As runners, we’re on our feet: a lot. That’s part of the process, right? Even though running is a fairly straightforward activity — one foot in front of the other, over and over again — for most of us, we don’t actually take the time to appreciate the veritable beatdown that our feet endure when we go about pursuing the sport that we all love so much.
The fact of the matter is that when we run, science has suggested that our bodies can feel upwards of seven times our body weight with each running foot strike we place. Do the math: that’s a lot of force! No wonder so many running naysayers out there allege that “running is bad for your knees.” Sometimes it’s hard to think otherwise when you know how much force is reverberating through your body with each step that you run.
Moving from minimal to maximal
Throughout the early 2000s, running shoe manufacturers seem to have done an about-face with regards to the shoes they’ve developed. Suddenly, regular-looking running shoes were replaced by more minimalist shoes — think the likes of Vibram FiveFingers — and if you’ve been running for a long time, you probably know someone who swore by his/her FiveFingers and might have even convinced you to run barefoot. The thinking, as it was, focused on the idea of pushing a specific type of running foot strike in an effort to avoid injury.
Books like Born to Run, released in the apex of the minimalist movement, no doubt helped to fuel the public’s interest in minimalist running. Some of the world’s greatest runners — the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico — were successfully running with little-to-no shoes on their feet, so the public wanted to follow suit.
A decade-plus later, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone wearing FiveFingers or other super-minimalist shoes at a major running event. Instead, “maximalist” shoes like ones from Hoka One One have exploded onto the scene, with the moonshoe-looking contraptions replacing the foot gloves to which we all became accustomed in the early 2000s.
Foot strike and shoes: they’re connected?
What does all this talk about minimalist and maximalist shoes have to do with foot strike? A lot, actually.
For years, running foot strike — literally, how our feet hit the ground when we run — wasn’t a topic of concern, let alone conversation. How we ran was as unique as our fingerprint. You probably ran differently from how I ran, but provided we could both run and both cover the same distance, how our feet hit the ground wasn’t particularly a concern.
The maximal and minimal shoe waves suddenly made caring about our running foot strikes a thing. Suddenly, phrases like “midfoot strike” or “forefoot strike” or “heel strike” entered into our vernacular, along with a healthy amount of judgment and sanctimoniousness.
But… what is my foot strike?
To be fair, there are different labels that describe how our feet hit the ground when we run. Their names and types are fairly self-evident:
- Heel style strike
- Forefoot style strike
- Mid-foot style strike
You can determine which “type” of foot strike you have simply by watching a video of yourself running — pretty easy to do if you run on a treadmill — or even by looking at pictures of yourself taken when you’re running. In fact, you may find that you utilize all these different running foot strikes depending on the type of running that you’re doing — slow and easy jogs, fast and short sprints, through the mountains or over hilly, technical terrain, for example.
In the wake of the minimalist movement, many runners felt compelled to have a mid-foot style foot strike and tried (rather ardently) to correct their own natural gait and foot strike to correct for their self-perceived discrepancy. For years, particularly when the minimalist shoe movement was hot, it seemed that every runner out there was trying to “correct” for a sub-par running foot strike.
What’s the problem with the different foot strikes?
Really understanding your foot strike — and subsequently, how your foot strike can and may affect your runs — ultimately boils down to examining your running biomechanics. While I will spare you a physics lesson, I’ll quickly remind you of what you probably learned in high school — that every action has an equal and opposite reaction — and will try to frame this in running parlance.
When we run, the way in which our feet hit the ground can affect how the rest of our body feels the foot strike’s reverberating effects. Remember what we said earlier, that each footfall we take when we run can produce up to seven times our body weight? If we have a foot strike that is “wrong” or otherwise suboptimal, that amounts to a LOT of force coursing through our body and enough that could provide for some deleterious effects, even amounting to injury.
Case in point: after Born to Run’s huge success, many runners began shunning heel striking, the way that they had been running for as long as they’d been running. The internet is rife with images that can explain, to exhaustion, all the many ways that heel striking can result in knee and hip issues, particularly if runners heel strike as a result of overstriding.
Wait — so it’s ok to heel strike?!
The bigger issue, however, is that ninety-five percent of runners naturally heel strike when they run. Electing to change that — to essentially try to change one’s biomechanics and natural gait — isn’t an easy feat. Many runners find that switching their running foot strike results in injuries or other biomechanical breakdowns that didn’t manifest before when they were still primarily heel-striking.
Chiropractor Thomas Michaud summarizes this point well, as he explains, “The bottom line is that before you consider switching from a heel to a midfoot strike, make sure that it’s clinically justified. Because midfoot strike patterns significantly reduce stress on the knee, they should be considered for all runners suffering with recurrent knee pain.” He continues, “Conversely, runners with a history of Achilles, forefoot, and/or plantar fascial injuries should almost always make initial contact along the outside of the heel, because contrary to what many running experts say, striking the ground heel first is safe and efficient.”
Wishfully thinking that avoiding heel striking for a different type of running foot strike will be some sort of panacea, and will guarantee years of faster and injury-free running, is shortsighted. Instead, if runners elect to change their foot strikes, they will simply find that different musculature will bear the loads of running more than those implicated in primarily heel-strike running.
In other words: running is a force-producing sport. Your body’s going to feel it, one way or another, whether it originates in your heels or in your mid-foot.