Avoid Injury: How to Run With Your Best Foot Forward
Quick question: What’s the most important tool in a runner’s arsenal? Is it a top-of-the-line pair of running shoes? A multi-bottle waistpack? Moisture-wicking clothing that keeps them cool? (We’re partial to good running socks, ourselves) While quality gear can be a boon to any fleet-footed individual, the best tool a runner can use is actually a movement: the proper footstrike. The process of “correctly” running may sound simple, but for many, it can be a difficult technique to grasp. However, learning how to properly land on your feet as you run can pay off big time – think fewer injuries, less sore feet, and faster race times.
These benefits all sound great to runners, but there’s still some contention over what the best footstrike might be – and whether or not one definitive footstrike works for every single person. Yet in the interest of research, it can be beneficial to take a look at how running affects a person’s foot—truly their most important piece of gear—and what small tweaks everyone can make to improve performance and minimize injury.
How and Why Your Feet Are Impacted
A running footstrike is categorized in one of three ways: heel, midfoot, or forefoot. It’s commonly understood that heel striking is the hardest on the body; unfortunately, it’s also the footstrike that many runners tend to do, even unknowingly. When fatigue begins to set in, even midfoot and forefoot runners can find themselves relying on heel strikes to push them through, which in turn may cause overstriding. Overstriding may give you a burst of distance in the short term, but it can wear you out over time – not to mention the process of landing on one’s heel can both be jarring on the body and stunt one’s speed.
There’s been a movement in recent years towards barefoot (or minimalist by using shoes with very thin soles) running as the most natural way to run, and these advocates also call out striking with one’s heel as improper and ineffective. When you run with little or no support then landing on one’s heels on the hard ground will produce extra impact to the body. If you’re running in a way that both hurts your body and your speed, then it should be important to train oneself out of the heel strike – or at least to use it as little as possible (such as going over rocky terrain or elevated ground).
Also, a paper at Harvard seems to have the same idea: that heel striking is detrimental to good running form. “In heel striking, the collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact transient, a nearly instantaneous, large force,” it explains. “This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system. In forefoot striking, the collision of the forefoot with the ground generates a very minimal impact force with no impact transient.”
So while there can be many arguments made that any form is good form for a runner, the general consensus seems to be that heel striking can cause the most long-term damage on both your feet and your technique.
Proper Form and How It Works
Runners can be very particular people, and each individual has their own preferred method for speed and stamina. (An article from The Globe and Mail reports that Kilian Jornet Burgada, one of the best runners in the world, had his footstrikes recorded over 20 kilometers, and researchers found that he displayed a “remarkable” amount of diversity between heel, forefoot, and midfoot. So perhaps mixing it up can be the key to success, for some.) However, it seems widely believed that heel strikes are generally the enemy among runners attempting for fast time and less injury – particularly if those runners believe in the barefoot/minimalist method.
Whether you’re equipped with Vibrams or wearing regular running shoes, it seems that while heel strikes can be allowed to an extent, the real trick is to utilize your forefoot. In an informative article over at Runner’s World, physical therapist Jay Dicharry speaks in favor of using your forefoot to absorb some of the impact from a heel strike. “If you land with a very prominent heel strike, the ankle doesn’t really give a whole lot,” Dicharry is quoted as saying. “It’s a stiff system. So all of the compliance has to be shifted to the knee. And if you do land on the forefoot, what you essentially wind up doing is adding a shock absorber to your chassis. It allows you another joint through which you can dissipate some force.” The article goes on to explain it in simpler terms: “Instead of absorbing impact via a collision between the heel and the ground, the runner now uses the springiness of the arch of the foot and the Achilles tendon/calf muscle complex to cushion the blow.”
So, what to do if you’re a runner who wants to do away with heel strikes? Even if you’ve acknowledged the problem, it can still be tough to fix; the Runner’s World article notes that if a heel-striker forcefully attempts forefoot landings when they’re not used to them, they could incur additional stress on their feet and ankles. Over at Competitor.com, biology professor Peter Larson says that the solution can be as simple as switching shoes and changing strides: “If you start by changing to shoes with a lower heel or running with a shorter stride length, your footstrike will change, even if you still don’t change from being a heel-striker to a midfoot- or forefoot-striker.”
The Best Foot Strike
If you’re the kind of runner that strives to maximize their output (and minimize injury), it’s definitely worth looking at exactly how you tend to run, and what effect your usual footstrike might be having on your feet. Although opinions on the best method may vary, the physics of running shows that heel strikes should be avoided, forefoot strikes give you the most power for the least impact, and that mixing it up based on terrain could be the key to success. So pull on your running socks, lace up your shoes and give it a go. It may take a bit of effort, but soon you could be footstriking with the best – and speeding past your competition.
In your opinion, what’s the best way to run? Is there one proper form that would work for all runners? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.
Javier Sanchez-Mariscal is an integrity-driven, multilingual Consumer Insights and Communications Manager with a strong concentration and enormous success utilizing technology and sales strategies to support business objectives and revenue generation. With over 5 years of working with Injinji, Javier’s passion for fitness and the outdoors has only grown.