There seems to be much debate in the running community today on what is the best footstrike for running. Runners of all levels divide themselves into three basic camps: the midfoot strikers, the forefoot strikers and the heel strikers. So, here is my attempt to put forward my best understanding of the three basic types of foot strike and what each one does for a runner.
The Midfoot Strike
The midfoot strike is characterized as having your heel and the ball of your foot touching the ground simultaneously with each foot strike. You can see this very clearly when you watch young children run. They always land with their whole foot on the ground. I would say that at most people run this way as kids.
In the ChiRunning technique, we promote the midfoot strike because it is, for most runners, the most injury-preventive way to run. Our emphasis is on preventing the lower legs (including the knees) from over-working, because this area of the body is where, conservatively speaking, 90% of all running injuries occur. Plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, shin splints, calf pulls, knee pain, IT band problems, over-pronation, bunions, metatarsal and tibial stress fractures, and hammer toes lead the list of the most common running injuries. This list is immense compared to everything that can go wrong above the knees.
The propulsion in ChiRunning comes from allowing your body to fall forward with the pull of gravity, not from pushing yourself forward with your feet and legs. For this reason it is more energy-efficient because your legs are not required for propulsion. When your feet come down onto the ground, they land either under your center of mass, in a midfoot strike. When you lean into the pull of gravity, the only work required of your legs is to provide momentary support for your body between strides. Landing on your midfoot, in most cases, either reduces or eliminates the work done by A.) the lower leg muscles…especially the shins and calves, and B.) the two tendons that are most commonly injured… the plantar tendon and the achilles tendon.
The ChiRunning technique is primarily focused on energy efficiency and injury-prevention with speed being a secondary focus.
The Forefoot Strike
The forefoot is basically the balls of the feet. If your heels don’t touch the ground when you run, you’re a forefoot striker.
Sprinters, middle-distance runners, and some triathletes tend to prefer running on the forefoot because of the extra speed obtained by “paw-back” and “toeing off.” This way of running is great if you want lots of speed, but it puts the responsibility for most of the body’s propulsion squarely onto the legs…especially the lower legs. Some of the faster elite middle-distance runners (i.e. Kenyans, Moroccans, Ethiopians, Mexicans) run with a forward lean added in combination with a forefoot strike. This takes some but not all of the burden off the lower legs.
Because forefoot running is primarily used for running at faster speeds, energy efficiency tends to take a distant back seat. As far as being injury-preventive, forefoot striking helps prevent knee injuries because it lowers the impact to the knees. This is a good thing. But the problem with it is that running on the balls of your feet increases the workload on your calves, shins, achilles tendons, and plantar tendons, so you risk either overworking a muscle or pulling a tendon if you go too far or too fast while running on your forefeet.
Another type of forefoot landing is when running barefoot, or in minimalist shoes. Because there is no cushioning in a minimal shoe, or barefoot, the runner lands on the forefoot, but immediately comes down onto the full foot during the support stance of her stride. This keeps the lower leg muscles from being overused or injured. Many people experience sore calves when switching to minimalist running, which makes it even that much more important to always relax the lower legs when landing.
The Heel Strike
Heel striking is when your heel strikes the ground in front of your body. At least 75% of all runners run with a heel strike. The interesting thing about this fact is that, although it is by far the most common of all the footstrike patterns, it is not done by choice, but by default. The vast majority of all runners are not elite runners or competitors, they’re just regular folks like you and me, who like to run and like to stay fit.
Most recreational runners tend to run with their body in an upright position… with no lean at all. This forces them to have to reach forward with their legs when they run…and when you run upright and reach with your legs, your feet will always land in front of your body and your heels will come down first. When you run this way, you’re basically putting on the brakes with each stride, which sends a lot of impact to your lower legs and knees. For this reason, many heel strikers complain of knee pain at some point in their running career. This is the group that keeps orthopedists and physical therapists in business.
But, just because you might be a heel striker, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to be a heel striker for the rest of your life. Work on improving your running technique. If you can learn to run safely and efficiently, you’ll be eliminating the causes of running injuries and you won’t have to worry about ending up in a doctor’s office getting fixed.
The midfoot strike works for most runners…the forefoot strike works for some runners…but, the heel strike doesn’t seem to work well for anybody. Try all three and see which one works the best for you.
With the ChiRunning book, DVD/Video, or audio CD you can easily learn the midfoot strike. We offer you an alternative way to approach your running so that you can learn the midfoot strike and spend many more years enjoying one of the world’s best and most natural sports.