Heel striking is typically demonized as the root of all running injuries. However, this is simply not true. While how your feet hit the ground when running may impact your injury risk, a heel strike is not necessarily bad. This article will explore the different types of foot strikes (including heel striking), the proper running form for feet, common running gait mistakes, and how to know which foot strike is right for you.
How Should Your Feet Hit The Ground When Running?
Proper running form for feet concerns two aspects: your foot strike and where your foot lands in relation to the body. Foot strike refers to how your foot contacts the ground when running. The most common foot strikes are rearfoot strike and midfoot strike. Most runners contact the ground with either their heel or their midfoot first. Ideally, the foot should land beneath the body. If the foot lands in front of the hip, this is a common running form era known as overstriding.
Running shoes do alter how your feet hit the ground when running. A 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health observed that most runners had a midfoot strike when barefoot. However, shoes encouraged a rearfoot strike. That does not mean you should run barefoot! We have moved far past the barefoot running trend and know that heel striking is not bad – and that running in shoes is safer and more efficient.
Different Types of Foot Strikes
There are three main types of foot strikes: rearfoot strike (heel strike), midfoot strike, and forefoot strike. A fourth uncommon type – toe striking – is an error in running form, rather than a self-selected foot strike.
A heel strike is also called a rearfoot strike. A rearfoot strike happens when the heel or the rear one-third of the foot is the first part to strike the ground when the foot lands. The foot contacts the ground in a dorsiflexed position.
In the past, people blamed a heel strike for running injuries. The claim circulated that a rearfoot strike was inefficient and slowed you down. However, we know understand that’s not true, based on recent evidence. Over-striding (landing your feet in front of your body) increases injury risk and lowers running economy – not heel striking if the foot is landing beneath the body.
A rearfoot strike is the most common footstrike pattern amongst runners. According to a 2021 meta-analysis in Sports Medicine Open, 79% of runners always heel strike when running. When fatigue factors in over longer distances, 11% of runners alter their footstrike patterns – leading to a total of 86% of runners using a rearfoot strike pattern at some point.
Overstriding does not occur in most rearfoot strikes. A 2020 study in the Journal of Healthcare Engineering found that while 67% of participants had a rearfoot strike, only 6% overstrided.
Even elite runners use a rearfoot strike if it’s the footstrike that their body naturally selects. A 2019 study in the Journal of Biomechanics observed that 54% of men and 67% of women at the 2017 IAAF World Championships had rearfoot strikes. The top-finishing athletes had rearfoot strikes, which contradicts the belief that a non-rearfoot strike is superior.
After a rearfoot strike, a midfoot strike is the next most common foot strike. However, as noted in the statistics above, no more than 16-21% of runners use a midfoot strike. A midfoot strike occurs when the ball of the foot and the heel strike the ground nearly simultaneously.
A midfoot strike may place less stress on the knees than a rearfoot strike does. Unlike a forefoot strike, a midfoot strike does not overload the Achilles tendon or ankle joint.
A forefoot strike occurs when the first half of the foot makes the first contact with the ground – followed by the heel. This type of foot strike is relatively uncommon. As seen in the 2019 study of elite marathoners (cited above), forefoot striking is very rare.
Some argue that a forefoot strike has a lower injury risk than a rearfoot. However, that statement is not entirely true. While a rear-foot strike tends to place a greater load on the knee joint and surrounding tissues, a midfoot strike increases the loading of the ankle joint and surrounding tissues (including the Achilles tendon).
A toe strike is uncommon – and not recommended. Very few runners self-select a toe strike due to its inefficiency and discomfort.
Some athletes mistake a forefoot strike as a toe strike. Instead of landing the first half of the foot on the ground, they land on their tip-toes. In a tip toe strike, the heel never contracts the ground and the runner remains in plantar flexion. This strike can place strain on the calf muscles.
Common Running Form Mistakes to Avoid
As mentioned above, overstriding is a common running form mistake. People conflate overstriking with a heel strike since you do have an exaggerated heel strike when overstriding. However, the problem is not the heel strike – it’s where your foot is landing in relation to your body.
A runner overstrides when they extend their foot in front of their body and contract the ground in front of the hip. The hip angle and knee angle are different than when the foot lands beneath the body. The knee is completely extended upon ground contact.
Overstriding applies a braking force. This braking force can make you less efficient and slow you down. Overstriding also places more strain on the knee, which may increase injury risk.
Quick Tips to Fix Your Running Technique
The proper running form for feet is related to your entire running form. How your feet move relates to how your hips, ankles, knees, and even torso move while running.
If you do overstride, you want to focus on changing your running form further up the kinetic chain. If you lean back, you are more likely to overstride. Helpful cues are to focus on a slight forward lean and focus on landing your feet beneath the body. You may also need to work on hip mobility so that your legs can extend behind you when you stride.
Related: Tips to Improve Running Form
Have a Slight Forward Lean
Proper running form for feet begins with your ankles. A slight forward lean will reduce the risk of overstriding. Whether you are a rearfoot or midfoot striker, you will likely have a more economical running form if you have a slight forward lean.
A forward lean is not drastic. Rather, it is a minor angle that encourages your legs to extend behind the body. The forward lean stems from the ankles, not the hips or shoulders.
Drills and ankle mobility exercises can help master the forward lean. Amanda of Run to the Finish shares some helpful drills for forward lean in this Instagram post. Mobility exercises (such as these) can improve range of motion in dorsiflexion, which contributes to a forward lean.
Focus on a Quick Cadence
If you are prone to overstriding, you want to check your running cadence. While there is no such thing as an ideal cadence, some runners can improve their form by increasing their cadence. Overstriding typically results in a lower cadence. Taking short, frequent steps can encourage you to land your feet beneath you.
There are multiple ways to increase your cadence. Drills and strides both offer the opportunity to practice quick cadence. Over time, new neuromuscular pathways form, and a quicker cadence becomes more natural. Some runners use a metronome of a few minutes per run.
Related: How to Run Strides
Wear Running Shoes Comfortable for You
Inevitably, footwear companies will market certain shoes as a way to improve your footstrike when running. However, a shoe marketed to a rearfoot strike is not guaranteed to work well for you, even if you do land on your heels.
The right running shoes for your form should be comfortable to run in. A 2023 study in the European Journal of Sport Science found that running shoes that felt comfortable to run in were the most efficient. Even if a shoe is marketed to your foot strike, only wear it if you feel comfortable and efficient when running in it.
Which Running Foot Strike is Best for You?
In an overwhelming majority of cases, the running foot strike that is best for you is the one you naturally have. Only in very rare instances should you change your heel strike. In those scenarios, the gait change should be guided by a physical therapist.
Why? A foot strike is the result of several joint actions higher up the kinetic chain. As discussed in a 2015 review, the movement of your hips, knees, and ankles all impact your foot strike. If you change your foot strike without needing to, you then have to change hip, knee, and ankle joint action. That change may lead to less efficient running – or even actually increase your risk of injury.
There is no such thing as an ideal footstrike when running. Instead, runners will typically self-select their most efficient footstrike. You only want to change your foot strike if you are consistently injured.
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