If you’ve ever had a gait analysis when you go into the running store for a new pair of shoes, you’ve probably been told what your running foot strike looks like.
Perhaps you’re a heel striker, also called a rearfoot striker, like most recreational distance runners. Or, maybe the shoe fit expert told you you’re a midfoot striker, or even a forefoot striker, which is a runner that lands on the ball of the foot.
No matter which type of foot strike pattern you were told you have, you probably wondered, “Is there a proper running foot strike pattern to aim for?”
In this article, we will discuss different types of running foot strike patterns and whether there’s a proper running foot strike to aim for.
We’re going to look at:
- What Is a Running Foot Strike Pattern?
- Why Is Running Foot Strike Important?
- Types Of Running Foot Strike Patterns
- How to Improve Your Running Foot Strike Pattern
Let’s jump in!
What Is a Running Foot Strike Pattern?
Running foot strike, or your running foot strike pattern refers to the how and where on your foot you first land at initial contact during the running gait cycle.
Initial contact is the moment when your foot first contacts the ground after it’s been up in the air in the swing phase.
At initial contact, or foot strike, your foot touches down with the ground and accepts all your weight.
Why Is Running Foot Strike Important?
Let’s look at each of these.
Proper Running Foot Strike Reduces the Risk Of Injury
Runners know (and our bodies can feel!) that running is a high-impact activity.
Research has shown that the body absorbs a force equal in magnitude to roughly 2-3 times your bodyweight every single step when you run.
Therefore, it can easily be surmised that improper running mechanics, including,—if not especially—an improper running foot strike pattern, can increase the risk of injury.
Again, at foot strike, your body is contending with the peak impact of running, so proper foot strike and positioning matter all that much more. In terms of the entire gait cycle, the impact forces are at their peak or maximum at initial contact.
For this reason, your running foot strike pattern is particularly important in terms of reducing the risk of injury—your body is absorbing the most stress at foot strike so you want to make sure you’re using the proper foot strike pattern.
Proper Running Foot Strike Improves Running Economy
From a physics perspective, using a proper running foot strike pattern—landing on your midfoot rather than your heel or rearfoot—will improve your running economy by conserving your forward momentum.
Heel striking is usually associated with overstriding.
Because the leg is fully extended in front of your body, your heel lands first, with your body and center of mass well behind the foot.
A lot of energy gets wasted or absorbed into the ground as a breaking force, decelerating the body.
In contrast, if you land on your midfoot, you have a shorter stride so your body, or center of mass, remains just above your foot rather than well behind it.
This reduces the torque going through the joints, and in terms of running economy, it helps preserve your forward momentum.
Less energy is wasted on the ground, as you are “braking” to decelerate the body, which compromises the forward momentum.
Types Of Running Foot Strike Patterns
There are three primary running foot strike techniques that runners exhibit: Heel striking, midfoot striking, and forefoot striking.
Heel Strike Running Pattern
Runners who heel strike land on the rear portion of the foot, so the heel is the part of the foot that contacts the ground first.
The foot rolls inward, with the weight shifting forward onto the flattened foot.
Runners who heel strike will see a wear pattern on the heel portion of their running shoe.
A heel strike pattern is the most common running foot strike exhibited by everyday runners, and is associated with overstriding.
For example, a study examining the running foot strike patterns of 936 recreational distance runners at the 10 km point of a half-marathon/marathon road race found that 88.9% of the runners were heel strikers, 3.4% were midfoot strikers, 1.8% were forefoot strikers, and 5.9% of runners exhibited notable foot strike asymmetry.
Despite the fact that rearfoot striking tends to reduce forward velocity and momentum by placing a braking force into the stride, there is some evidence to suggest that for recreational runners, heel striking can actually improve running economy.
This apparent irony is thought to be because midfoot striking can take more muscle energy.
Most surveys and estimates in research literature note that about 30-75% of runners experience an injury over the course of a year of training, with evidence demonstrating that injuries are especially high in rearfoot strikers.
Midfoot Strike Running Pattern
Runners who display a midfoot strike running pattern land with the foot fairly squared or centered, landing near the center of the foot by the arch.
According to research, midfoot striking is ideal for distance runners because it conserves your forward momentum by reducing braking forces.
Additionally, it positions the foot in an alignment that optimizes the decompression of the mediolateral arch.
By centering the weight and impact directly over the arch, midfoot striking takes full advantage of the shock attenuation ability of the arch.
The arch acts like a natural spring, flattening as you bear weight on the foot to help absorb impact stress.
In this way, when you use a proper running foot strike and land on your midfoot, you’re fully capitalizing on the shock absorption of the arch and reducing the stress transmitted up your legs to other joints and bones.
After initial contact and compression, the arch springs back up, helping stiffen the foot for an efficient push off.
Forefoot Strike Running Pattern
The forefoot strike running pattern is marked by landing on the balls of the feet, just behind the toes.
It is sometimes described as running on the toes.
Forefoot running is ideal for sprinting and running short distances, but it can increase the risk of Achilles tendon injuries in distance runners because the calves and Achilles tendons have to support most of the body weight at foot strike.
Pronation and Supination
In addition to the region of the foot in which you land from a heel to toe (front to back) perspective, your running foot strike pattern can also refer to where on your foot your land from a side to side perspective.
In other words, are you landing on the inside edge of the foot (pronation) or outer edge (supination)?
If your foot rolls inward when you land, so that you’re mostly weight bearing on the inner edge of the foot, you are pronating.
Some amount of pronation with your foot strike is normal; running gait studies suggest that 15 degrees of pronation is ideal.
Pronation occurs when your arch flattens to absorb the impact shock. However, excessive pronation, termed overpronation, is pronation beyond that 15 degrees.
A supinated foot is marked by the opposite—landing on the outside of the foot.
Supination is usually associated with high arches and a stiff foot.
Excessive supination is also associated with an increased risk of injury because the impact is too far lateral to fully take advantage of the natural compression and shock absorption of the arch.
This transmits more force into the foot and leg, which can increase the risk of injury.
How to Improve Your Running Foot Strike Pattern
However, unfortunately, many recreational distance runners are heel strikers.
If you are overstriding and heel striking, it’s possible to change your running foot strike.
One of the best ways to encourage a natural shift to midfoot striking and improve proper running form feet placement, is to actively work on increasing your cadence.
Your running cadence, or your turnover, is the number of steps you take per minute.
If you’re running with a faster cadence, you’ll naturally shorten your stride.
This will help you land on your midfoot with your foot under your body rather than on your heel with your foot out in front of your center of mass.
Another strategy some runners find helpful is to wear a zero-drop running shoe or minimalist running shoe.
When the shoe has a large heel-to-toe drop, the heel is taller than the toe portion, so it hits the ground first when you land.
A zero-drop running shoe will help you clear the ground with the heel without it touching down first because it’s not sticking down as close to the ground.