The Foot Contact Debate

A good academic debate with Scott Greenberg

Here's Dr. Greenberg's HOT TAKE on the foot contact debate using the RunDNA approach

The foot contact debate has garnished a lot of attention in the past few years. Recently an article was published in Runner’s World by Dr. Matthew Klien, which stated that it was okay to be a heel striker. Dr. Klein did a good job describing some of the reasons.

However, here at RunDNA, we continue to educate that identifying if you are a heel striker or not may be missing a more important question.

Where We Agree

We are in complete agreement with some of the key points that the author described. He did a wonderful job describing the differences between a fore-foot (FF) and rear-foot (RF) strike pattern and even went on to discuss how some don’t feel that a mid-foot strike even exists, a thought that we agree with as well. He even mentioned how most runners are unable to properly identify what type of strike pattern they are using. We see this all the time.

Don’t Be a Brake

Running forms leave a lot to debate among experts and academics, but there are a few consistent agreements we’ve seen in the literature. Regardless of speed, contact should be made as close to the center of mass of the runner as possible. What we also know is that when a heel contact is made, the contact is often in front of the center of mass and this can lead to overstriding. This creates a braking force that the body must overcome to continue to propel. This component of over-striding is linked to several running related injuries. Now, although a FF contact does not ensure a contact under the mass, a contact under the COM is more likely with a FF strike pattern. To emphasize this point, try running in place. What part of the foot makes contact with the ground when you are running under your COM? I would bet it’s not the heel. Running in place inevitably creates a FF contact. Different strike patterns stress different tissues and without the appropriate and required tissue capacity, injury will likely occur. Because of this, there is much more to running injury and performance than just the position of the foot at initial contact.

Use Your Body’s Spring

Another area discussed was the energy demands that FF running places on the body. I would argue that heel striking is used by the body to conserve energy rather than to be as effective as possible. The slower the step rate, the more likely an initial contact is made with the rear-foot. Sub maximal speeds allow for a lazier, sloppier pattern, which accentuate the braking force and stretch out the muscles runners need to coil for loading and uncoil for toe off. FF striking is an athletic contact. It maximizes the elastic properties of the Achilles’ tendon to load and explode by utilizing the spring like capabilities of the tendon. Sprinters cannot afford to be lazy and that is why all the good one’s land on the forefoot. Even for recreational runners, we must remember, running is a sport and requires athletic alignments. Think about all other sports. What is considered the ready position? Is it on the heels or balls of the foot? It is the balls of the foot. This allows for a quicker movement or change of direction. Whether you are returning a tennis serve, a shortstop waiting for a ground ball, or rushing the quarterback as a lineman, the weight is always on the balls of the foot. For those that initiate movement from the heel, the progression of weight transfer from heel to toe must follow, thus slowing the process of accelerating and exploding.

Just Because the Majority Do, Doesn’t Make It Right!

Another point made in the article was that 70% of elite or recreational distance runners make initial contact with their heels first. Does that high number make it the ideal position? I would argue that maybe this point is a potential reason why greater than 70% of runners are injured over the course of a year. It is argued that runners should run with their “Natural”, “self-selected” form. To this point, let’s think about the golf swing as an example. If a novice golfer were to pick up a club and swing it for the first time, do you think that they would be successful with their “natural” swing? For most… NO! As runners, we never are truly taught how to run. We typically “learn” this skill ourselves early on and at first deem ourselves as being successful by not falling. Shoes have been suggested as a potential reason why heel striking has become so common in our society especially as you compare it to those regions of the world where barefoot running is much more common. The argument as to the appropriateness of barefoot running is out of the scope of this article, I just bring it up to emphasize the concept of are we truly running in our “natural form” if we’re wearing sneakers while doing it?

Could The Elite Be Even Better?

Just because a runner is elite and is a heel striker does not mean that they couldn’t be better as a FF striker. We have worked with many elite injured heel striking runners that when properly converted to a FF strike pattern became faster, report immediate pain relief, and suffer less injuries in the future. They even wonder how and why they started running like this in the first place. Once the change has successfully been made, many have an extremely difficult time in forced attempts to return to RF striking as they previously did as their norm.

So what’s the RunDNA HOT TAKE?

We are not saying that FF striking is without risk. Injuries are a result of stress exceeding tissue capacity and it is well documented that FF and RF striking stress different tissues. Whether you are attempting to run safe or run fast it is crucial to understand that most often we’re going to encourage mechanics that result in a FF strike, but that there are also more factors other than strike pattern that go into achieving either of these goals. A better question than how you land (FF vs. Heel) is where you land in relationship to the body!