The debate continues! Heel striking isn’t a new thing, and doesn’t owe its existence to modern running shoes.
Even though 95 percent of runners instinctively strike the ground with their heels, there is a growing trend among running experts to have lifelong heel strikers convert to a more forward contact point. The switch to a mid and/or forefoot strike pattern is supposed to reduce impact loads and enhance the storage and return of energy in our tendons (making us faster and more efficient, as demonstrated in the illustration above). The theory is that because we’ve had our feet protected by shoes for so long, we’ve recklessly started landing on our heels because we could no longer sense the dangerous impact forces associated with heel striking. By reverting to a more natural midfoot strike, we will avoid injury and run more efficiently.
Intuitively, it makes sense that a heel strike would act as a braking force more than a forefoot/midfoot strike would. But surprisingly, the opposite is actually true. Force platform data from natural heel strikers and natural FF/MF strikers consistently showed zero forward braking force on heel strike, but a large forward braking force on FF/MF strike.
Upon further analysis of joint motion, they discovered why: with a heel strike, the ankle is plantarflexing (toes coming down relative to the shin). This allows the ankle joint itself (and therefore the rest of the body) to continue moving forward relative to the ground as the foot comes down to the ground. With toe strike, the ankle is dorsiflexing (toes coming up towards the shin) upon strike. This causes the ankle joint to move backwards relative to the ground, producing a large momentary braking force and presumably a large bending moment through the tibia and fibula.
Try those two movements yourself and you can replicate Dr. Michaud’s findings. First, pull your toes all the way back and plant your heel on the ground. Now let your toes come down. Your leg will be a few centimeters further forward than when you started. This is because of the combined effect of the radius of the heel itself and the lever arm from your heel to your ankle. Now do the opposite. Point your toes down all the way, then place the ball/toes on the ground. Now let the heel come down. Your leg will now be a few centimeters back from its starting position. Cool, huh?
Now there is a situation where both heel strike and FF/MF strike will cause braking, and this is overstride. If you throw your leg too far out in front of you before touching down, any strike type will cause a jarring braking force (but FF/MF will always be more). This is a really common error among runners and can lead to all kinds of injuries.
If you’re considering switching, what advice will help depends on what is wrong and it could be any of a million things. I would suggest finding a coach or trainer who can figure out what the problem is and recommend a plan to fix it. Sometimes you can find running groups that offer coaching and group runs for all levels; try asking at your local running shop if they can point you to one. And if it ain’t broke…