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
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.
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.
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.