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Does Your Footfall Really Matter?

Runners of all shapes, sizes, and levels of proficiency have asked me, “What part of my foot should I be landing on?” and my answer may surprise and delight you. 

By
Brock Armstrong,
August 18, 2017

If you are not currently injured or dealing with niggling pains anywhere, my answer to the age old question, “Hey coach, what part of my foot should be hitting the ground first when I run?” is...

Don't worry about it.

Does Your Footfall Really Matter?

Now, If you are prone to injury or have some chronic pains that could become an injury, that changes things but in general, my approach to footfall is "if it ain't injured, don't mess with it."

The truth is that whatever part of your foot connects with the ground first is not a reflection in and of itself of good or even bad technique.

The most common assumption runners seem to have (likely due to half-assed dissemination of information at your local running group and shoe stores) is that you should focus on landing on your toes or your forefoot and avoid the heel strike at all costs. The problem is that it is not only possible but it is actually quite easy to have this "correct fore-footfall" and still be jamming your foot into the ground like a brake. Which is the same thing that happens when we heel strike, which is generally the reason people get told to run on their forefoot. 

So, now we have a runner who thinks they are running correctly because they are running "like they are barefoot," and conscientiously avoiding the heel strike like the plague. But after a while, we see blisters on the ball of their foot and slightly bruised toes which both indicate that the foot is braking when it hits the ground. That forefoot breaking motion also mashes the toes into the front of the shoe and that, my running friends, is often how you lose a toenail or worse.

What is really interesting is that while some heel strikers are going to suffer in the long run due to the typical over-striding which results in landing excessively hard on the heel, there are other less over-striding versions of heel-strikers who appear to pull off a midfoot loading, even though to the trained and untrained eye, they are hitting the ground first with their heel. 

And again, I fall back to my "if it ain't injured, don't mess with it" philosophy.

A research paper called, Initial foot contact patterns during steady state shod running, showed that 25-33% of heel striking runners don’t experience any significant loading as their heel connects with the ground (as measured by a footscan® plantar pressure measurement product). What was actually happening was that even despite the runner's heel hitting the ground first, the maximal load was still applied at the midfoot part of the stride. So what this tells us is that it really isn't as cut and dry as we would like to think it is. And again, I fall back to my "if it ain't injured, don't mess with it" philosophy. 

Now back to question “Hey coach, which part of the foot should I be landing on?” Well, if the rest of the runner's biomechanics are solid and "correct" then your foot will simply land where it needs to land.  If you have good hip mobility, if you have good knee lift/drive, a tall spine and neck, a squared chest, little to no shoulder twist, a full arm swing, and a nice forward lean (from the ankles) then that means the foot will likely land around the mid-foot area.  I mean, give it a try! I bet you 3-bucks-American (one of my favourite Canadian expressions) that you can't actually achieve a heel strike while running like Meb Keflezighi. I dare you!

So, rather than focusing on where your foot is striking, I would suggest spending time concentrating on the larger areas of your technique – knee, chest, spine and hips - and let your feet fall where they may... because it will likely be correct after all. 

For more info on running form, tips on stride technique, and to join the running conversation, head over to Facebook.com/GetFitGuy or twitter.com/getfitguy. Also don't forget to subscribe to the Get-Fit Guy podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, SoundCloud, Spotify, Google Play or via RSS.

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