heel strike

(Uninjured) Heel-Strikers, Rejoice! Change to Forefoot Striking Not Necessary, Research Shows

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.

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.

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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)?

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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!

Comments 4

  1. If you are a heel striker and you can physically hear your heels heavily clapping into the pavement you’re probably strking too hard and could maybe benefit from a slight change in gait. However, if your heel makes a light touch with a soft noise, you’re probably just fine.

    Modern shoes with 10-12 mm heels will naturally hit the heel first. Just take them off and run barefoot in a safe place (astroturf, etc…) and you will immediately notice the difference. Just using lower shoes (6 mm to start) can help, but if you need a shoes with medial stability, they are hard to come by in a low rise shoe. You can also practice in flats- again, probably best to avoid pavement and moderation to start.

    I agree that our species did not evolve wearing shoes. We can easily experience our natural gait by removing them. That said, I’m not a proponent of barefoot running for people who’ve spent their whole lives wearing shoes. There is a middle ground, and best to always be experimenting (usually in the off season) to see how you can improve things.

  2. Following reading many running books, I tried to change my running style on longer runs, by using the forefoot technique and avoid a flat-footed heel strike whenever I could, for as long as I could. The first sign of trouble followed a brisk 13-14m training run on pavement, my calves were totally shot for a week. I persevered over shorter distances and felt I’d almost nailed it. Then I developed a case of plantar fasciitis in my left foot, which I’ve been struggling with for a year, to the point I’ve had to reduce my mileage right down to prevent severe pain. My physio is certain the PF was caused by change of gait.
    Overall, I should have just left well alone, naturally I’d sprint on my toes and run middle distance on forefoot, there was never any need to change my style, I rue the day I decided to change my gait.

  3. The few replies to this article surprises me. I second the above from Todd Kenyon. There still seems to be a lot of confusion, even among scientific studies, about defining the key difference between running styles.
    Changing my running style worked for me and I’ve stuck with it, not to be faster, but to be able to run longer (miles & years) and injury free.

  4. “Heel striking” has got to be the single greatest perceived evil in running. I have posted several videos on YouTube analyzing running form in elites, and invariably I get tons of comments that these world class athletes are “heel striking”. Yet, they are still world class. Truth is, they are not heel STRIKING, they are heel TOUCHING as they naturally and quickly transition to mid/forefoot support under the CG. This is perceived by the average runner as a bad thing, which of course is wrong. TRUE heel striking involves impacting heel with foot well in front of center of gravity, generating a braking force on each landing not to mention quite a bit of stress. Beginners and recreational joggers will sometimes run this way. Almost no one who runs frequently will run this way – it’s inefficient and it eventually hurts. Did the above studies make a distinction between this braking gait and “heel touching”? I hope this myth gets debunked once and for all – as long as you are not braking on each stride, move along, nothing to see here. As you state, focus on something else to improve your running.

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