Stop Worrying About the Heel Strike

Blog entry posted by trevize1138, Aug 13, 2018.

This is a post I made at /r/BarefootRunning several months ago that has proven very helpful to folks over time. I wanted to share it here, too.

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I still see a lot of people warning about the dangers of heel-striking without fully understanding why. It all comes down to blaming an easily identifiable symptom rather than understanding the root issue.

The real enemy to running is over-striding

A heel-strike is the most easily recognizable trait of over-striding. If you put your foot down in front of your center-of-mass (COM) it's easier to land heel-first and awkward to stretch those toes out to land forefoot or midfoot. I personally suffered from this when I transitioned to minimalist 6 years ago. I stopped heel-striking but didn't stop over-striding. As a result I got two pulled calf muscles and over a year of painful tendinitis in the tops of both feet. When I landed heel-first with an over-stride I got shin splints. Same damaging impact now shifted to different parts of my legs.

Even if I never got injured doing that I wasn't doing my running any favors landing so far out in front of me. Over-striding is a braking move. You should certainly over-stride if you want to stop or control your speed on a descent. For all other running you have to keep your feet under your COM, letting your legs bounce along at a quick cadence activating those springy tendons to maximize speed and efficiency.

Now, I keep hearing that some people still land heel-first even if they land their feet under their COM but I've never really seen it myself. You'd have to really point those toes up all the time to make that happen. But arguing about where your foot lands in my mind is moot as long as you're touching down under that COM.

Even when I do run unshod I'm not exactly gentle on my heels. The skin and fat pads have thickened on my heels just as much as they have on my forefoot. I now touch down pretty solidly midfoot and even sometimes feel my heels hit the ground with a bit of force. I don't get injured, though, because all that happens below my COM not out in front.

Focusing on your feet too much will mess you up

Running should be a full-body movement. Focus too much on your feet or lower legs and you're necessarily asking your feet and lower legs to do too much work. Your running becomes all about landing your feet or striking the ground and that will contradict any attempt to run light and efficient. Focus instead on your upper legs, hips and a tall posture. Lift with the knees and lift quick. Feet, ankles and lower legs do best without your conscious micro-management.

I talk a lot about lift lift lift lift but haven't put into a post what, precisely, that can mean. So, here's an exercise that will best explain it:
  • Stand up and let one leg go limp below-the-knee.
  • Lift that leg until your toes are dangling about an inch above the ground.
  • Switch to the other leg.
  • Keep switching back-and-forth, increasing the rate until you're around 180 steps per minute (tons of free metronome apps out there for this).
  • To go ahead just lean forward at the ankles.
  • If you can step at 180 in-place you can do that cadence at any speed.
A few things to notice when you do this:
  • You need no effort from your lower legs to lift. Yes, when you run they'll do work but that's best done as an involuntary movement.
  • Your steps will be lighter specifically because you're not focusing on your feet coming down, landing or striking.
  • You don't need to lift very high or kick very high, just lift quick. Lift and kick high only if you're going faster.
  • You don't need to push off hard to launch or jump from one step to the next when moving your legs at 180 because your springy leg tendons are doing that for you passively.
  • While running in place at 180 try preventing your feet from leaving the ground and notice how much effort is required to prevent this. Springy leg tendons. Only kangaroos have more spring in their legs on this entire planet than you do.
Don't worry about your feet and ankles. They're fine on their own. Really focus on stepping quick and light. Don't worry about your stride length. Don't worry if you think you feel or look slow. This method of running feels slow because you're running efficiently and that means you're actually running fast.
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