Stop Worrying About the Heel Strike

Discussion in 'Front Page News' started by Barefoot TJ, Aug 15, 2018.

  1. Barefoot TJ

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    Stop Worrying About the Heel Strike

    By Trevize1138


    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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  2. Sly

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    its true that most of the time when I speak technique with runners, the first topic to come is the famous "heel strike is not good".

    I try to show them that the way we put the feet on the floor is only the result of the technique, good or bad, not the point to focus on. Because Im a big fan of KB Saxton book, I try to show them the difference between a straight-leg strike and a gentle landing thanks to the bent knee.

    running magazines speak too much about heel /ball of the foot "strike"
    so, some runners dont accept the idea that focusing on that point is not the priority.

    So, to give credibility to this approach, I show them a short text written by Scott Jurek (the man of the book) where he explains, just like you, that the biggest mistake is the over-striding, not the heel thing.
     
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  3. Roman Rybalchenko

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    That is true, most of the articles have a really strong arguments, why heel striking is bad, but they don't explain how to fix it. Indeed, the cause of the problem is overstriding, but the indicator is heelstriking. So you should pay attantion to it. It's just how everyone treat this problem is wrong.
     
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  4. Jaap Francke

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    Nice post!
    I'm still in the process of transitioning and lifting my knees is definitely something I need to improve. This post helps me to remain aware and focus on that.
    Thanks
     
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  5. trevize1138

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    I haven't gotten too much feedback from anybody about the leg lifting activity I recommend in bullet points at the end. If you feel so inclined give that a try and let me know your thoughts! Even if your thoughts are that it taught you nothing let me know why. I'm always trying to find advice that actually works for people not just nice but untested ideas.
     
  6. Jaap Francke

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    I'm using the 100-up exercise to improve my leg-lifting.
    Based on recommendations by a.o. Christopher McDougall.
     
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  7. Robert Semenoff

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    Hello all, I am new to this group and new to barefoot running after several years with “minimal” (low heel) runners and for me, the heel-strike/braking force is a non issue or rather it tends to self correct very quickly. What I am searching for are some easy types of bio mechanical cues to allow my foot to stay on the ground longer and prevent the bouncing that seems to be really overworking my calves. A slight knee bend definitely does that but it also makes me effectively a shorter and therefor slower runner. As to pacing, my experience has been that locking in to a single pace or stride invites injury and I always try to run as if on a rough trail with the strike length constantly adapting and I think this has been working well.
     
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  8. trevize1138

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    Keeping your feet on the ground for a longer period of time is very certainly not what you want to strive for. That feeling that your feet are "bouncing" is actually a good sign because it suggests you're moving your legs fast enough to get your springy leg tendons into the action which is great for efficiency.

    I do know what you mean by feeling "shorter" when trying to focus on bending your knees and it means you're not really doing it right because I made the same mistake. What I was doing was almost squatting and thinking that meant keeping my knees bent. What "knees bent" really should be telling you is to simply make sure you're not landing with a straightened knee but that really only happens if you're over-striding. If you've got around a 180 cadence you're likely keeping your feet under your hips and your knees will already be bent as much as they need to be. Don't worry about bending them further because the only way to do that is sort of squat down and that's just extra work for no benefit.

    Your calves aren't taking a beating from your legs "bouncing." If you're truly around 180 cadence and keeping your feet under your hips you should make sure you are landing midfoot. You absolutely do not need any extra vertical load damping than what your legs and arches already provide. If you're touching down too far forward on your feet that absolutely will stress out your calves because you're needlessly over-using them for extra vertical load dampning you don't need and then you're also wasting energy that should be used toward moving yourself forward.

    When I'm running I focus almost 100% on only lifting my feet off the ground from the hip flexors and thighs. I pointedly do not try to push off with my feet and I don't try to absorb impact by being up on my toes. When I am honestly sticking to that my calves and achilles thank me for it. When I try to land too much on my forefoot or push off intentionally my calves start to really complain *and* my efficiency takes a dive.

    Just focus on lifting your feet with your upper legs and just let your body go, let your legs bounce and trust that reflex and instinct will move the rest of your legs far better than your logical, conscious mind.
     
  9. Jon from PDX

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    Robert -- welcome!

    To reduce "bounce," which I think you're using to describe the height of up-and-down movement for each step, it might be helpful to search for "vertical oscillation." The best way I've found to track this is to simply use my eyes and watch how far things seem to jump up and down as I'm moving, then if I need a cue I pretend I have a movie camera bolted to my belly and I need to keep its motions as smooth and gradual as possible. I've only done this with walking, though; I'm a beginner at running and I don't trust my body yet to know when I start sacrificing other healthy movements.

