Skip to content

Heel Striking in Running: Good or Bad?

The big question! Should you Heel Strike when you run? The simple answer is No! But why is this?

Walking Gait and the Heel Strike

When we walk we should absolutely heel strike, the forces of walking are much lower than the forces of running and the heel bone, and the bursa that sits below it, protecting the heel bone, can handle this force. As we walk we should land on our heel and push off through our toes, ensuring the big toe is the last thing to leave the ground.

This allows our calves to stretch, keeping them at a healthy length, and our feet to push off, strengthening the muscles on the base of our feet and supporting our arch. So if this is so good for walking, why shouldn’t we run this way?

Heel striking in running.

When we run, we put considerably more force through our foot, Depending on how fast you run, you could exert up to 5 x your body weight, which is huge. To put that into context for an average 70kg person that would equate to 350kg! Imagine all that force running through your heel bone.

This is why the manufacturer’s of running shoes created cushioned shoes. To absorb the force of a heel strike. Many years ago it was felt that if a runner were to increase their stride length, this would, in turn, increase their speed. The problem is, the longer your stride, the more likely you are to heel strike and a heel strike can irritate the bursa and hurt the heel bone. It is also hard for the foot to absorb these larger forces, if you strike with the heel, and so these forces tend to head up the leg, creating issues such as shin splints.

Why can the heel not absorb the forces?

The heel bone is called the Calcaneus. It is a large bone with a bursa to protect the achilles tendon, which wraps around it, from damage. The bone itself doesn’t absorb force, it is muscles, joints and ligaments that absorb force. When you hit the floor on your heel bone, you only have 3 joints in the ankle to absorb all this force. After that the forces head up into the lower leg.

The Tibia and Fibula, of the lower leg, can flex, to absorb force, but soft tissue structures attach to these bones and the constant flexing irritates their attachment points and creates inflammation. Often referred to as shin splints. Even then, the forces won’t be fully absorbed so continue up into the knee, hip and spine. This isn’t ideal, so shoe manufacturer’s have spent years creating shock absorption in the heel of running shoes, to absorb these forces and help runners avoid injuries.

So what foot strike is best when running?

If a heel strike isn’t ideal, how should your foot land when you run? Well, if we took your shoes off and asked you to run down the road barefoot, you would naturally come in to a mid-foot strike. We don’t suggest you do this, as the road surface can damage your feet, but minimalistic or barefoot shoes have been designed to protect your foot without lots of support and cushioning.

A mid-foot strike, is much kinder to your foot. This is where the ball of your foot and your heel hit at the same time, not to be confused with a toe strike, which is only for sprinters. Anyone doing long distances on a toe strike will find they have problems with their calves.

As you hit the floor in a mid foot position, the foot unleashes all it’s force dissipating magic. Firstly your plantar ligament flattens, creating potential energy that releases when your foot leaves the floor. Secondly the arch of your foot flattens, creating a slight pronation. Not to be confused with Over-pronation, which usually occurs when you have a flat arch. Finally, the many joints of the foot flex and allow forces to be dissipated. We have 12 joints available in the foot during a mid-foot landing, and this means very little force gets out into the lower leg. This means you are less likely to injure yourself while running.

Which is better for running efficiency?

To answer this question, we have to go back to physics and look at Newton’s Third Law. “For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction” . If I hit the floor with my foot in front of me, the ground will exert a force in the opposite direction, namely coming back up at me. This is technically a deceleration force. Now this is only momentary, but it does take some of the force out of the strike. So when my mid-foot eventually hits the floor, Newtons Third law can’t help your momentum as much.

If you land with a mid-foot strike, your foot is usually pretty much under your body, so the corresponding force occurs in an upwards direction, giving you upwards force. In addition, that plantar ligament, we mentioned earlier, it is like an elastic band that it is stretched taught, as your foot leave the floor it creates additional energy propelling you upwards with just physics, no muscles are needed. As you are moving in a forwards direction, momentum will move you forwards with minimal effort on your part.Therefore, the mid-foot strike is actually more efficient, in terms of how hard your muscles need to work to propel you forwards.

We have transitioned many people into a mid-foot strike and over time, their race times improve and they feel running is effortless.

I don’t want to use minimalistic shoes

This isn’t a problem, you don’t need minimalistic shoes to mid-foot strike, however, the larger your heel cushioning and the greater your shoe drop angle, the more likely it is that you will naturally heel strike. So to encourage a more mid-foot strike, you can get low drop or zero drop shoes, that still have cushioning, but encourage a more natural strike. In fact, we would never suggest people just jump over to a minimalistic shoe.

Modern feet are very weak and many people have non existing foot arches, meaning that the bones take the full forces of running in a barefoot style. Once clients have transitioned, they never want to go back to cushioned shoes. However, that process of strengthening the foot can take a year, and while they are transitioning we suggest a lower drop shoe to them to do their main running in.

Not sure if you heel strike or want to transition into a more minimalistic shoe? Book in for our Running Assessment and we can check it out and get you onto a program to strengthen your feet and ensure any transition is safe. πŸ˜€πŸ“ž

Take a look at some more information on zero drop/ barefoot shoes here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *