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Beware of ‘footstrike’ studies focusing on only one variable

By Staff | Feb 22, 2013

So a recent study of less than 40 African tribesman shows that most land on their heels while running at a slow pace on a compliant surface (not pavement), and when they speed up most change their pattern to midfoot. Some media is grabbing onto this small sample and somehow making the following “conclusions”

Barefoot running is not a good thingthe fad is over

This supports cushioned shoes with elevated heels

Let’s see now, they were running barefoot and people land in different ways and as you speed up you get more forward on your foot. Not surprising as anyone who runs, coaches, researches, or even observes runners knows . There was absolutely no reference or relevance to injuries or footwear effects in this article. These happy tribesman were jogging slowly in their bare feet as they do daily, and I doubt any of them had or ever will have running injuries. They were active tribal people (not habitual runners) running at a jogging pace.

This study reinforces what many of us in the Running Medicine field have been voicing for a long time. People are focusing on one variable and most often it is footwear or what part of your foot hits the ground first, and ignoring the other 90% of the equation. Runners get hurt by running. Most often by running too much, too fast, and often with poor strength and movement mechanics. Humans are also highly variable and it is doubtful any of us does or should land in the same way every time, on every surface , and at every speed.

No one of credibility in the field is telling runners to land on their forefoot or ball of foot in isolation nor suggesting for folks to chuck their shoes. What is interesting in studies is they rarely agree on what a forefoot or midfoot strike actually is. A true forefoot strike is probably along the base of the 5th metatarsal (outside edge of foot), not the ball of the foot or metatarsal heads.

As an often barefoot runner I land different on different surfaces at different speeds. Soft golf course and easy pace- roll nicely from the heel. Running fast on concrete- need to engage the foot more as shock absorber and to prestretch the takeoff muscle contraction.

Remember the key is running elastic , landing close to your center of mass, and engaging the posterior muscles (glutes). I still stand behind what we filmed here as the Principles of Natural Running (view on www.naturalrunningcenter.com). No where do we say that runners should aim to land on the ball of the foot.

Running barefoot in itself will not change most of the other variables contributing to poor form and injury, but is does have a role in the relearning process. See our Stability and Mobility section for where the real improvements occur and do lots of progressive drills to rewire the movement pattern.

Another finding reinforcing what we know is that as the runners ran faster, they landed on their forefoot more often. This is normal and necessary. Everyone’s form changes when they go from 9:00/mile to 5:00/mile. As one moves faster it is efficient to eccentrically stretch the calf to load the Achilles spring. This is like jumping.load, trigger, fire. Instructing an 9:00/mile runner to emulate the 5:00/mile biomechanics is short sighted and one should not suggest it.

My take home messages from this study that may help you:

Do not focus on footstrike in isolation

Gradually increase cadence (step count per minute)

Mix it up.surfaces, shoes, barefoot.

Use your glutes and extend the hips from a stable core

Watching a barefoot runner land on their heel does NOT mean that we were not born to run barefoot or that shoes need a cushioned heel.

Have fun!

And now for something extra. In a new, superbly crafted video, we watch West Virginia High School Senior Jacob Burcham train for a sub-4 mile. If Burcham succeeds in his quest, he joins only a handful of other U.S. teen runners. West Virginia filmmaker Joel Wolpert follows Burcham as he prepares for his final season of high school track. He ended 2012 with a 4:02.73. His coach says in the video, “West Virginia is not a state with a reputation for fast runners, but speed doesn’t care about stereotypes.”

You can view the video at www.naturalrunningcenter.com . Scroll down to “Video: Training for a Sub 4 Mile”.