Born to Heel Strike?

Nicholas J. Perri MA, NASM-PES

I have never understood the fascination to run barefoot or with a minimalist shoe such as the Vibram FiveFinger, I have been running for fitness and sport since I was 16. I’m approaching 43 years of age and have never had a debilitating injury due to my running form or the shoes I wear. With that said, I’ve been wearing Brooks since 2001…the Axiom, Adrenaline, Ravenna and now the Ghost…all with slightly varying degrees of support and cushion. At the age of 40 I PR’d in the 5k with a time of 17:56 and I’m as fast now as I’ve ever been. So why would I question my running form or the type of shoe I wear? It has never even crossed my mind. But that is not the case for some.

In 2009, Born to Run became a best selling book and was the catalyst for a debate that has only grown stronger in the five years since it’s release. The focus of the book is on an Indian tribe known as the Tarahumara from the Mexican Copper Canyons. Their ability to run ultra distances at great speeds, while wearing a pair of thin sandals, without injury is well documented in Christoper McDougall’s best seller. The Tarahumara run with a forefoot strike, as opposed to the more commonly used style of running which involves a heel strike. As a result, some runners have begun to ditch their traditional running shoes in favor of a minimalist shoe, sandal (in some cases) or no shoe at all. Maybe in order to avoid injury, which were the claims made by shoe manufacturers such as Vibram FiveFinger… Maybe to increase speed…? Or maybe just to change to a style of running they thought may feel more natural and beneficial to them. Whatever the reason may be, it hasn’t always worked out in their favor. 


In a study published last June in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers found that there is no escape from the potential for injury regardless of your stride. This is an excerpt from a New York Times article discussing this study:

In essence, the findings show that you can’t escape the cumulative impact of running, however you stride, said Juha-Pekka Kulmala, a Ph.D. student, now at the University of Jyvaskyla, who led the study. Hit with your heels and you stress your knee, possibly leading to conditions such as patellofemoral stress syndrome. Strike near the ball of your foot and you’ll jolt your ankle and Achilles’ tendon, potentially increasing the risk of such injuries as Achilles’ tendinopathy, plantar fasciitis, and stress fractures of the foot.

There is, in other words, no one invariably right and painless way to run.

In other words, if what you’re doing is working for you, don’t mess with it. I have never had a problem with my cushioned shoes and my heel strike so I have no reason to even consider a minimal shoe or altering my stride, no matter how much someone insists a forefoot strike is the “best” way to run. And if you are experiencing running related injuries, your first response shouldn’t be to change shoes and your stride. The underlying issues may be due to muscle tightness, muscle weakness or past injuries, which all can lead to compensations and altered gait mechanics.


So you run with a forefoot or midfoot stride because you want to be faster? Well…a recent study in the aforementioned journal found that “runners landing on the backs of their feet were more efficient than the biomechanically similar midfoot and forefoot strides.”

The following is an excerpt from an article discussing the greater efficiency of the heel striker over the forefoot or midfoot striker:

A key difference for Ogueta-Alday’s study is that both types of runners were tested in real world conditions, at equal speeds that are more relatable for average racers: 8:47, 7:26, and 6:26 minutes per mile. At the higher and lower speed, the heel-strikers were 5 percent and 5.4 percent more efficient, and then 9.3 percent better at the middle pace.

The researcher added that “running sub-5-minute miles or faster was likely more efficient with a midfoot stride.” Not too surprising and not anything most of us ever have to worry about unless we are sprinting. And I don’t know about you but I just naturally go to a forefoot to midfoot strike when i’m sprinting.

And the most startling data that was found:

“With the cost of energy that a forefoot [subject] needed to run, at a fixed speed, they could be running 1 km/h faster,” says Ogueta-Alday. That’s the equivalent of dropping from a 7:30 minute mile pace to 7:00 flat.

Enough said!


The argument that I always hear in favor of forefoot or midfoot running is that it is the natural way for us to run if we were barefoot. Again, a debate that was mostly fueled by the book Born to Run and it’s focus on the Tarahumara Indian tribe. In January of 2013, a study was published that focused on the Daasanach…a pastoral tribe living in a remote section of northern Kenya. They have no tradition of competitive running but they are physically active and have no tradition of wearing shoes. During this study, researchers found that 72% of the Daasanach volunteers struck with their heels first while running at an 8 minutes per mile pace…demonstrating that an argument can be made that running with a heel strike as opposed to a midfoot or forefoot strike may be a more natural way to run…at least at more relatable speeds.

The bottom line is, if it’s not broke…don’t fix it! If you’re a heel striker who is relatively injury free, keep striking with that heel…unless you plan on running a 100 meter sprint. In that case, you’re body’s natural tendency will take over and you will run with a forefoot strike…just as most sprinters do. If you’ve already altered your stride and are happy with the results, then just go with what works. If, however, you are just constantly trading one injury for another, you are not addressing the root of the problem. Compensations due to muscle imbalances and past injuries can lead to altered gait mechanics, and no shoe or forced change in your stride will fix that.

Train hard! Train smart! Outlast!


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