As a coach there are trends to what I am asked about most. In years past it’s been how to get faster. Then it transitioned to what type of shoe is best. That led to what type of supplements to take and when. Lately the running world has started to focus on form, and a great debate has sprung up like nothing I’ve experienced in my fifteen years in this industry. Personally I’m enjoying this great level of focus that is being given to form and mechanics because it’s way overdue. This sport is not as simple as “put on your shoes and go”. It’s more complicated than that, and one of the main areas of complication is the idea of foot strike. What’s right, wrong, or best for a runner to do? That’s a good question, and I’m gonna answer it, and it’s gonna be a little controversial.
I’ll start with what is right and wrong in terms of foot strike. Many people have tried recently to take a stand and say what’s correct when it comes to how your foot should hit the ground, and my opinion is that anyone who takes a stance is probably wrong. The real answer is that there isn’t a “best” way to put your foot down. The reason is that everyone is built differently, and everyone develops their own individual neural pathways to complete movements like running so there is no way I can say everyone should do something a certain way. What I can do is determine the best way to maximize your individual mechanics to help you avoid injury, improve performance, or simply make the process of running easier to do.
So what are we dealing with? There are a few standard foot strikes out there that we can take a look at. There is heel striking from over-striding, heel striking under a bent knee, forefoot landing, running on your toes, and the mythical mid-foot landing. I find these to be the most commonly brought up foot strikes so we’ll take a look at them. I do need to point out that there are more options but they are subtly different than the one’s I’m gonna list here. There are also a lot of ways to do each of these strikes differently while still doing the same strike. For example a forefoot strike could be done from the fifth metatarsal head making first contact and then transferring the body weight to the first met-head. It could also be done in reverse or just put down flatly but I’m not going to get into that today. It’s just too much information at one time for one post so we’ll stick to the basics.
HEEL STRIKING has been broken down into two main types: over-striding and bent-knee landing. Over-striding has been blasted and basically proven to be detrimental to the average runner. Over-striding occurs when you reach out with your foot in an attempt to take a big long stride. This almost always leaves you landing with your lead leg straight out in front of you with a locked knee and your toes pointed up and back (dorsiflexed). This causes a lot of impact force as well as an overall braking (like putting on the brakes) of your momentum. It is also being proven to be the culprit for a majority of running’s typical injuries. There are some people out there who run this way every day and have zero problems, so is this a bad way to run? My answer is yes for two reasons. One, it is risky as it does put a lot of impact forces on your legs, which can lead at some point to injuries. Second, the change needed to fix it is very subtle and easy so it makes sense that you shouldn’t take the risk. The easy fix for this issue is to simply adapt the other heel striking motion of landing on a bent knee.
Heel striking under a bent knee is easy and common for those people who have heeded the advice presented all over the internet and in running magazines. The advice is that a heavy heel striker should shift to shorter strides and maybe even up the overall stride average per minute. This shift to a shorter and quicker stride allows you to put your foot down more underneath your center of mass which will result in a bent knee at ground impact. The bent knee is important because it allows the leg to act in its intended purpose as a giant spring. The muscles of the legs are allowed to activate properly and accept the downward forces of your body weight, which in turn takes the pressure to handle the impact off of the joints. This makes sense because the muscles and their connective tissues have tensile properties that the bones don’t have. So is landing on your heels under your body on a bent knee bad because it’s still heel striking? My opinion is absolutely not. Studies are popping up every day that show the decreases in impact forces to be very substantial. Some of them are even reporting results as high as 48% decrease in impact forces by simply shortening the stride and landing on a bent knee. Those numbers are equal to or less than our next point: forefoot landing.
The FORE FOOT LANDING has quickly become the hot topic in running. Everyone is running around telling you that you need to land on your forefoot because that is the best way to run. I’ll admit that I agree that a forefoot landing is a very good way to do it, and I coach it. I don’t think it’s best for everyone or that everyone should go out right now and try to shift their form to forefoot running. The reason is that this way of landing is very stressful on the foot, and the average person has weak feet. I’ve preached here and to everyone I’ve coached that foot strength is very important. I think strengthening your feet is just as important as strengthening any other muscle group in your body. When you land on your forefoot you are essentially placing the ball of foot on the ground just before the heel. Ideally this is done on a bent knee under the center of body mass with a moderate to short stride length. It requires a lot of calf endurance that most people do not possess, which is why converts usually suffer through an adjustment phase that causes them a lot of calf soreness. When done correctly with the proper body strength and mechanics this can be a very efficient form that protects the joints and builds muscle strength. So is it the best way to run? Possibly yes, it is, but again not for everyone. There are elite marathoners out there who run very fast while landing on the heels (landing, not over-striding strike) so a switch in form might not be good for them as it may set them back and take away their ability to run fast. If you’re a constantly injured runner or a beginner who wants to put yourself in a best case scenario then this might be something you want to give some focus to.
RUNNING ON YOUR TOES is possibly the one type of form I will consistently try and get my athletes to stop doing. Again, there are some runners out there who run up on their toes and are very successful. Dean Karnazes comes to mind when I think of this form. He is a very successful runner who spends a lot of time up on his toes in the videos I’ve seen of him running. This type of form takes and develops extremely strong calves, but it can also cause extreme stress to the Achilles tendons which can lead to myriad other lower leg and back injuries. I typically try and get my toe runners to just let the ankle relax a bit and get more of the forefoot on the ground when they make contact. I think this is like over-striding in that it is a form that can mostly benefit from adapting a different version of it. Forefoot running is very similar to toe running so it’s generally a good adjustment. An easy way to make the transition is to look at your knee height in you motion. If your knees are low and level through the motion (this is most common) then all you have to do is raise the knee slightly higher in your stride. By slightly I mean around an inch or so on average. This will allow you to put your foot down more underneath your body so you can plant your foot down at an angle more parallel to the ground. If you already pick your knees up high then you simply need to relax the ankle and try to lift the toe a little during the drop to the ground.
So there it is, and the answer is that there isn’t really an answer that fits everyone. You’re going to have to determine what works best for you. If you’re constantly fighting injuries then take a look at your form and see if you need to make an adjustment. Most overuse running injuries generate from the mechanics of your form in some way, and they can usually be fixed. At the very least you can find ways to manage them that will keep you enjoying a good run.
You may have noticed that I left out the mid-foot landing, and I did that on purpose. You may have noticed that earlier I called the mid-foot landing mythical, and that’s because it is. I meant to touch on that in this post, but it was getting too long so stay tuned, and in a future (very near future) post I’ll explain why.