All About Footstrike

Footstrike is the position that your foot first strikes the ground as you run. A footprint is the mark on the ground that you leave behind. Each footprint is like your signature as a runner. Do you run on your toes? Do you run heel to toe? Do you run flat-footed? The way your foot makes contact with the ground is very important.

If your foot does not properly control your landing, then some corrections need to be made. These corrections may include being fitted for the proper shoes to match the biomechanical needs of your foot or maybe adding an orthotic or arch support to your shoes.

Fact

Short- and middle-distance runners naturally first strike the ground with their forefoot or midfoot. Long-distance and beginning runners wearing heavy, cushioned, high-heeled running shoes develop a heel-strike form. Experts in the field are examining whether heel striking for long-distance runners should be replaced by midfoot striking. At this writing, there is no evidence to support the premise that heel-striking leads to fewer injuries; in fact, just the opposite may be true.

Mechanics of the Foot

There are three basic types of footstrikes: normal/neutral, overpronated, and supinated (also called underpronated). In the normal, or neutral, footstrike, the foot rolls slightly inward as it strikes. Your foot flattens out as it makes full contact with the ground, then rolls inward as your body passes over your foot. This inward roll of your foot while running, called pronation, is actually a good thing, since it absorbs some of the force placed on the leg during normal running. Following normal pronation, your foot will naturally resupinate (roll outward) to allow the foot to form a rigid lever for push-off.

Only about 25 percent of the population pronates normally, however, leaving the rest to figure out how to compensate. Overpronation occurs when the foot rolls inward excessively and does not resupinate in time for push-off. When the foot is overpronated, the push-off occurs from the big toe and not evenly across the toes as it should.

Overpronation is oftentimes seen in those who have flat feet or in those with poor motor control of their feet while running. Running shoe models designed and constructed with motion control or stability features help reduce the degree of overpronation. This in turn helps prevent a wide array of overuse injuries that can occur if overpronation is left unchecked.

Supination, or underpronation, also occurs when the outside of the heel makes initial contact with the ground. The foot of the supinator fails to roll inward enough as the body passes over the foot, resulting in the outside of the foot taking too much of the load, and push-off being done by the smaller toes. Characteristic of runners with high, rigid arches, supination minimizes the ability of the foot—and, in turn, the legs—to absorb shock, which can lead to injury.

Which foot type are you?

Give yourself a footprint test to determine this. While barefoot, put a piece of cardboard on the floor, wet the bottom of your foot, and press firmly with a solid walking motion on the cardboard to leave an impression of the bottom of your foot in motion. If your footprint appears flat and shows almost your entire foot, you are probably an overpronator. If your footprint shows little or no connecting band between your heel and the ball of your foot, you probably have high arches and may be a supinator (underpronator).

To counteract supination, runners with this type of footstrike should wear running shoes that are well-cushioned and flexible. It's important to know whether you are a normal pronator, an overpronator, or a supinator before you buy your running shoes so that you can get a pair that helps compensate appropriately.

Some experts believe that the issue of excessive pronation or supination can be minimized or eliminated altogether by incorporating a midfoot strike pattern. This belief is what fuels the barefoot and minimalist shoes running movement. Studies are ongoing.

The Toes' Role in Footstrike

Regardless of what kind of footstrike you have, you need to keep in mind your toes. Sometimes, especially when you are tired, your feet don't always point forward when you run. If it is not totally awkward for you, try to run with your toes pointed forward. Doing so will result in greater efficiency, which in turn enables you to run faster and farther with the same cardiovascular effort.

Running with your foot turned out will cause you to push off with your big toe, which is poor biomechanically and puts excessive stress on your big toe and forefoot. In short, toes and feet that aren't pointed in the right direction result in wasted and inefficient motion and can result in injury.

Of course, this advice is intended for those who need to adjust faulty technique in order to improve their form to reduce their chances of injury. Some runners are not built in such a way that allows them to have a “perfect” footfall. For them, a forced effort to run a certain way can actually create a problem worse than poor running form.

Essential

Go for a run paying particular attention to your footstrike. Have a friend videotape you running. Watching yourself run allows you to see your running style and may show some obvious form flaws that you can correct, which will make you a more efficient runner.

Flat, Heel, and Toe Footstrikes

Many beginners run with a flat footstrike, characterized by landing on a flat foot and having little or no push-off. This isn't particularly bad or wrong. If this is the way you run, especially in the beginning, don't change it. Run naturally. To improve your speed and overall efficiency, however, you will eventually need to make some adjustments to your footstrike and push-off.

The heel-strike pattern is the most common footstrike of runners (approximately 80 percent of all runners heel-strike). With a heel-strike, at the initial contact with the ground your heel lands first, then you roll along the outer border of your foot until your midfoot makes contact with the ground. Finally, your toes make contact with the ground as your heel lifts up, and your foot lifts off the ground. If this is how you run, you may or may not want to change this, at least not when you first begin a running program. It is a very normal and natural footstrike that most runners who wear the modern high-heeled running shoes will adopt.

The heel-strike technique is perfectly fine for longer, slower running. However, as with the flat footstrike, to gain the speed and efficiency that shorter runs and races require, you should adopt the midfoot strike footprint.

Many beginners slap their feet on the ground when they run, creating too hard a footfall. Your foot should land gently on the ground if you are a heel-striker. If your feet are slapping the ground and making an audible noise when you run, you need to make a serious change. Land gently on each foot and lift each foot gently off the ground.

Another type of footstrike pattern is the toe-strike. This is a footstrike in which only your toes and forefoot make initial contact with the ground. This is a sprinting technique and is not appropriate for distance running. Therefore, unless you are a sprinter, don't purposely run on your toes.

Fact

In an attempt to improve their speed, many beginning runners compensate by employing either the heel or toe footstrike method. Over time, both methods increase the wear and tear on one's legs, so you may be best off running with a midfoot strike.

Heel-Ball and Ball-Heel-Toe Footstrikes

The method of footstrike most commonly adopted by the beginner, intermediate, and heavier runner is the heel-ball strike. (For the purpose of this discussion, the ball of your foot is the area that starts behind the base of your big toe and goes across the bottom of your foot to your smallest toe.) Although in the heel-ball footstrike the heel strikes first, the ball of the foot quickly follows. This footstrike allows for impact to be absorbed first by the cushioned heel of the shoe, then by your foot and leg.

A better footstrike technique is the ball-heel-toe strike, better known as the midfoot strike. When you midfoot-strike, you land on the outside edge of the midfoot, bring your foot down so your heel touches the ground, and then roll back up to push off with your big toe. This technique is used more often by advanced runners than by beginners.

Because beginners are still in the process of developing strength in their feet and calves, they may develop muscle soreness and possibly increase their risk of injury by employing this footstrike style. The midfoot strike is appropriate to use when you can average less than 7 minutes per mile running pace.

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