    It might also be helpful to track what you're doing with your legs when they swing forward. Runners with lots of vertical oscillation seem to throw their knees forward and up, which contributes forward and upward momentum to extend their flight time. Flatter runners seem to lift their legs less and only push their knees forward rather than up, so that they keep forward momentum but don't add upward momentum. (There's a video on YouTube that covers this nicely: ) This stuff is also more advanced than I am, as when I tried it I always started over-striding and then slamming my feet down, but it might be useful for you to experiment with.

    Another, related issue might be the duration of each step's flight. It seems reasonable to assume that longer flight times entail more bouncing because you need to go further up to stay in the air longer. There are two ways to do this: reducing the percentage of your gait cycle spent in flight, and reducing the duration of each flight but keeping the same overall percentage of flight by increasing cadence. Spending less time in flight will generally reduce efficiency (e.g., comfort, endurance, speed), but it might help to look at the specialized gait of race walking, try it out, and see if your body can learn a few tricks that apply to running, too. Increasing cadence is probably easier, though.

    Trevize -- I like the idea of focusing on lifting my feet so I'm not micro-mismanaging my gait. It also seems like a perfect drill for my first jog in bare feet. I'll report back after my next outing, although that might be a while as I'm waiting for an overuse ache to go away.
     
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  10. trevize1138

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    Let me know how it goes!

    Yes, I've personally found it works well to laser-focus on just lifting quick from the hip flexors like that. It seems to truly get at what other people are trying to say when they just dismissively suggest "just run naturally." That type of advice always bugged me because, for one, appeal to nature is a fallacy of logic and, two, it just ignored how so very many people are being allowed to run with just horrible, damaging, wasteful form.

    And if you haven't yet gone unshod there's some good news as you're overcoming an overuse ache: unshod provides an excellent tool for avoiding exactly that kind of thing. What I've learned with unshod running is the skin on the bottoms of our feet are just tough enough to handle the kinds of movements our legs are best suited for. Shoes with their snug fit and high traction allow you to over-extend yourself and move in sub-optimal ways.

    In other words, learn to run unshod without hurting your bare feet is efficient running. Most people's first experiences with unshod results in blisters or other discomfort and that's always evidence of the bad habits shoes have taught over the years and decades. It takes time to really re-train yourself to run in a way that doesn't hurt the skin on your feet. I resisted learning those lessons myself at first because I thought that would just result in being slow. I was wrong and the reason I'm always encouraging fully unsod running not just minimalist is because that's what seemed to "unlock" the long miles for me.

    Minimalist shoes start to give you an idea about how injury prevention is 100% on you and shoes are not to be relied upon for that. Unshod running can simply make you a better runner full stop.
     
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  11. Jon from PDX

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    Since it has been a few weeks, I wanted to follow up on my earlier post. Also because I continue to be ecstatic in my discovery of the unshod and minimally shod experience.

    Regarding my overuse aches: this is my first experience with tendinopathy, and, boy, are they different from other injuries I’ve had. I spent nearly two weeks as a voluntary cripple, barley walking at all, and saw minimal improvement; then, over Labor Day weekend, I had committed to helping a family member build a fence and so walked about three miles in one day (constantly limping from the pain), and the next day my ankles felt almost normal again. My reaction to that was a big interrobang. Now, from what I understand, tendons require movement to heal. Most other tissues have constant blood flow to supply the required stuff, but tendon cells require the squeeze and release of tension and relaxation to repair themselves. That alone is fascinating and a big argument in favor of “natural” physiology. Now I’m back to walking 10 miles without rest and without undue discomfort, so I’m now convinced that moving the feet is key to healing them from this sort of problem, even though movement caused the problem in the first place. Strange world.

    My other relevant experience lately has been about comfort. Not when running, admittedly, but in walking. This past weekend I was walking with my partner, just taking a long wander between shops on a leisurely weekend, when I noticed that I felt like I was walking on cushions (in minimalist shoes plus socks). Not soft, but easy and comfortable and relaxed. Today, on my 10 mile walk (in minimalist sandals), that gait returned. It isn’t automatic yet — it isn’t the gait I adopt when starting to cross an intersection after waiting for the light to change, or if I start thinking about my gait at all — but it comes to me quickly enough if I let it happen. And I’m thinking that this is what the original post about “not heel strike” was getting at:

    I’m going to stop focusing on the mechanics of what my body is doing. My body knows better than my conscious mind ever could about the millisecond intricacies of muscle recruitment. Rather, I’m going to focus on whether I’m comfortable or not. If so, I’ll smile and enjoy myself. If not, if there are pains, I think I’ll try to shake things up a bit ... I still don’t know the best way to tell my body to try new things ... but I’ll be thinking abstract things like “loose” and “soft” rather than concrete commands like “forefoot strike” or “knee over heel.” I’ll let my body figure out the details.

