absorbing chain reaction forces when heel striking.  Two, if you are taking steps that allow for your foot to land under or close to underneath your body, you are likely taking more frequent steps, what we might call a quicker cadence.  Although it might be tempting to think of long extended strides as the way to pick up speed, all that time in the air is just spent slowing down.  So, a quicker cadence means you are likely making more rapid progress in the direction you want to go.

 

“Minimalist” shoes, which have come into vogue over the last few years, have a much lower heel profile.  This discourages heelstriking  Particularly for anyone who makes the big jump from a highly cushioned shoe into a minimal model without a gradual transition, the extra work required for your calves can be felt without much need for explanation upon waking the next morning.   For some runners, these shoes are a good supplemental tool or solution if their bodies are ready for that type of transition and their stride naturally might lend itself to a more midfoot to forefoot strike already.  For heel strikers, these shoes might be a supplemental tool to help encourage good posture and start to work on running form, but should be used with caution.  If the support of the current shoe has been a positive injury prevention tool, it should continue to part of a runner’s arsenal.

 

Sometimes, we think of ourselves as a completely different brand of runner than the African athletes we might see at the front of the pack in races.  However, when researchers studied the foot strike patterns of Kenyans, they found that those who grew up running to and from school without shoes were more often forefoot strikers than those who grew up wearing shoes.  So, even among a group that we as recreational runners tend to see as homogenous, significant differences have been found based on their history of footwear.

 

While more research has yet to be done on this, what can we conclude about those of us who currently heel strike?  Regardless of how our foot strikes the ground, we all want to move forward efficiently.  Practicing short stretches (30 seconds or 2 minutes at a time, etc) with a quicker cadence will help teach yourself how to increase speed when finishing in a race and allow you to experiment with what it feels like to land more toward the midfoot.  If you are a steadfast heel striker who has relied on padded shoes to stay healthy, quicker, more frequent strides vs longer, bounding strides is still the way to go.

 

In short, we are in an age where shoe technology has allowed more people than ever to run for recreation.  Some of that technology has also reinforced not entirely ideal habits our body may naturally have, even as it allows to stay healthy enough to run at all.  We may be content to enjoy the race from our spot in the pace or we may be anxious to move up the standings.  Either way, mindfulness about how our foot strikes the ground and how we can increase our efficiency can allow us to have more fun along the way.

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