No Incentive for Switching from Heel Strike to Midfoot Strike

To reduce peak impact in heel strike running, a practical corrective action to optimize impact reduction is to not heel strike.

A forefoot strike seems to work in this more practical fashion because peak impact is not generated at touchdown. But would a heel striker benefit from switching to a midfoot strike? Not according to a recent study.

Switching from Heel Strike to Midfoot Strike
Heel strikers who switch to midfoot strike running may still have a subtle heel strike, thereby generating impact.

Mercer and Horsch (2015), investigated the effects of foot strike modification on impact reduction in heel strike runners. Participants were instructed to land with a prominent heel strike, a subtle heel strike, a midfoot strike, or a forefoot strike.

Though, earlier work on barefoot runners found that midfoot striking was less forceful than heel striking, the researchers of the current study were surprised to find no difference in impact force between runners who used a prominent heel strike and heel strike runners who switched to a midfoot strike. And of course, heel strikers who switched to forefoot running had the lowest impact. Thus, foot strike seems to control the body’s ability to produce force at touchdown, but is also influenced by footwear and specific instructions given to participants.

In the current study, all participants wore the standard running shoe, which most likely was the probable source of impact in the midfoot strikers.

Thick shoe cushioning makes it difficult to monitor foot strike precision and results in a high foot inclination angle, encouraging foot strike to occur more posteriorly on the foot (i.e. closer to the heel). Unless instructed not to do so, runners in the standard running shoe typically utilize a prominent heel strike during running.

Conversely, the heel strikers who switched to forefoot running avoided heel strike and high impact successively because they were instructed to land on the front part of their foot. The participants seemed to link information about foot strike modification to behavior more effectively with the cue: landing on the front part of the foot. The midfoot strikers however, were asked to land with ‘the sole of their shoe flat on the ground’ which, based on the data, was not enough to alter their heel strike behavior and reduce impact.

The Take Home Message

Most running injuries are related to repetitive impact. But, the farther you land away from the heel, the less impact is produced during running. Likewise, peak impact drops when a forefoot strike is used compared to a midfoot strike or a heel strike.

Proper foot strike also depends on proprioception which conveys success signals in the brain, generating a response based on impact moderating behavior. Runners have trouble avoiding heel strike in cushioned shoes because proprioceptive feedback is blocked, therefore immediate foot strike modification is prevented. In addition, verbal cues seems to control a runner’s ability to mentally evaluate foot strike proper.

The best way to promote a safe foot strike is to land forefooted in pure minimalist shoes. The bursts of proprioception resulting from the lack of cushioned materials promotes avoidance behavior, allowing a runner to learn how to avoid heel strike and generate less impact with equal proficiency.

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References:

Cavanagh PR, Lafortune MA. Ground reaction forces in distance running. J Biomech. 1980;13:397 e 406.

Hreljac A. Impact and overuse injuries in runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004;36:845 e 849.

Hreljac A, Marshall RN, Hume PA. Evaluation of lower extremity overuse injury potential in runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000;32:1635 e 1641.

James SL, Bates BT, Osternig LR. Injuries to runners. Am J Sports Med. 1978;6:40 e 50.

Lieberman DE, Venkadesan M, Werbel WA, et al. Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature. 2010;463:531 e 535.

Mercer JA and Horsch S. Heel-toe running: a new look at the influence of foot strike pattern on impact force. J Exerc Sci Fit, 2015; 1-6.

Running USA ‘ s Annual Marathon Report: 2010 Marathon, Half-Marathon and State of the Sport Reports. Available from http://www.runningusa.org/node/57770. [Accessed on 11/2012].


Bretta Riches

Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!

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