As any runner who strikes the ground with their heel first has probably been told, to heel strike is considered by many as a cardinal sin when it comes to good running form.
There are two main accusations laid against heel striking: increased injury rate and reduced running efficiency. This ‘lump of bone’ is ill-equipped for the heavy impacts involved in running and heel strikes encourages you to overstride, slowing you down.
Or so the argument goes...
A new meta-study from Melbourne’s La Trobe University, which analyses over fifty individual scientific papers and a wide range of running abilities, is challenging these assumptions and could change our negative attitudes towards heel striking for good.
Here’s a quick preview of what we’ll be looking at:
- The case against heel striking
- Does heel strike cause more injuries?
- Will switching to a mid or forefoot strike improve my performance?
- What does this mean for my strike pattern?
Let’s dive in!
The case against heel striking
Though the debate has been around in running circles for decades, the ‘forefoot strike good, heel strike bad’ mantra really took off with Chris McDougall’s 2009 bestseller Born to Run.
McDougall makes a strong case. The human foot is an engineering marvel, refined through millions of years of evolution.
A key feature is the arch – one of the most structurally resilient shapes nature has to offer – as stonemasons and bridgebuilders have known for millennia. There are also a wealth of shock-absorbing and elastic-energy-storing ligaments and tendons which are partly bypassed when we strike down heel-first.
In theory, heel striking has only even been possible since the birth of modern, cushioned running shoes like the Nike Cortez in the 1970s.
Before all the self-adjusting microchipped outsoles and brightly coloured shock-absorption gels, the only comfortable way to run would have been on our forefeet, McDougall argued.
So, if we want to run properly again, we should look to runners whose form is uncorrupted by the innovations and marketing strategies of sportswear’s corporate giants. For McDougall, the legendary forefoot-striking Rarámuri people – indigenous to Mexico’s isolated Sierra Madre mountains and famed for their incredible speed and endurance – fit the bill perfectly.
So far, so logical – right?
There’s just one problem. If forefoot striking really was the silver bullet to end all runners’ injury woes and revolutionise their performance, this would surely be reflected in the results of scientific study after scientific study.
But – as we’re about to discover from La Trobe’s meta-analysis – this simply hasn’t been the case.
Does heel striking cause injuries?
An increased likelihood of injury is the most eye-catching of the charges levelled against heel striking. Barely twenty pages in, Born to Run has linked heel strikes to runner’s knee, Achilles blowouts, and the dreaded plantar fasciitis – enough to send any experienced runner hot footing it for the hills on their tiptoes.
The La Trobe study did find a slightly lower rate of repetitive stress injury for habitual mid and forefoot strikers (those who have always touched down further forward naturally, without a forced attempt to change their strike pattern) compared to heel strikers.
However, the gap was slim – far narrower than heel strikes’ shoddy reputation would suggest. As the study’s authors put it:
‘Despite frequent suggestions in the literature that [mid or forefoot striking] is associated with reduced injury risk, the relationship between strike pattern and injury risk could not be determined from current evidence.’
In other words, the idea that heel striking is an inherently flawed or dangerous running style just isn’t reflected in the data.
What the researchers did find, however, was that a change in strike pattern has a significant effect on the different forces at work in a runner’s body.
Heel striking increases the forces applied to the knee and generates higher ‘vertical loading rates’ (the speed at which pressure on the joints builds). Several studies have linked higher loading rates to an increased risk of soft tissue damage and stress fractures compared to a more gradual application of pressure.
Mid or forefoot striking creates its own set of headaches. In particular, the La Trobe authors reported increased stress on the plantar flexors – the muscles and tendons which control foot and toe movement, including the Achilles and the calf muscles.
So, while changing from a heel strike to a forefoot strike might not make much difference to the overall injury rate, it could alter the type of injury a runner is likely to suffer.
With this in mind, changing strike pattern could make sense for runners with certain chronic injuries. If your knees are struggling to cope with their daily pounding, switching to a mid or forefoot strike could help soften the blows.
Likewise, a runner suffering calf strain after calf strain might benefit from inching their strike point backwards – though we’d always recommend consulting a professional running coach or physiotherapist before making any drastic injury-related changes to your form.
But if you’ve been heel striking for years without any serious injury troubles, the La Trobe study suggests that ultimately the best thing you can do with your strike pattern is – nothing. Switching to a mid or forefoot strike is unlikely to reduce your overall chance of injury, but risks opening a nightmarish pandora’s box of avoidable calf and Achilles problems.
Will switching to a mid or forefoot strike increase performance?
The other benefit we’re often promised about switching to a forefoot strike is a boost to running economy. With better economy, we should be able to run faster and further, even with less fuel in the tank – an attractive proposition to any runner desperate to shave a few seconds off their PB.
The theory stems in part from the idea that our ligaments can store more elastic energy when we strike with our forefoot. Instead of being wasted, the energy from our landing propels us forward like a spring as we take off on our next stride.
It’s also suggested that heel striking increases the braking forces from each stride because it encourages overstriding – though it’s worth remembering you could still be overstriding with a mid or forefoot strike!
However, there are some serious stumbling blocks with this logic when we dig a little deeper.
We’ve all heard plenty about the modern era of ‘marginal gains’ in professional sports and the extreme lengths athletes go to pursuing every thousandth of a second. So, if there’s really a boost to running economy – even just by a little – we’d surely expect to see every elite runner in the world adopting a forefoot strike, right?
Not so. A 2018 study by the IAAF (the international governing body for athletics) examining the World Championships in London found that more than half of the competitors in both the men’s and women’s marathons were heel striking for at least part of the race.
With that in mind, it comes as less of a surprise that the La Trobe study found little or no difference in economy at slow, medium, or fast speeds. Its authors were adamant in their analysis that there is ‘currently no evidence to support transition from rearfoot strike to non-rearfoot strike… to improve running economy.’
But the study held an even more damning revelation. Not only was there no evidence of improved performance for forefoot strikers, runners who intentionally switched from a heel strike to a mid or forefoot strike actually decreased their running economy.
Admittedly, the study only looked at short-term changes in running economy, so it’s entirely possible those runners would eventually have regained their losses with proper training and time to adjust to their new strike pattern.
Even so, it seriously undermines the idea that heel striking is holding runners back from worthwhile performance gains.
What does this mean for my strike pattern?
The central lesson from La Trobe’s study is simple:
If you are an uninjured heel striker, there is no need to change your strike pattern.
There is no obvious performance benefit to switching to a mid or forefoot strike, and you risk exposing yourself to a whole host of running injuries you’ve not encountered before.
If you suffer from chronic injuries linked to the specific joint stresses of heel striking, a change in strike pattern is worth discussing with a running coach or physiotherapist as it may shift pressure away from the problem areas.
But for the majority of runners, there are far more beneficial ways to cut down on injuries and boost performance than switching from a heel strike to a forefoot strike.