Heel Strike vs. Midfoot Strike: One Runner’s Experience

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on Twitter and articles in the running community with titles like:

Don’t Believe the Heel Strike Hype

Or

Heel Striking is NOT Your Problem

Even though it would seem that the “heel strike is bad” school of thought has been debunked, I thought I’d add my two cents anyway.

I’m not a doctor or a scientist (and don’t play one on TV!). I can only relate my own experience.

I started running 20 years ago. At the time, I was having trouble sticking to an exercise routine. I had joined a gym and was going (infrequently) to lift weights and use the elliptical machine and stationary bike. I was also swimming about once a week.

However, it was easy to skip planned workouts because I had no long term goal, I had no workout buddy, and I wasn’t really enjoying the process. I wasn’t making any progress, but simply spinning my wheels.

One day while listening to my favorite local radio station (KLLC or, as they call themselves, Alice), I heard an ad saying they were sponsoring a 5 mile race in Golden Gate Park called See Alice Run.

Yes! I’ll do that! Finally I had a goal…something to work toward.

I started training regularly and by the time race day rolled around I was ready. I crushed that race (in my mind) and decided that I wanted more.

As a newbie runner, I was definitely a heel striker.

In those early years, I ran dozens of 5k races, eventually moving up to the 10k. In 2001, I decided to step outside my comfort zone and run a half marathon. In 2004, I discovered trail running!

(Shout out to Brazen Racing for starting me down that road…er, trail!)

In 2009, I ran my first marathon.

napamarathon

Through all those miles and all those races, I was a heel striker. I was also frequently suffering from some malady or other, sometimes severely, but other times it was just a mild, but persistent discomfort.

Mostly it was recurring bouts of shin splints and Achilles tendon pain. There were numerous times that I skipped runs or cut them short due to these ailments. I once took six weeks off from running due to an issue with my plantar fascia.

I would also frequently suffer from knee pain during and after my Saturday long runs.

I started doing a lot of reading on heel strike vs. midfoot strike and perhaps I started “believing the hype.” One of the arguments that stuck with me was this:

Imagine holding a solid rod and striking the ground with it (approximating your extended straight leg with a heel strike). Any impact would run the length of that rod and you’d feel it in your hand.

Now imagine striking the ground with a rod that has hinges built into it (simulating the bending of your ankle, knee, hip with a midfoot strike). Logically, those hinges would dispel a great deal of the impact and you’d feel very little at the top of the rod.

Again, I’m no scientist, but this argument made sense to me so I decided to give it a try and began a self-guided transition program.

My goal? Become a midfoot striker.

I started slowly. I went to the gym and ran with my normal heel striking gait for a mile or so, then I would consciously switch to a midfoot strike for maybe two minutes at most. It felt weird, awkward, difficult. I would switch back to my “natural” heel strike for the remainder of the run.

I slowly increased the amount of time I spent midfoot striking until I felt strong enough and confident enough to run a full three miles with the new gait. At that point, I slowly started introducing the midfoot strike on my trail runs. Just a little bit at a time and never during a race. Over the next few months it began to feel more and more natural, though I did find myself unconsciously switching to a heel strike late in my long runs when I began to grow fatigued.

Next up I tried mixing in the new midfoot strike during trail races. I eventually worked my way up to running entire half marathons this way. I grew more and more comfortable with it until midfoot striking was the new “natural.”

All in all, this process took something like 12 full months.

In 2013, I ran the entire Oakland Marathon with a midfoot strike.

I’ve never looked back.

Now it’s 2017. Since the transition, I have run ten more marathons, five 50k races, three 50 milers and will be attempting my first 100 miler. All with a midfoot strike.

7th Oak Marathon 2016 -2

I can say with complete confidence that the amount of pain and injury that I have experienced since the transition has been reduced significantly. I haven’t had a case of shin splints in years. While I do occasionally get some pain in my Achilles, it is less frequent and less pronounced than during my days of heel striking. The knee pain I used to suffer during and after long runs has almost completely disappeared.

That’s not to say it’s some kind of magic bullet. I still get aches and pains. And I haven’t been injury free. But it is better. Noticeably, considerably better.

Again, not being a physician or a scientist, I can only make assumptions and guesses, but I really feel confident when I say that transitioning to a midfoot strike has saved wear and tear on my body. I am a stronger, healthier runner despite now being some years older.

I am also confident that I will be able to run for many more years than I would have with a heel strike. I believe that I can do things I would not have been able to do if I had not made that transition.

Training for a 100 mile race has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I’ve managed to do it without any sort of injury. Surely a lot of that is due to experience and smarter training, but I believe it would have been far more difficult if I were still a heel striker.

So, should every heel striker change their stride?

I have no idea.

But I’m glad I did.

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One thought on “Heel Strike vs. Midfoot Strike: One Runner’s Experience

  1. I totally hear you (or should I say heel you?). I was a heel striker, ran competitively in college for two years before suffering from persistent injuries. Started running again as an adult and again, heel striker and again, a lot of aches and pains. I transitioned to a forefoot stride (which felt more natural than a midfoot gait) about six years ago and I suddenly began to love, love, love running in a new way, mostly because of how smooth my gait felt, and how it felt as if I were gliding. This could be an illusion, and there’s a good chance that I look awkward as hell, lol. I average between 35-70 miles a week and haven’t had a running related injury in years (though I have been injured due to falls during trail runs). And, I’m not young, either. I’m, like, an older runner, and my legs are holding up pretty damned well.

    That said, I know heel strike runners who have excelled for years running high mileage, breaking PRS and running faster that I can ever dream. I think it’s individual, and whatever works for one person won’t work for the next. It’s the same with shoes: cushioned or minimalist– whichever one fits, put it on and go for a run, eh?

    Like

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