Do you land on your heel or toes when you run? Have you been told you over pronate when you run? Your foot strike pattern when you run can tell a lot about how efficient you are when you run. A foot strike analysis is best done by a sports physical therapist to determine if there are any areas where possible injury could occur. I’ve been having a discussion with my colleagues on what type of foot strike running is best for a runner. The answer is not always clear and cut and there are a lot of different considerations when doing a foot strike analysis. But I wanted to write a little about it and hopefully spark a lager debate about why we recommend foot strike patterns.
Let’s cover the basics of the 3 types of foot strike running that is typically done by runners: Toe Running (Forefoot), Midfoot Running (some even debate this pattern), Heel Striking (Hindfoot). Most runners run with a heel strike pattern, meaning as you swing your leg forward, the first part of your body to touch the ground is your heel. Midfoot running is associated with forefoot running because the first part of your body to touch the ground is technically your “toes” of your foot, but as you move forward your foot falls back onto the middle portion of your foot and your heel touches the ground. Forefoot running is landing purely on your “toes” and as you move forward, your heel never touches the ground. For more on this and other interesting thoughts read my “3 Lies Told to Runners” Blog. So, which runner are you?
Physics of Running
There are research journals published supporting both heel strike and forefoot striking pattern running. Typically, if you are a heel striker, you support the notion of heel striking as the best foot strike running pattern. If you are a forefoot striker, you support the notion of toe landing in foot strike running. So, this begs the question, who is right? For starters, there really is no right or wrong way to run but there is a right way to run efficiently!
The best way to look at foot strike analysis when the research is mixed is to always go back to the basics…the science of it all. That takes us to bio-mechanics and even more simply, physics. Physics, as you can remember from high school, is never the fun topic when it comes to exercise but it’s worth mentioning in this debate. The reason is because if you want to look at efficiency and bio-mechanics in running, physics has the answer.
In any moving object, any mechanical engineer, physicist, scientist will tell you, you want to reduce as much friction, drag, traction, opposing forces, etc. as possible. That’s why a square wheel never took off in motion. Too much friction, along with other resisting forces, to make it efficient as a “wheel.”
So, when it comes to running, the same physics apply. Applying this to running, you want to reduce all those opposing forces and when it comes to heel striking, well you basically digging in your heels and preventing your forward motion, increasing the ground reaction force, and increasing the amount of friction as you attempt to run forward. A toe strike pattern dramatically reduces the amount of resistance being applied to your body and there are bio-mechanical studies showing this reduction.
Further adapting from other industries, if you were to ask an engineer to design the most efficient way for an object to “run,” how do you think they would design that object? Well don’t think about that too hard because it has already been done at Boston Dynamics with their robot named “Atlas.” The first robot to successfully develop a semi-autonomous robot to run and when it comes to the foot strike pattern the robot runs, well it is a forefoot strike pattern. There is an excellent 60 minute episode covering what Boston Dynamics does but there are also plenty of videos showing Atlas do his thing and it’s pretty remarkable. And I would say adds a considerable amount of support to the notion of forefoot strike running as a more efficient running pattern.
We Are Not Robots
As I mentioned earlier, the foot strike debate for people is not so cut and dry. People are complex moving bodies and have an extensive history, background, and life experiences that all play a role in how we move. That is partly why the physical therapy profession exists. There is never a one size fits all program when it comes to people and physical therapist have to take into account our athletes’ history. So, though I would recommend forefoot running patterns to most people, I also take into consideration what previous injuries may have occurred, the current level of training, the goals of each athlete, current weakness/strengths, and current compensations that can lead to injury.
For some people, heel striking may be the most efficient way to run because of previous injuries or weaknesses. This is why you have some high-level ultra-runners that run with a heel strike pattern and don’t seem to have any problems doing so. They even run at record tempos and distances on a heel strike pattern. But it would benefit all runners to consider running with a more efficient gait pattern. To be able to determine exactly what foot strike running is best for you, a gait assessment done by a professional is your best option. There are specific postures you can attempt to avoid to prevent injury and I would recommend you read my “4 Running Postures that Cause Back Pain” Blog as it helps to outline what to avoid.
With all things even, research and science show that a forefoot pattern is the most efficient way to run but let me issue a sign of caution here. That does not mean you should go out and start running on your toes tomorrow. There are a lot of factors, tools, exercises, shoes, and recovery issues to take into consideration. I tell everyone I help in my clinic that if someone tells you they can help you run with a forefoot strike pattern in less than 6 months, they are lying to you. The transition, especially if you are a heel striker, can take any where from 6 months to 1 year to complete. You will also need to buy different types of shoes as you transition, and you will need to work on strengthening the muscles in your lower leg. This is a whole other can of worms but my “5 Shoe Designs to Run Faster” Blog can help answer some of your questions.
If you have noticed you are a heel strike and would like to switch up your foot strike pattern to help increase your pace, feel free to reach out to me by email or give me a call at 915-233-7774. Please, subscribe to my Blog for updates on new posts and videos on training and injury prevention.
Dr. Estrada is an Endurance Specialist at EPRSG and has over 15+ years of experience. He has completed over 10+ half marathons, 4 marathons, and 2 triathlons. His experience ranges from swimming, running, cycling, mountain biking, and many other sports. He has coached many athletes ranging in ages from high school to senior competitions.