Footstrike for Runners
There are three different types of footstrikes that can be employed during running:
Operationally, rearfoot striking is defined as when the lateral part of the heel makes contact with the ground, followed by the toes pressing off it. During a midfoot strike, the foot makes initial contact at the head of the metatarsals, with the heel making some – but not full – contact with the ground. And if you’re a forefoot striker, your heel makes no contact with the ground before the toe-off stage.
None of these gaits are inherently bad for you. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, particularly depending on a runner’s short-term purpose, as explored further a few paragraphs down. Yet there are growing theories about which ones work best.
First though, it’s helpful to determine your personal foot-striking pattern. In this, there are several different methods to choose from. For instance, the strike index, devised by Cavanagh et al16, looks at the center of pressure of initial ground contact.
If all that sounds complicated, try this on for size instead. Simply look at the bottom of your running shoes. If you have a lot of wear and tear on the heel, you’re probably a heel striker.
That trick is, admittedly, a little more tricky to determine between midfoot and forefoot strikers. So try instead to pay attention to how your feet land when you run. If you have the capability, set up a camera to film yourself, then review your running – frame by frame – using the definitions above as your guide.
There is no conclusive proof yet on the subject of which style is all-around preferable. But research does suggest that midfoot and forefoot striking enhances running performance, reduces vertical loading forces (i.e., how much force you’re putting into the ground) and reduces running-related injuries.17
These patterns increase the effective storage and release of elastic energy during ground contact, making them optimal for sprints and shorter races – even though the metabolic demand is higher.
Now, a midfoot strike pattern is typically a shorter stride that decreases the foot’s contact time with the unforgiving ground. A rearfoot strike, however, is longer and more planted. And that is why it tends to come with a greater risk of injury, particularly to the knee area.
When landing with a rearfoot strike, you’re applying a braking force that actually slows you down. That might sound like something to be avoided at all costs; yet in terms of energy and efficiency, rearfoot strikes are more metabolically efficient. In other words, they require less energy. Therefore, it might be effective to employ rearfoot running during a marathon, since it requires a lower metabolic cost.
Learning all of that, it only makes sense to wonder whether it would be beneficial to switch between the strikes. However, no longitudinal studies have shown that this would be beneficial. In addition, it’s very difficult to train yourself to vary your running style like that.18
With that said, you might need to train yourself to switch your style from one strike to another.
For instance, if you’ve experienced injuries like posterior tibialis tendonitis, runner’s knee, shin splints or IT band syndrome, you’re not controlling your spiraling, or rotations, well. In which case you may want to consider switching to a midfoot strike since it’s a shorter, quicker spiral.
On the other hand, midfoot strikers put an automatically higher elastic stretch on their Achilles tendon, making it very important for them to perform eccentric and plyometric training to compensate. If you’ve ever experienced Achilles tendonitis, you may benefit from switching to a rearfoot strike pattern in a safe and progressive way.
When it comes to impact forces, the three footstrike types do allow the same maximum peak force. The key difference is contact time or time under stress. It’s therefore important to note that increased cushioning in your running shoes can contribute to any problems you might be having. Since they decrease your perception of that impact, you might find yourself striking the ground harder than you should.
It’s important for your body to match “stiffness” to running impact. The stiffer you are before and during contact, the quicker you can get off the ground. That way, over time, your body can adapt to the surface neuromuscularly instead of wearing down.