Running technique: which foot strike is best?

2. October 2018

Landing on the forefoot, midfoot, or heel? There are frequent debates among passionate runners about which foot strike is the best, quickest and healthiest. Here is an overview of the respective advantages and disadvantages.

Anyone attentively watching the amateur runners at one of the many major Swiss running events will realise two things: firstly, it is hard to believe how many different running styles pass by and, secondly, it is evident that the majority of runners land on their heels. Is the majority right?

When it comes to running style, there is no clear answer to this question because a person’s running style is as unique as their finger print. While there are certainly factors that can make a running style efficient or even inefficient, the overall best, healthiest, or fastest running style does not exist. Choosing the appropriate running style also depends on which surfaces and what distances you run. In general, the following applies: if you have been running in the same way on a regular basis and for a long time and haven’t experienced any complaints, there is no real reason to completely change your running style.

Adding variation to your running style, however, always makes sense because versatility matters in sports. The foot strike in particular is a topic of concern to many runners. Many of us don’t always run in the same way during a varied training program. When running uphill, we automatically land on the balls of the feet, and running downhill, on the heels to better cushion the step. And with an increase in tempo on the straights, many run with a midfoot or even forefoot strike. One thing is clear: if you want to run short distances really fast, then you need to land on the midfoot or forefoot and not on the heel, as can be seen in a 100-metre sprint. Incorporating fast running sections into your training automatically trains your running style. But let us look more closely at the advantages and disadvantages of the different foot strikes:

Heel running

With heel running, your heel strikes the ground first, the forefoot is raised, and the front shin muscles and toe extensors need to do a great deal of work. Since the foot rolls from the heel right to the forefoot, it takes a while before the foot pushes off from the ground. Thus, the ground contact time is extended and you automatically run slower.

Advantages:

  • Very easy to implement during long periods of exertion, downhill runs, or for heavy runners with well-cushioned heels.
  • Gentle running form with a high step frequency and good body posture.

Disadvantages:

  • A braking effect occurs with each foot strike if the foot does not land close to the body's centre of gravity.
  • Increases the risk of a “sitting” running posture with too little tension in the core muscles.
  • With excessive heel striking or a step frequency that is too slow, you run the risk of overloading the shin muscles or knee joints (the forefoot is also actively pulled upwards).
  • There is the risk of developing overpronation (which means the foot rolls too heavily inwards during the stance phase) if you have poorly trained foot muscles.
  • Can cause discomfort in the back if the foot strikes too far in front of the body and the shoe provides too little cushioning.

Midfoot running

If you land on the widest part of your foot first, you are a midfoot runner. Since the calves and shin muscles do around the same amount of work, this is ideal for long-distance running.

Advantages:

  • Good ratio for the load on the lower leg muscles.
  • Stabilises the ankle muscles so there is less risk of overpronation.

Disadvantages:

  • Needs to be practiced - you need to build up your calf and foot muscles.
  • A good compromise, but not a panacea for complaints or for improving performance.

Forefoot running

The outer side of the forefoot strikes the ground first, the calf muscles are preloaded and immediately help you to push off powerfully again. The ground contact time is very short. This technique is ideal for a fast pace and feels quite natural when running uphill.

Advantages:

  • Easy to implement at high tempos such as sprints or sprint runs, when doing jumps or running uphill.
  • Short ground contact time, which allows for maximum speeds.
  • Enables you to achieve a high step frequency.
  • There is no risk of developing overpronation.

Disadvantages:

  • There is a high risk of overloading the calf muscles.
  • A common cause of Achilles tendon complaints.
  • Requires well-trained core and calf muscles.
  • Can only actually be used for short distances.

Conclusion: everyone needs to find out for themselves which foot strike suits them best. Clever runners - depending on the terrain - can master all forms. Or they adapt their strike to the distance, speed, as well as their level of tiredness, constitution, and talent. This is the best way to protect against overloading complaints.

It should not be forgotten that each foot strike has an upward effect on the entire motion sequence. Conversely, the arm movements directly affect the legs. The arms provide momentum and the basis for a high frequency and optimise the running style. Specific arm training from time to time is therefore highly recommended (for example, run slightly uphill for a while and make sure your arms are active or consciously increase your step frequency with the help of the arms). Comprehensive running training also includes rope jumping, technique exercises (ABC running drills, barefoot running) or even step frequency training (for example, run at a certain frequency for one minute and then vary this frequency), and will help to achieve a strong push-off and short ground contact time. This in turn makes you fast.

The more you play with and automatically apply the different running styles, the better you will run. However, a complete and constant change in running style only makes sense if you amass complaints or want or need exposure to new stimuli.