Heel vs. Midfoot vs. Forefoot: How do elite runners land?
I've finally gotten around to this post, which is probably two weeks in the making, and it follows on from our recent series on running shoes. That series began by looking at whether shoes are in fact as much a cause of injury as a cure, and then evolved into a discussion of how the running market is evolving. Twenty years ago, it was all about motion-control shoes preventing overpronation to prevent injury. Today, it's all about running "barefoot in your shoes", as companies try to go back to "natural" without selling you "the Emperor's clothes", in effect! (It's quite a long post, my apologies, but a lot of important information to get through...)
The next logical question is to ask how is the foot supposed to land during running? This question evolves out of the discussion of shoes. vs barefoot running, and is often at the heart of discussions on running technique. Very often, debates of "technique" tend to start from the feet, jump to the knees ("lift your knees") and then skip to the arms, and that's about it! We won't go into too much detail on technique today, focusing instead on only one of many aspects - the landing of the foot, and particularly, whether the elite runners tend to land on the heel, the midfoot, or the forefoot.
Elite runners footstrike patterns
Perhaps surprisingly, there are very few studies looking at elite runners and footstrike patterns during actual races. Despite this, until recently, the overwhelming majority of coaches and experts were advocating that heel-striking was the most effective technique, simply because most athletes did it. That claim will come up again, but the perception that it was most effective has, over the last few years, been changing. And with the advent of Pose and other running techniques, as well as the observation that not all elite runners are landing on the heel first, people have now begun to advocate that forefoot landing is better! So we have this 180 degree shift, often in the absence of any substantial data to support the claim.
I am sure that many will have seen this kind of assertion (this one is from Wikipedia):
Leaning forward places a runner's centre of mass on the front part of the foot, which avoids landing on the heel and facilitates the use of the spring mechanism of the foot. In other words, landing on the heel is bad, to be avoided...Or there is this, from Gordon Pirie (admittedly somewhat older):
"Running equals springing through the air, landing elastically on the forefoot with a flexed knee..."But what is "better"? Where science has yet to catch up with opinion
It's important at this point to ask the very pertinent, but infrequently asked question: "What does 'better' mean?". In other words, when people are advocating that it's 'better' to land on the forefoot, what do they mean? Is it faster? More efficient? Less injury-prone? The fact is, the word "better" is used without studies specifically looking at any single one of these aspects. And the 'prudence concept', as applied to science, says that you cannot say something is "better" unless it's been studied and compared to the alternatives. Unfortunately, the science lags behind in this regard.
So for example, above you have the quote that you are supposed to land elastically on the forefoot. That implies performance and efficiency, which might be true for short exercise, lasting a minute or two. But in an event like the marathon, are we sure it remains the "better" option? If you went out and ran 2 hours today, landing on your forefoot instead of landing as you've always done, what would be the likely outcome? Chances are, you'd be hurting for a few days, with calf muscles that you had perhaps forgotten you had! Worst case scenario, you'd be injured for months with an Achilles tendon injury. That is certainly not a desirable outcome. So there are problems with making sweeping statements about landing patterns.
But more than this, these kinds of statements are never grounded in proof. So for example, when it's written that you land "elastically", has anyone ever done the study of elastic energy return in different types of running? They haven't, but there is theory about it, and that's where these recommendations come from. So the approach in the discussion that follows is for me to adopt the role of "questioner", playing Devil's Advocate, with the humble admission that science simply does not know the right answer, only the possibilities...
Looking at one particular study - elite 21 km runners
So in the current climate where real evidence is scarce and opinions hold sway, let's take a look at one study that has examined footstrike patterns during running events. It was done in 2004 in Japan, and published in 2007 in the Journal of Strength of Conditioning (not sure of the reason for the delay - it happens sometimes in science!). The full reference, for those interested, is Hasegawa et al., J Strength & Cond., 2007, (21), 888-893
It was performed at the 2004 Sapporro International Half Marathon in Japan. The scientists set up a high speed camera (very important for accurate collection of information - beats YouTube science any day!) at the 15km mark of the race, and captured most of the runners coming through. In total, they were able to observe the foot strike of 248 men and 35 women, and characterize them as either heel-strikers, mid-foot or forefoot strikers. They also measured Ground Contact Time at the 15km point.
The finding - what do you expect?
Before giving their main finding away, take a moment to guess what they would have found...If you are anything like me, and have read the substantial amount on the internet and in books about how it's "better" (there's that word again) to land on your forefoot, then of course, your expectation might be that they found:
- The majority of runners land on the forefoot
- Those that DO NOT land on the forefoot are the runners who finish towards the back of the field
- The vast majority (75%) of the elite runners land on the heel
- About 1 in four (24%) runners landed on the mid-foot
- Only 4 out of 283 runners landed on the forefoot
Possible conclusions - how you read the study is influenced by what you wish to prove...
