Sometimes less equals more, even when it comes to running shoes. Studies have shown that the footwear that someone wears can influence the gait the individual uses.
In recent years, a significant shift has occurred in the sport shoe, and in particular, running shoe industry. Almost all companies are jumping on the minimalist movement. Vibram and its Five Fingered shoe series was among the first companies to provide a barefoot like feel with the protection of a firm rubber sole.
The belief until recently was that a bare foot was superior to a minimalist shoe. A study published in a recent issue of Runner’s World magazine showed this not to be the case! Experienced runners with both barefoot technique and normal running shoes were more economical with lightweight shoes!
Another longtime advocate of the forefoot strike was the Newton shoe company, which enhances the forefoot area and keeps the heel region normal to low. Other shoe companies have now minimized the heel to forefoot rise. It seems that the thicker the heel padding, the more it encourages a heel strike gait. Oddly enough, the running shoes of yesteryear were like this. They were lightweight, with minimal heel padding relative to the forefoot and they used stiff EVA midsoles. The more things change the more they stay the same. So, what is wrong with heel striking?
The Good and Bad of Heel Striking
There are two major problems with heel striking. First, as you strike on your heel the majority of your body weight is in back of the foot. Thus, if you stopped all motion and momentum at the exact time point of the heel strike, you would fall backward. However, if you stopped all motion and momentum with the forefoot strike done correctly, you would fall forward or stay upright. Thus, there is a temporary retarding action or braking force on the heel strike. The plus side of heel striking is means temporary rest while the body’s momentum carries you forward over the midpoint and the other leg takes over with propulsive force. The second and biggest negative is the joint forces experienced by the ankle, knee, hip and lower back. The heel striker typically hits with a straight leg, like a stilt. The stiffer each joint is, the greater the impact and the more force passed up the kinetic chain (the joint above it). So, if you strike with a stiff ankle and knee joint, then more force is passed to the hip and lower back. Many runners, despite having very padded heels and stable shoes, experience these problems.
The best stride is a mid-foot strike with the heel kissing slapping the ground. The foot should be directly under the body at ground contact, the knees slightly bent, and a slight lean forward. The cadence should be a walloping 180 steps/minute. To find out if you or your client is on target, count with one foot for 20 seconds. The count should be 30. This may seem fast at first but it will be natural with practice. The cadence being so high minimizes hang time and forces the stride to be shortened to an optimal length.
It is not easy to each an old dog new tricks, and many of us have been running since we were about 2 years old! For someone to change what he or she has been doing for so long is tough, to say the least. So, here are a few drills to help you make the transition.
Running hills forces you to shorten your stride, move forward to a mid-foot or forefoot strike, lean forward, keep the head looking forward, lift the knees and strengthen the calves. These are all great things for good form running.
If you can get a rubber resistance band, you can put it around the waist of your client or student and have them lean forward, shorten the stride, dig the balls of their feet in and raise the knees. If you are holding the handles, make sure you let them have some play, but don’t make it too hard. It is basically recreating a hill on level ground. High knee running in place. This overemphasizes the hip flexors and focuses the person on landing on the balls of the feet and taking off with a high knee.
This move requires you to run in place or forward and try to get your heels to reach your buttocks by overemphasizing the backswing of the lower leg. This trains the pull back that is desired with good form running. The hamstrings must be engaged to get this strong pull back. This also teaches the body to land on the forefoot or mid-foot.
In conclusion, the shift of the running world toward a midfoot strike and toward less impact forces is a good thing. The shoe industry is, for the most part, embracing this change, but it is likely many runners will not, simply because performance is not the primary goal of many runners. However, avoiding injury is high on the list of almost all runners. Running is probably the easiest, and most effective way to get in good cardiovascular shape, avoid major diseases, look great and feel great mentally. If a true, long-term runner has to stop running, he or she often stops doing cardio altogether. Directing people toward this more natural running gait is a difficult task, but one that will pay big dividends in the end.
About the Author
Mark P. Kelly has a doctorate in Exercise Physiology and Education Administration, he has specialties in kinesiology, exercise and nutritional biochemistry, weight management, and endurance athletic physiology. He was a nationally ranked duathlete, body building contest winner, trainer of professional athletes, and personal trainer for 20 years. He is a primary writer for the NFPT certification programs, a teacher in universities, and runs Principle Centered Health Human Performance Services, which specializes in assessments and corporate wellness. He can be reached at www.principlecenteredhealth.net or [email protected].