By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
For far too long, heel strikers have been ridiculed, mocked and laughed at in running communities around the globe. It’s time for that to stop. We’ve heard it all before. The rationales for a forefoot strike go something like this:
“Our Paleolithic ancestors inevitably ran on their forefoot because they didn’t have shoes. They couldn’t heel strike because it’s too painful.”
They also lived to the ripe age of 40 and usually died because they were simply left behind by their hunter and gather pack. So, there’s that.
“We were ‘Born to Run’ on our forefoot, just look at the Tarahumara.”
The Tarahumara are awesome, but do you really want to run with old tires attached with leather straps on your feet?
“You will be faster if you run up on your toes!”
The person serving up this advice obviously failed anatomy class. When was the last time you saw someone run a marathon in perfect ballerina pointe?
This debate will go on. Yet, it will certainly be tempered by a recent meta-analysis from La Trobe University. This study of studies looked at 53 individual papers at a range of speeds from 9 min/mile to 6:26 min/mile. Their basic determinations were twofold:
- There is no compelling evidence to change from a rearfoot strike to a forefoot strike for injury prevention purposes if you are uninjured.
- There is no compelling evidence that changing from a rearfoot strike to a forefoot strike improves running economy (the amount of oxygen you consume per minute at a particular speed).
This could easily be an article on ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, but that would be too simplistic. More importantly, there are better things athletes can learn from this meta analysis, so let’s cover those.
Enjoying This Article? Get More Free Running Training Tips
Get our coaches' best training advice, delivered straight to your inbox weekly.
Don’t worry if you are a heel striker and are not injured
As I opened up the blog with, it’s time for you to rejoice. If you are heel striker and if you do not have a pattern of injury, it’s OK! Feel free to wear the heel of your outsole down and do it with pride and a badge of honor! In all seriousness, uninjured heel strikers need to know that the way your foot naturally lands is OK. So, you can stop trying to make your form perfect and you can ignore the advice that a zero drop shoe will be better for you because it encourages a ‘natural footstrike’.
If you are seeking performance gains, focus on bigger gains
Many runners have been encouraged to seek a forefoot strike for performance gains. The theory is that landing on the balls of your feet somehow improves running economy by encouraging the foot fall to be more under the center of mass (thus reducing the braking forces) and/or improving the elastic energy return of the Achilles and lower limb muscles. These are reasonable rationales for changing your foot strike. The issue is, we don’t quite know what happens long term with any changes in biomechanics as it relates to running economy.
We do know that short term, almost all forced changes in running mechanics result in worse economy. This makes sense, as you are conditioned to a particular gait over years of repetition and any change is immediately going to result in your stride being more difficult, not less. This is accentuated if you have ever seen yourself running, be that in a physical therapist setting, staring at the mirrors in the gym, or glancing at your reflection in the windows of a store you are running by (come on, admit that you have done that). Everyone hates the way they look when they run. Just like you hate the way you sound when you hear yourself talk (as I’ve been finding out on my weekly podcast). Being obsessive ultrarunners, we’re hypercritical of ourselves and that extends to our own running form.
Even if switching from a heel strike to a forefoot strike results in a performance gain, it’s likely to be marginal at best. My theory (emphasis intentional) is that if the economy improvements were so great, you’d see them right away and they would only get better. Plus, if forefoot striking was really that much of game changer, nearly all of the elite runners in the world would land on the balls of their feet. This is hardly the case. In a 2018 study conducted by the IAAF (Track and Field’s governing body) 67% of the men’s marathon and 57% of the women’s field landed on their heels during the fourth lap of the race.
So, instead of focusing on your foot strike to improve performance, ultrarunners would be better served to focus on sleep, their race day nutrition plan and simple training architecture (coaching, anyone)?
If you are heel striker and do get injured, don’t necessarily blame your mechanics
Here’s something I screwed up countless times as a coach in my early years. Whenever a runner was injured, I turned to their mechanics to fix what was wrong. I’d send them to a physical therapist to have their gait analyzed and subsequently work on form imbalances, technique and strength discrepancies. While high quality physical therapists are a resource I constantly lean on to keep runners running, my mistake as a younger coach was that they were the only resource I was leaning on. It is wiser to broaden the lens because injuries are almost always multifactorial. Nutrition, training, training load ramp (how quickly you ramp up your mileage and/or intensity), sleep, psychology and yes, biomechanics all play a part.
So, when you do get injured, don’t automatically blame your mechanics. Look at your training, sleep, nutrition and see the whole picture.
It’s perfectly fine to be a heel striker. And, as the data from some of the best runners in the world suggest, you are in good company. So, stick your chin out, puff your chest up and be proud that your heel lands first!