• Luke Morgan

Is It Best To Heel Strike Or Forefoot Strike?

From the perspective of a Sports Therapist that runs...

Running sports physio
To heel strike or to forefoot strike?

Hello! I'm Luke, a sports therapist at ZEN Anatomy Sports Therapy, I used to exercise my competitiveness by racing motocross in my youth, but as I've got a little older I now like to push myself by racing on foot. A few years ago, all I wanted to do was run further and further on more and more challenging terrain, but after struggling with training time commitments and ongoing repetitive niggly injuries, I have decided to go back to my routes of trying to go faster by focussing on middle distance running races. My target is to reduce my 10km time to sub 40 minutes. I've given myself a year to complete this challenge and my first recorded 10km in August 2021 was 48 minutes, so I've got a way to go- 5 months in fact.

Being a sports therapist and having had the lucky opportunity to work with some incredibly inspiring and talented athletes, I've thought a lot about the mechanics of running and how I can improve my form, technique, and running economy to ultimately become a quicker and fitter athlete.

Something I've particularly enjoyed researching and testing is the effect that your running form- specifically the foot mechanics of landing and taking off i.e 'initial contact and toe off' and its relation to performance and injury incidence.

When did you last notice you are a heel striker or fore-foot runner?

Your running style is something that you'll wish you'd known about before you got injured!

We often take our running form for granted, and if you have read an article or watched a video on Running gait you'll often find that most observations are taken from the frontal movement plane, i.e from the side; this highlights the way the foot behaves during the running cycle. Heel, midfoot and forefoot striking are all terms that hopefully you are familiar with. If this is the first time hearing these terms, I will explain what they mean later in this article.

Running style #1 - Heel strike

Some runners find themselves running with a prominent heel strike, this style of running is often used by runners trying to increase their stride length or during slower-paced runs. Landing with a heel strike can have its benefits and drawbacks. Starting with the benefits, it enables you to offload the calves and lengthen your stride* (which is one of the things you need to do to run faster). Being able to offload your calves during longer runs and when little niggles are present in the calves and Achilles can often keep you on track with your training and get you to the finish line in racing situations. A drawback for heel strikers is the additional force it places on your knees and hips. When we run, we propel ourselves forwards by something known as triple extension, where our ankles, knees and hips all extend to drive us forwards. The ankle in particular works like suspension or a shock absorber that you'd get on a car or bike. When landing with a mid-foot or fore-foot strike, the energy used to absorb the landing force is stored in the Achilles tendon and calf and is then used to propel you forwards, but when you heel-strike, this no longer happens and the forces are transmitted directly into the knee and hip which essentially puts the brakes on.

"A 15% increase in average achilles tendon loading rate for midfoot/ forefoot strikers compared to heel strikers"Almonroeder et al. 2013

Running style #2 - Running on your toes (fore-foot striking)

This is something I've battled with a lot personally in the pursuit of running faster and it's happened more frequently since trying to avoid heel striking (due to previous knee and hip niggles). This style of running is great for higher cadence runs and short sprints, but it takes its toll on the calves during longer runs. Yes, it works better for shock absorption in the body, and yes it helps to run faster. Still, the fatigue it can induce on the calves can certainly outweigh the benefits in anything beyond middle-distance running. Almonroeder et al. measured a 15% increase in average force across the Achilles tendon when running with a forefoot technique compared to a heel strike technique. This additional load can of course trigger loading-related injuries such as Achilles tendinopathy and calf strains, so it's important to build up gradually when changing your running style.

Optimising your foot strike.

It is often discussed that to find the optimal foot strike pattern, you should aim for a mid-foot running style, enabling you to utilise the shock absorption properties of the ankle, whilst avoiding excessive overload of the calf muscles. This can be a lengthy task and it may take a bit of trial and error in your runs along with good gait analysis- which ZEN Anatomy Sports Therapy can help you with... The most important thing is being aware that your foot strike pattern can be adjusted with training.

Mix up your run sessions

Running at different speeds is a great way to work on your foot positioning during running and is another way of building your muscle capacity and strength.

What's next?

If you made it this far, then hopefully you found this blog post topic useful. If you believe that getting a gait analysis or strength training plan could transform your running for the better, then be sure to click here and book yourself an appointment either in person at one of the ZEN Anatomy Sports Therapy clinic locations or virtually (if you live a little further away). Share this blog post with someone you think could benefit from reading it, and if you think they could benefit but won't read it all the way through, send them this video summary from the ZEN Anatomy Instagram page instead, and give it a like whilst you're at it :)

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