    As far as running goes, I have no idea what’ll happen. Even walking a few hundred feet seems to rub my soles raw. But, as they say, walking isn’t running. And, as I say, I should relax and let my body, not my mind, figure out what’s going on. The intellectual stuff can come later. So, for now, I’m happily amazed at the progress that’s come from simply letting my body figure out how best to handle things, and I think I’ll continue letting that subconscious cerebellum manage my gait as I restart my running program. If it took two months to figure out how to walk, but once I did it was better than ever before, then I’m content to give myself two years to learn how to run. Maybe more, maybe less, but I’ll be going barefoot so my body has all the info that evolution has told it to expect. Then, once I’ve found a comfortable gait, I might add shoes, socks, and maybe even padded shoes to allow me to abuse that gait for even faster, longer runs.

    Onward! (Barefoot when possible, shod when not, but always with love for the sheer potential of what my body is capable of.)
     
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  12. trevize1138

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    Great!

    Keep in mind you have a whole lifetime of habits that shoes helped form. You're now starting to see how long it takes to re-train yourself to move better with minimalist and barefoot. You're also starting to figure out for yourself what your own personal mind-body connection needs to make sense of things. Key words or phrases that help one person will ring totally hollow for someone else.

    With running as the example things really clicked for me when I imagined myself "running barefoot on hot coals." I told that to a friend of mine and he just looked confused. Then I told him "some others like to think of it as sneaking up on someone." He ran a few steps after I said that and then his face lit up "Oh my God! IT REALLY IS LIKE SNEAKING UP ON SOMEONE!" :)

    There's also that infuriating trick of "Think about it ... but not too much!" How much is not enough? How much is too much? You can drive yourself crazy with that.

    In general the benefit of totally unshod is all you have to do is figure out how to move in a way that doesn't hurt the skin on the bottoms of your feet. And your feet are the best guide for teaching you how to do that because your whole body reacts reflexively to what you feel through your feet. That's millions of years of evolution doing a better job of movement than logic.
     
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  13. Jon from PDX

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    Well, I failed. I wanted to go unshod when I started running again. But, today, I was walking, and my turnover was quick and comfortable, and I wondered what’d happen if I pushed it a bit faster — normally I plod along, but this speed was enjoyable, so I wanted more of that — and there I was, lifting off one foot before touching the other down, jogging along in my sandals. And my jeans and daybag. Still more comfortable than I’ve ever been on a run. Huh.

    The gait I had today is so different that it doesn’t even feel like I’m running. I got into barefoot/minimalism to teach myself a different gait, so this is great, but I didn’t realize just how different it might feel. I’m obviously still figuring it out, so maybe I’ll revert a bit, but I could just as well keep doing more and more unusual things to make my running more and more enjoyable. One curious thing was how there was very little difference between how I walked and how I jogged, at least subjectively; the transition into or from jogging was smooth and easy. In contrast, every time I’ve run before, there was always a distinctly awkward transition period. Today, jogging was comfortable and easy like never before, if perhaps slower. But, as the chefs say, slow is smooth and smooth is fast, so who knows what it’ll be like with time.

    I tried thinking about picking up my feet sooner. That sped up my cadence a little, but it didn’t feel right. (On the other hand, I also tried springing my feet deeper, longer, and more forcefully, like I see in the video I posted above, and that felt every kind of wrong.) The notion that came to mind was treading water, even though I’m not a swimmer; of just constantly pushing the ground down, and not thinking about pushing myself forward at all. Sort of like juggling helium-filled balloons under my feet, and I didn’t want to pop one of them by kicking it, so just catch it and push it back down. I’d love to track my vertical oscillation and compare that to others of similar stature, because — again, with a bag over my shoulder — it felt unnervingly smooth at times.

