JOURNEY 3 – HEELSTRIKING VS FOREFOOT RUNNING: THE IMPLICATIONS FOR RUNNERS AND TRIATHLETES
We would all like to run faster. But running, and running for triathlon is tough. It is often the cause of injury and fatigue because it causes higher loads, meaning greater forces are exerted through muscles and joints when compared to swimming and cycling.
One way to help reduce this load and run safely is to increase the efficiency of your gait – each individual’s locomotive pattern (Gallahue and Ozmun, 2006). This involves eliminating heel striking and learning to run on the mid/forefoot. However, the reality is a large proportion of runners and triathletes are caught in the trap of heel striking. This often results because walking involves heel striking and hence, it seems ‘natural’ to do so. Also, heelstriking will result from overstriding due to the false belief that overstriding results in faster running speeds.
The Mechanics of Running
How to improve your economy
The gait cycle can be broken down into two main phases: the support phase (foot strike to toe-off) and the swing phase (toe-off to foot strike), Gallahue and Ozmun, (2006).
The support phase includes the following sub-phases:
The swing phase includes;
Forward swing and,
It is this initial ground contact phase that can make such a difference to the way we run.
When walking it is natural to heel strike, when sprinting it is most effective to land on one’s toes… Running should be somewhere in between – either the midfoot or preferably the forefoot.
So what’s the most efficient way to run?
By running barefoot we discover that naturally our best running form occurs when we run on our forefoot. When running barefoot we do not strike the ground with our heels – if we look into it further we discover the anatomy of the foot is not designed for heel striking. By landing on our heels, we land on the calcaneous (heel bone) which is made up of dense bone tissue – this increases the ground reaction forces and loading rates.
High loading rates mean more muscle fatigue and a higher risk of injury.
Newton Running has built their foundations on the knowledge that when we run naturally, we strike the ground with our forefoot. This is safer and more efficient. Here is a link to their website which demonstrates the differences and implications of heel vs. forefoot striking.
Heelstriking is often the result of overstriding. Overstriding occurs when ground contact is too far in front of the centre of gravity. This makes landing on the forefoot difficult. Furthermore, overstriding results in excessive braking forces occurring, hence hindering forward movement. It is often characterised by a loss of body height, or a ‘sitting effect.’
Footstrike should occur at a point under the hip and be light and quiet. Forward propulsion can then be achieved by driving back through the stride. Consequently, by shortening the stride at the front, leg speed will increase along with efficiency. We know that the nervous system functions more efficiently at a higher cadence, >90rpm, when running (Gottschall and Palmer, 2003). Further to this, Bernard et al, 2002 found that stride rate and running velocity increased after riding at a cadence of 100rpm compared to lower cadences.
The scientific basis of forefoot running and Newton Running’s innovative shoe design derives from Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This means that the force we apply to the ground when footstriking is also applied back through the foot, ankle and the leg. We can pull two important pieces of information from this fact:
Loading rates are higher when we heel strike – leading to increased fatigue and risk of injury
Action/Reaction should be advantageous when running – we can use this law to improve the efficiency of our gait
A study by Regan et. Al. (2004) supports these claims. They found that Pose running and midfoot running had much lower loading rates compared to heel strike running. Pose running can be described as ‘A novel running style with a midfoot strike pattern and a flexed knee in stance.’ It is characterised by shorter stride lengths and smaller vertical oscillations of the sacrum and left heel marker. The Pose running lower-limb geometry instance is achieved by forward lean of the trunk and vertical alignment of the ipsilateral shoulder, hip, and heel of the supporting limb (Regan et al). It was concluded that the Pose method may be valuable in the treatment or prevention of running injuries.
It is important to note, that changes to running gait must be done cautiously. Changes will occur slowly over time. Start by ensuring that your runners fit your foot properly and have the appropriate shape and cushioning for your body. Also, the wear of the shoe can be used to help analyse your running mechanics – the shoe will wear most where your foot initially strikes the ground. Consider too, that forefoot striking may be most efficient but it is not always safest – especially for some people and running styles. Start by learning to strike with your midfoot, then progress to the forefoot.
Here are some drills to help you run more efficiently:
Complete the following 2 – 3 times per week – preferably at a track or on a soft surface; or use the drills as part of your warm up and cool down:
10mins warm up then:
2 x (12 x 50m run thrus at 70-80%/30sec rest) + 5mins jog
1-3 – focus on a short stride striking under your hip;
3-5 – focus on relaxing your upper body and ensuring arm movements are minimal – forward and back, alongside your body;
6-8 – focus on keeping your leg speed high;
9-12 – focus on balanced movement, look forward, keep upper body relaxed and drive from the hips
3 x 3min slow builds to race pace/30sec walk float
These drills should be used as a guide only. Please complete them with extreme caution or under qualified supervision. For more information contact ETPA directly.