Understanding Foot Strike Patterns
One of the key differences between average and great runners is their running style. This term has lots of meanings, but we’re going to focus on understanding foot strike patterns, the one thing many runners don’t understand. Knowing exactly how your foot hits the ground can help you improve your mileage and achieve peak running performance.
Before we dive into the subject, let’s take a look at the three basic types of foot strikes:
- The heel strike is used by roughly 80% of runners, making it the most common style, in terms of how your foot hits the ground during a running session. The first thing to touch the ground is your heel, after which the rest of the foot pivots downward.
- The mid-foot strike consists of hitting the ground with the outside edge of your whole foot. Runners who practice the heel strike usually progress to mid-foot when they increase their speed. You could say that it’s the most “balanced” running style.
- The forefoot strike decreases the impact force, as the tip of the foot hits the ground first, being closely followed by the rest of your foot. The downside of this running style is that it requires more physical effort.
Which running foot strike is better?
In the past, the majority of experts and coaches considered the heel strike as the most effective running style. This opinion was mostly shaped by observing athletes during their runs. In science, observation alone is not enough, that’s why in-depth research was needed.
Today, opinions have shifted completely and many experts consider the forefoot strike as the most effective. But effective in terms of what? When choosing a running style, there are several aspects to consider: the risk of injury, speed, effort, etc. For example, the forefoot strike increases your performance, but it’s not recommended for long-distance runs. If you run a half-marathon using the forefoot strike, you could end up hurting your Achilles tendon or your calf muscles. For short-distance running, the forefoot strike can to be highly effective because it increases your overall speed.
As for the mid-foot strike, most experts suggest that when you increase your speed, you’ll eventually become a mid-foot striker. Although a mid-foot striker puts less stress on his knee and hip, the burden placed on ankles and feet is greater.
So each strike pattern has its good and not so good points. There are lots of variables to be considered, which makes the whole process more difficult.
But what does ‘better’ actually mean anyway? When people say that it’s “better” to land on the forefoot, what does that mean? Is it more efficient? Less injury-prone? Faster? We use the word “better” even though studies may not specifically look at any of these aspects. The “prudence concept”, as applied to science, says firmly that something cannot be “better” unless it has been really studied and compared to other alternatives. Sadly, the science lags behind when it comes to understanding foot strike patterns.
Looking at one particular study
A study conducted in Japan in 2004 and published in 2007 in the Journal of Strength of Conditioning revealed that the vast majority (75%) of runners use the heel strike during a long-distance run. That’s because heel strikers don’t put in that much effort (compared to forefoot strikers), which is important when you have to run 15 or more kilometers.
That study was performed at the 2004 Sapporro International Half Marathon in Japan. The researchers set up a high-speed camera (vital for precise gathering of data) at the 15 km mark of the course, and captured runners in action. Altogether, they were able to study the foot strike of 35 women and 248 men.They also calculated Ground Contact Time at the 15km mark.
The results of the study were not what you’d expect:
- 75% of the runners were heel-strikers
- 1 in 4 runners were mid-foot strikers
- Only 4 out of 283 runners landed on the forefoot
What about injuries?
In terms of running injuries, there is no significant difference between heel strikes, mid strikes and forefoot strikes. It depends on which parts of your body endure the most stress.
Heel strikers risk knee joint injuries because there’s a lot of impact force going up the shin, while the ankle and forefoot are relieved of tension.
Forefoot strikers have the advantage of protecting their knees, but they risk Achilles tendon injuries.
Mid-foot strikers are usually fast runners but this comes at a cost. They risk hurting their calf strains or they can end up having posterior tibial tendonitis.
As you can see, in terms of injuries, there is no good or bad striking pattern. Each of the three basic running styles makes you vulnerable to different injuries.
Summing-Up: Adapt Your Running Style
Since there’s little conclusive evidence about striking patterns, one question still remains unanswered. What’s the best striking style? The answer is, all of them. It depends on what you’re looking to get out of your training. Do you want increased speed? Use the mid-foot strike. Do you want to finish a half-marathon? Try landing on your heel. You have a short training session? Be a forefoot striker.
You can even use all three styles in the same race. The key is to pay attention to your body and carefully analyze its messages. Remember that pain is our body’s way of communicating that something is wrong. If you start to feel pain in your knee, switch from heel strikes to forefoot strikes. If you want to increase the speed for a while, use the mid-foot strike. Butswitch back to heel strikes after a while, to protect your calf muscles.
If there is one thing you want to change in your running, try not to focus on your footstrike, but rather on where your feet land relative to your body. That’s because if you’re over reaching and throwing your foot out in front of you, that is actually a huge problem, but what happens when the shoe hits the pavement is less relevant!
Airia One works for all foot strike patterns and dramatically improves your running ability.