    Two other observations: I walked over a patch of gravel that I hadn’t touched since I first started with minimalist shoes. The first time was with 5.5mm soles and the discomfort almost made me give up. This last time was with 4mm soles and the sensation was more like a massage — intense at its peaks but enjoyable. Both times in Xero shoes (Hana and DIY Connect, respectively), so I think the thicknesses are directly comparable. The second is that the gaits that work for me, both walking and now jogging, seemed to appear spontaneously. I was mindful but not trying to shape my movements. My conclusion so far is that the process of awakening the central and peripheral nerves to all of these new sensations takes time and practice, just like strengthening my ankle tissues. Perhaps the transition to barefooting is less about building up the body’s tolerance for new stresses, as is done in the couch-to-5k program, but more about tapping into reflexes that have been suppressed by shoes. (Of course, we also have to build up those tissues, but that doesn’t seem to be the limiting factor.) Today it honestly felt like my body has always known how to do this, it had just been waiting for all of my good intentions to get out of the way.

    Anyhow. Thank you all for providing a bit of community support to those trying to figure this out. I seem to get more ecstatic about this every day, and I wouldn’t have given it a shot if there weren’t folks like you leading the way.
     
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  14. trevize1138

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    I never did C25K but the more I hear about those programs the less I like them. If they truly are more about "building up the body's tolerance for new stresses" that's certainly a red flag for me. People are all too willing to push through pain, "feel the burn" and embrace pushing themselves way too hard until they get frustrated and injured. The exact opposite needs to happen: use pain as crucial information and a warning that you're doing something damaging.

    Others have also said some C25K podcasts recommend landing on your heels and at least passively encourage a slow cadence. In general it seems like the program doesn't do anything to encourage safe, efficient form just gradually desensitizing you to harsh, damaging movements that it mistakes for getting "conditioned" for running.

    Sounds like you're really starting to figure it out for yourself, though! That easy transition between walking and running is another telltale sign you're doing something right. I distinctly remember that transition used to be very jarring for myself. If I'd gotten into a good groove running I wouldn't want to stop and walk because I'd have to struggle to get back into that groove. The transition is now effortless for me which is because I'm not needlessly stressing my body while running. That easy transition really helps if you ever get into long trail races with hills where it's more efficient to walk the uphills. If the transition between walking and running is easy it's just one more tool at your disposal.
     
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  15. Jon from PDX

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    Thanks for raising that objection. It got me thinking and challenging my understandings and assumptions:

    If we treat running like weightlifting, then incrementally increasing running volume seems smart. E.g., to build enough strength to leg-press 600 pounds, the tried and true method is to start at my current ability, say 300 pounds, then move up to 320, then 350, etc. But the difficult parts of running are more about skill than strength, and incrementally increasing volume doesn't make sense when training skills. It'd be like telling someone who regularly practices chess for 5 hours a week that they shouldn't practice for 7 hours next week or they might suffer a debilitating injury. That'd be nonsense, and it seems like the chess-training logic is more applicable to running than the weight-training logic.

    But, how then do I gauge how much running I can safely pursue? How can I plan what sort of run I should go on tomorrow? Well, by listening to my body, of course. Too much isn't fun anymore, and way too much starts to hurt. But, darn it, I find comfort in the certainty of numbers!

    You said that about gait, and now it seems to also apply to planning future runs. Maybe I should learn about how competitive chess players train themselves. Or, maybe I should just go back to reading Ken Bob's book, which I just got from the library...
     
  16. trevize1138

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    I fully understand your desire for some solid numbers to go by on the question of how much to increase. That said, I don't have those solid numbers for you! :)

    I used to think I was terrible at the "listen to your body" thing but have realized it may be more that I kept hearing that phrase without any good specifics about what to listen *for*. With unshod running, specifically, I've found it's exceedingly easy: if the skin on the bottom of your feet stings, gets blistered or bruised you're doing too much so either slow down or run less. If you're running on bare feet and they feel fine you can keep going.

    Whenever I worry if I'm doing too much too soon I stick to unshod running as much as I can. It's my running safe mode. This past spring I pulled a calf muscle after doing too much speed work in sandals and shoes so I took a week off to heal then slowly got back into it by staying 100% unshod. It really has saved me numerous times.

    That skin on the bottoms of your feet is like the canary in the coal mine warning you very early on if you're moving in a way that's going to cause injury further up the body. That's really the only thing I need to watch for now when it comes to "listen to your body."

    This may have more to do with being older (I'm 45) but I also find I have to be very careful of speed work. I do almost all my runs at an easy pace using the Maffetone Method's simple 180-age formula to determine what my max heart rate should be for those runs. That same formula says if you've had good success for a couple years and are in good shape you can add 5 so I stay at a HR of 140 or less which truly does feel easy and a "run all day" pace. For speed runs now I pretty much just do the occasional, local 5K race like my town's libary fundraiser or things like that. Longer races also serve to occasionally stress the muscles and encourage strengthening but much more than that seems to invite injury.

    So, in general, just follow Ken Bob's repeated advice: *relax*.
     
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