Friday, September 24, 2010

The psychology of foot strike

Day 8

After a previous post on the subject of heel-toe drop in running shoes (Why do running shoes have high heels?), a dailymile user (Irv E.) who runs in the kind of "high-heeled" running shoes I was talking about, but does so with a midfoot strike made some interesting observations, and we had quite a good conversation about the heel-toe drop and achieving a midfoot or forefoot strike when running both in comments and in private messages afterward. Heel-toe drop is basically the difference in sole thickness between the heel and forefoot of a shoe.

Irv likes his running shoes, which have a typical running shoes heel-toe drop, in which he is able to run with good form a midfoot strike. Indeed, many people took up ChiRunning or Pose Technique running or simply trained themselves to run with a midfoot strike over several years before the current "minimalist" shoe marketing blitz from the the running shoe industry, and they did this in very typical running shoes with a normal heel-toe drop of about 8-11mm (about 1/4-3/8").

Then, along came the barefoot running movement, and it's proponents pointed out that running barefoot naturally leads people to some adjustment in their running form, starting with a forefoot strike (landing on the ball of the foot). The reason for this is quite simple, though what psychologists would call classical conditioning through negative reinforcement. That is, it hurts to land on your heel when you run barefoot, and the pain serves as a penalty or punishment of this "undesirable" behavior, and thus teaching us to land on  our forefoot to avoid the punishment.

Given his own experience with midfoot striking in more or less traditional modern running shoes, with their higher heel-toe drop, and possibly the observation that many runners manage a midfoot and even forefoot strike in similar shoes, leads Irv E. to question the implication that punishing ourselves with heel pain is necessary to learn not to heel strike. I had not considered this carefully before, but I believe Irv E. is correct. There is definitely a sense from a lot of folks in the minimalist shoe movement, including some barefoot running proponents, who seem to imply that suffering a penalty for heel striking is the best way (maybe 'only' real way according to some), to achieve a forefoot strike.

To be sure, there are many other reasons to go minimalist (or barefoot) than simply to achieving a forefoot strike, but runners have seized on the foot strike as the holy grail in efficient/injury-free running form today, in no small part because of a marketing blitze by proponents of barefoot running and various branded running "forms." As I have pointed out before, this serves to distract runners to some extent from the fact that in running there is a role for almost every major part of our body to play, and causes us to focus on one narrow component of running form. I still maintain that if you change only which part of your foot is contacting the ground first on each stride, you probably aren't really doing much to improve your form overall. Optimal running form (as much as we can approach it), requires other adjustments. Some of those adjustments follow naturally from foot strike, like a reduced tendency to "overstride" or fully extend the leading leg in front of us on each stride, but some don't (good hip extension, good posture, stability in the hips and core).

Personally, I like to run in shoes that could be classified as minimalist in the sense that they have a low heel-toe drop (about 4 mm). My current preference is to run in cross country flats, in fact. I have come to appreciate the flexibility in these shoes and with less heel protruding under my foot, I find it much easier to reliably achieve a forefoot strike in them, than in my more traditional lightweight trainers (10mm drop), where I tend to midfoot strike, which is still find by me. The flats have enough cushioning in the midsole that I could even heel strike in them without suffering any pain. The structure of the sole simply makes it easier to achieve a midfoot or forefoot strike. Indeed, after using them for awhile, I can sense that it has also become easier to achieve the same in shoes with a greater heel-toe drop now as well.

Indeed, I've not made a concerted effort to run barefoot, so what I have achieved I have achieved completely without the negative reinforcement from battering my bare heel on the ground. So, my experience suggests that such punishment simply isn't necessary if your goal is to modify foot strike or running form in general.

Beyond this, however, there still may be valid reasons to go minimalist, or even barefoot. The more flexible soles (or no soles), for example, may allow our feet to flex and bend more on uneven ground, which may strengthen them and make us better runners. Strengthening the bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles in our feet and legs may well help reduce our risks of injury and various overuse syndromes that runners are susceptible to. If we are not somewhat careful in how we proceed, however, it may also make us more susceptible to a range of new injuries, at least at first. We have learned with our cushioned, protective running shoes that we can ignore our feet and where we place them with each step,  but running barefoot, or in minimal shoes may require us to be more aware of the ground in front of us to avoid some of these injuries.

Personally, I think anything that makes us more fully aware of our running is good, within reason.

The truth about all of this is that, like anything we have to practice to get just right, like playing a hard song on a guitar, or getting a dance move just right, etc., we can change and improve our running form through repeated conscious effort (practice). We just need to be reasonable in our expectations and sensible in our form goals.



  1. Interesting article, and a good digest of our back-and-forth discussion. One minor point - I don't really claim to have good running form; rather my form is improving. I always look at anyone's self-assertion about running form without outside evaluation as suspect. So, how do I even know my own form is improving? Well, I went from running with a cadence of 75 (I use a Garmin foot pod to measure) to a natural cadence of 90+. I went from completely wearing out the outsole at the heel of any running shoe in less than 100 miles (literally!)to having shoes that show absolutely no wear at the end of the heel and most wear at the rear of the forefoot after 300 miles.

    I'm just writing this to short-circuit the obvious objection that it can be deceiving to evaluate one's own running form without outside observation.


  2. Thanks for reading and calling my attention to my overstatement, Irv. No intentional misrepresentation there. I made a slight strikethrough and revision that I think is a more accurate paraphrase of your comments. Cheers.

  3. Mark,

    Great post! I can say honestly that pain was never a motivator for me in my transition to a midfoot stride - I used mostly a step down approach to less and less shoe. I'm a firm believer that the heel gets in the way, and that the simple geometry of a shoe with a typical 12mm heel lift exacerbates a heel strike. Can you midfoot in these shoes? Yes. Is it going to be easy? No.

    One thing to consider - a midfoot or forefoot striker in a 12mm lifted shoe is not going to experience the same amount of calf and Achilles stretch, and may lose out on a bit of elastic recoil.


  4. Thanks for the comment, Pete. Elastic recoil was definitely a concern for me when I began the months long journey to a midfoot/forefoot strike, because I am have very performance driven goals. I have a friend in my running club who is an older runner, however, whose goal is just to keep running for as long as he can, so I think a midfoot strike in his preferred high-heeled running shoe is probably sufficient for him. Should he ever decide he wants to set a Grand Master Record in the 5K, he might need to consider taking his foot strike to the next level, however! :)


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