Heel Strike, Forefoot Strike or Midfoot Strike
By Rick Morris
There isn’t much complicated about running. We participate in a really simple sport. There aren’t a lot of rules to learn or equipment to worry about. As simple as running is there is a phase of running mechanics that seems to cause a lot of confusion. The mix up occurs at what I believe is the most important part of your running stride – your foot strike. If you ask a runner their opinion of the best type of foot strike or foot plant you’ll probably get one of three answers; toes first, ball of foot first or heel first. Every runner has a strong opinion on which of those methods is best.
If want to get a lively debate started just bring up this subject at the next meeting of your running group. I also have a strong opinion on the subject of foot strike. I believe that ball of the foot first or a neutral, nearly flat foot strike is by far the most efficient way to run. Does that mean I am right? I think I am but others do not agree. I think the best way to solve this question is to take a close look at the mechanics involved in all three foot strike methods and analyze their strengths and weaknesses.
Before we analyze the three foot plant techniques we should probably clear up the semantics involved. A toe first foot strike in a distance runner means you are landing with your foot in a plantar flexed or “toes down” position. A ball first landing describes a foot position that is dorsi flexed or in a “toes up” position with your actual foot strike taking place towards the rear portion of the ball of your foot or nearly flat footed. A heel first foot strike is when your foot is in a dorsi flexed or toes up position and your actual foot strike takes place on your heel.
Many coaches and runners believe that a forefoot or toes first foot plant is best because that type of stride requires a strong “paw back” which eliminates any braking effect. They also believe that is emphasizes strong use of your slow to fatigue calf muscles. I agree that this method is a good one for sprinters that are running 400 meters or less. You are able to generate a lot of speed and power with a forefoot first foot strike. The main problem with this type of stride for a distance runner is the large amount of energy that is wasted with a strong paw back and the high amount of stress placed on your calf muscles. It would be very difficult indeed to maintain a toe running stride for 2 miles to a 10K and nearly impossible for a half marathon or longer. Another problem associated with forefoot running is related to the elasticity of your calf muscles.
A sprinter may be able to run on their forefoot, keeping their heels off the ground, for the duration of a 100 to 400 meter sprint. When a distance runner uses a forefoot first foot strike their heels do hit the ground. Your calf muscles are very elastic in nature. When your foot strikes the ground toe first your calf muscles lengthen and build up elastic energy, much like stretching a rubber band. As your heel then lower to the ground, that energy is absorbed and lost. You then need to push off harder to propel yourself forward. That makes forefoot first running a much less energy efficient method.
Heel First Foot Strike
Heel first running is the most common method of running, especially among beginning runners. In a heel first foot plant your forward foot is dorsi flexed and extended in front of your center of gravity. You land on your heel and your foot then rolls forward and pronates (rolls to the inside of your foot) You then must push off to generate your forward momentum. I see several problems with a heel first foot strike. First, since your foot strike is in front of your center of gravity you are “putting on the brakes” with every step. Many runners try to argue this point, but I see no way that you can possibly avoid some braking action when you are landing with your foot extended in front of your body.
The braking effect interrupts your forward momentum, requires you to regenerate your momentum with a powerful push off and slows you down. The heel first landing also generates a lot of stress on your ankles, knees, hips and lower back. You are much more likely to suffer from a variety of running injuries when you use a heel first landing. A very common running injury that is caused, in part, by heel running, is shin splints. The heel first landing does two things. It causes your shin muscles to strongly activate in an attempt to keep the front of your foot from slapping down. The high amount of pronation also causes excessive stress on deeper shin muscles that act to prevent the rolling or pronation of your foot. It is that excessive stress on your lower leg muscles that cause shin splints.
Midfoot or Neutral Foot Strike
Now we come to what I think is the best method – Midfoot or neutral foot plant. Using this method you foot is in a dorsi flexed position just like a heel first landing. The difference is that your touchdown is directly under your center of gravity with your foot strike mostly neutral or flat footed with most of your weight at the rear portion of the ball of your foot. With this type of touchdown your dorsi flexed foot places your calf muscles in a pre-stretched position. It is like a gun that is already cocked and ready to fire.
When your foot touches down in this position there is very little energy that is absorbed or lost. Most of the forward momentum you have built up is preserved because there is no braking effect. The energy stored in your elastic calf muscles are quickly released with little energy loss. There is no need for a powerful push off because the energy stored in your calf muscles is quickly released which does most of the work for you. Using the same runner band analogy, it’s like pre stretching a rubber band and then letting it fly. The rubber band does the work. With a neutral foot strike it is the energy returned from your elastic calf muscles that is doing the work. There is none of the absorbed and wasted energy that occurs with a toes first or heel first foot plant.
Not only is a midfoot strike much more efficient, it also helps you avoid injury because it removes much of the stress from your ankles, knee and hips.
So there you have it. That is the mechanics of the three possible foot strikes along with an explanation of why I think a neutral or ball first foot plant is by far the most efficient and injury resistant way to run. If you are a forefoot first or heel first runner, should you switch to a midfoot foot plant? In nearly every case I would say yes. There is no doubt in my mind that a neutral foot plant is the only way to go, but there are no absolutes. Some runners that try to change their running mechanics run into injury and performance problems. My best advice is to try a midfoot or neutral foot plant for a couple of weeks. I think you will see improvements in your running performance, will find running easier and more enjoyable, and will see a decrease in stress and injury. If not you can always go back to your old running style.