“Earlier this year I started trying to run more on my toes because I heel strike. It started ok but my calves began to feel stiff. I was told this was normal and would get better. It hasn’t and now my achilles hurt in the mornings. I foam roll and stretch but it doesn’t seem to help. Any advice?”
Running Fitness Magazine, August 2014
Sadly, many runners are still being told that a ‘heel strike’ (landing on the heel) is a bad thing and that they should change to a midfoot or forefoot strike. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple and as you may well now be seeing for yourself, forcing a change can often lead to injury.
Despite what a lot of people say, there is no evidence that a heel striking is bad for you (as explained in this article here). Most scientific studies measuring foot strike patterns actually show the opposite; for the vast majority of runners (especially sub-elite and recreational runners), heel striking is the favoured form of running over long distances. Some studies show that at mile 6 of a marathon, nearly 90% of the runners are heel striking. Are they all doing it wrong?
Though the research is far from conclusive, one could argue that runners who ‘heel strike’ do more commonly suffer from problems associated with overload of muscles on the front of the lower leg (anterior compartment syndrome) and knee pain (patellofemoral pain syndrome), but one could also argue that midfoot and forefoot strikers more commonly suffer issues related to overload of muscles on the back of the lower leg (e.g. calf strains and Achilles tendinopathy).
What is clear is that as humans we all respond differently to the demands of running and that as a result no one can claim there is one best or safest way to run. Landing on the heel will load tissues differently than landing on the mid or forefoot but how your body deals with the load is very likely to be different to the person next to you.
My advice would be to focus less on what part of the foot lands first and more on how far from your body your foot lands when you run. Heel striking often gets a bad name because it commonly accompanies something called ‘over striding’, i.e. landing relatively far out in front of the body, as we do when we walk. Over striding is something that can be worked on to try to increase performance and decrease injury (e.g. cadence training) but simply changing the heel strike to a mid or forefoot strike is not the answer. Becoming a faster or less injury prone runner is very often more a case of looking higher up the body, especially at the hips. Sort them out and the feet will very often look after themselves!
Matt Phillips is the in-house Running Injury Specialist for UK magazine Running Fitness. Buy your copy today in all good magazine outlets, e.g. WHSmiths.