Is heel striking bad? That question is one of the most heated debates in running, even years after barefoot running waxed and waned in popularity. Often, individual experience dictates people’s opinions on the question of should you heel strike when running or how to fix heel striking. Here, we want to take an evidence-based approach to sort through the noise of debates and misinformation on heel striking.
It is essential to understand that this article provides generalized advice based on the present body of evidence. Individual experiences may be outliers. If in doubt, speak with a physical therapist about your own running gait.
What is a Heel Strike?
A heel strike is one of the most common ways that a foot contacts the ground while running. In a heel strike, your heel or the rear third of your foot is the first part of your foot to touch the ground when it lands.
This article on foot strikes delves into the different types of foot placement when running, including midfoot, forefoot, and heel strikes.
Should You Heel Strike When Running?
It is not recommended to change from a midfoot or forefoot strike to a heel strike. However, a majority of runners naturally land with a heel strike. While more elites may have non-rearfoot strikes, a large percentage of fast runners do heel strike, according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Biomechanics.
As discussed more below, heel striking (and your foot strike in general) falls into the category “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Many runners are most efficient with a heel strike and should not change to a forefoot strike. However, runners with a forefoot or midfoot strike should stick to their natural footstrikes, rather than change to a heel strike.
Essentially – unless you experience frequent recurring injuries, do not change your foot placement when running.
Heel Striking vs. Toe Striking
What many runners think of as “toe striking” is actually forefoot striking. You are not landing on your toes, but rather landing on the front third of your foot. This forefoot strike is more commonly observed in faster runners, but it is not necessarily what makes them fast.
True toe striking – landing directly on your toes – is not considered an ideal foot placement when running. Toe striking keeps the calf in a shortened position, which could possibly increase the risk of calf cramps while running long distances. A forefoot, midfoot, or rearfoot strike will not stress the calf muscles in this manner.
Ultimately, heel striking vs forefoot striking comes down to the interaction of your entire kinetic chain. The mobility of your ankles, hips, and knees will all impact whether you heel strike or forefoot strike. This is why even elites have varying foot strikes – they have individual biomechanics and ranges of motion in other joints.
The Impact of Heel Striking: Is Heel Striking Bad for Running?
Is heel striking bad? Some argue that heel striking results in slower performances and increased injury risks. You may encounter individuals who did find that their injuries disappeared and they ran faster when they changed their footstrike. But individual experiences can be outliers – so what does the data say?
For a runner who is not experiencing pain and does not demonstrate overstriding, heel striking may be their most efficient footstrike pattern. A 2017 randomized controlled trial published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found no statistically significant changes in running economy, oxygen exchange rates, or heart rate in recreational runners for a whole month after gait retraining from heel strike to forefoot strike. That means that while you won’t necessarily become slower from gait retraining (if you need it), gait retraining won’t make you a faster runner.
A 2020 meta-analysis in Sports Medicine examined 53 studies on running gait and reached a similar conclusion. The evidence does not exist that gait retraining will improve running economy or reduce injury risk in non-injured runners.
More importantly, gait retraining in healthy runners comes with an injury risk. The researchers in the meta-analysis noted that gait training does lead to statistically significant alterations in the loading of the plantarflexor and ankle. For some runners, increased loading in those areas may increase the risk of foot and ankle injuries.
However, the conversation changes for runners who do experience pain when running. In some scenarios, gait retraining may reduce pain in certain areas, such as knee pain when running. The above-cited 2017 study did find that, if runners experienced patellofemoral pain (runner’s knee), they experienced less pain when running after gait retraining.
Understanding Proper Running Form
Foot strike is only one part of running form. To better understand a heel strike, you need to understand proper running form and the entire gait cycle.
When your foot contacts the ground, you enter the stance phase. Your leg – including the foot, ankle, knee, and hip – absorbs shock from the ground contact. Your body shifts forward during the midstance, with the opposite leg in hip and knee flexion. You then enter propulsion and toe-off from the ground. The toe-off brings you into the swing phase, which starts with a brief double float (both feet off the ground). The leg begins in an initial swing (with the hip extended). In the mid-swing phase, the opposite foot contacts the ground, while the first leg swings forward into hip flexion. Once the opposite leg enters the swing phase, the first foot contacts the ground to start the cycle over again.
In addition to the foot strike, various actions occur during the gait cycle: hip extension and flexion, knee extension and flexion, ankle dorsiflexion and plantar flexion, foot pronation, arm swing, and even mild thoracic spine rotation. Change the foot strike and any of these other parts of running form could change.
Related: Five Tips to Improve Running Form
How to Fix Heel Striking
As discussed above, if you do not have injuries, you do not need to worry about how to fix heel striking.
If you are a candidate for gait retraining – for example, you severely overstride or you have chronic runner’s knee – you want to go through the process carefully.
Have a Proper Gait Analysis
Before you start gait training, you will want to have a proper gait analysis. A running store gait analysis will not be thorough enough. Instead, you want a gait analysis from a licensed physical therapist. Yes, they are expensive – but if you want to spend time gait retraining, you want to ensure that you need it.
A proper gait analysis will use sensors and video to assess your individual gait. You can see how your foot lands and if you do heel strike. Additionally, they will see what causes your heel strike: overstriding, poor ankle mobility, hip weakness, increase running cadence, etc.
Work with a Physical Therapist
After your gait analysis, your physical therapist can guide you through how to fix your heel strike. For example, they may have you complete drills to improve ankle mobility or to increase your forward lean.
If you experience any new pains during the gait retraining, you should notify your PT. Some aches may be part of the process, but it is important not to incur a new injury.
Adjust Your Training Appropriately
During gait retraining, you want to be cautious with your running. Most runners will benefit from scaling back intensity during gait retraining. Hard workouts like intervals have a greater injury risk due to the biomechanical strain.
For this reason, it’s recommended to do a base phase when changing your foot strike. Not sure what base building looks like? Check out one of these downloadable base building plans!