So, given this, one is tempted to say that the landing of the foot makes no difference to overall performance. Of course, this is not necessarily true. As I wrote above, science is often taken out of context, and this is one such example. You cannot, for example, rule out the possibility that these heel-strikers might be a few seconds or minutes faster if they just learned to land on their forefoot! Personally, I think that's highly unlikely, and what is more likely is that they'll end up in rehab for Achilles injuries, but even that is a "bald assertion", based only on opinion!
Now, however, here is where it gets interesting, and this is where the forefoot advocates got quite excited. When the researchers divided the finishers into groups of 50, they started to see something of a change in mid-foot landing as you moved further down the list. In otherwords, there was a higher percentage of midfoot strikers in the first 50 runners than in the second, and then third, and so on. The graph below shows this for heel-strikers and mid-foot strikers (I haven't shown forefoot, because it's so tiny and insignificant by comparison):
At first glance, the conclusion from this graph is that if you want to be a faster runner, finishing higher up in the overall order, then you should be a midfoot striker, not a heel-striker. That's how many people interpreted the finding. And this may well be true. Unfortunately, there is another possible reason it looks like it does - perhaps it's simply a function of running faster.
Speed and footstrike
In otherwords, you naturally shift your contact point with the ground further forward when you run faster. The average speed, incidentally, of the first 50 runners was 3 minutes 3 seconds per kilometer. The second group of 50 runners averaged 3 minutes 10 seconds per kilometer. Hardly a big difference, but given the range (the 50th runner is at least a minute behind the 1st runner), is it possible that groups of 50 is too big, and that all this "finding" represents is a speed effect on footstrike?
The point is, this study does not allow you to differentiate between three possibilities:
- Faster runners are midfoot strikers (could be co-incidence or some other cause); or
- Midfoot strikers are faster runners (and therefore we should all change our running style and land on the front part of the foot more); or
- All runners would eventually be midfoot strikers, if they just ran fast enough!
Personal opinion and implications of this study
My personal reaction to this research, when it came out, was that it disproved the popular theory that all runners should be aiming to become midfoot or forefoot strikers. Most of us (well, I'm in this group, apologies if you are not) are nowhere near the elite level, and we're often told by experts and coaches that the elite are landing on the ball of the foot or the midfoot, and so we should too.
But the next time you think of running like Gebrselassie and trying to land mid or forefoot, consider this: if you go out and sprint 100m, you're likely to run on your toes the whole way - because you're running faster, you land more on the mid-foot, or even the forefoot.
Sprinting as you are, you'll probably cover 100m in 14 seconds, which puts you only 1 second ahead of a Bekele or a Gebrselassie in a 5000m race, so is it any wonder they are midfoot strikers on the track - they're running as fast as most of us sprint? The point I'm trying to make is, if you ran the speed they did, you'd be a mid-foot striker too! But just as I suspect they change as they slow down, we all do. So why, and on what basis, should you try to run with the same foot strike when you are running perhaps 3 minutes per kilometer SLOWER than them? Again, these are relatively bald assertions, but hopefully you recognize the implication of speed on foot strike.
So when you go out and run a 3 hour, or a 4 hour marathon, that's another story altogether. And what the Pose running study at UCT showed me a few years ago is that if you change the landing of the foot, you predispose the athlete to injury - that study took a group of runners and within two weeks had them all running on the midfoot (please don't write in to say that Pose doesn't mean midfoot, because Romanov was the coach and he was happy with their technique!). Two weeks later, they all broke down with Achilles tendon injuries!
Why? Because sitting where you are right now, if I was to walk into your office or your home and take you outside and ask you to please run landing on your forefoot or midfoot, I can pretty much guarantee that the way you would achieve this is to point your toe down...you're probably doing this as you read this - contract the calf, and point your toe away from your body, like in ballet. Now imagine your body weight landing on that contracted calf muscle 85 times a minute for 4 hours. That, simply put, is a recipe for disaster.
However, if you can gradually change your landing, then I do believe that you can shift your footstrike. But it's a gradual process. And more important, what is the point? There is no evidence that heel-strikers are injured more, no evidence that mid-foot runners are faster and perform better than heel-strikers, and so the ultimate question is:
Why would you want to change your foot landing to begin with? Science has little to offer you in support of this. And so my advice, having read this far (well done!), is to forget about the possibility that you're landing "wrongly", and just let your feet land where, and how they land, and worry about all the other things you can when you run!
If there is one thing you change in your running, don't focus on your footstrike, but rather on WHERE your feet land relative to your body. Because if you are over-reaching and throwing your foot out in front of you, that's a problem, but what happens when the rubber meets the road is less relevant!
I'm sure there's more to this topic, based on your questions and comments. As usual, fire away! And remember the humble admission from earlier - science, believe it or not, does not know the answer definitively! (just as we can't tell you why Bekele is so dominant in World X-Country!)
Late edit to the post - the comments section of the post has been closed (29 Aug 2009) - too many comments flying in to respond (on top of the other 20 posts still getting comments! And I don't want to ignore people!)
I would recommend that you click on "Running technique" in the tabs at the top of the page, and read through those posts to get the full picture and context to this post