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A few weeks back, this blog ran a feature on running form and how to improve it. It included the oft-repeated advice about avoiding overstriding, which “causes the foot to land too far in front of the knee and encourages heel striking – and increases injury risk”. A reader commented that they’d “like to see a blog on whether heel striking really is a bad thing”, which spurred me to investigate.
Anyone who has read Chris McDougall’s Born to Run will know that the “heel striking is bad” message was writ large. After all, goes the theory, if we were barefoot, and our feet and bodies were not ravaged by years of misuse and disuse, we would run on our forefeet like the Tarahumara Indians. After years of running being about putting one foot in front of the other, form was suddenly everything – and heel striking was the benchmark of poor form.
I didn’t need convincing when McDougall’s book came out. I’d already switched from heel to forefoot striking a few years before, motivated and inspired by numerous coaches and experts I’d encountered in my work as a journalist writing about running. One of the first was Julian Goater,former athlete and now a coach and author. When he first told me to get off my heels, on a running camp in Lanzarote in the 1990s, I thought he was barking mad. But a few years later, I met Malcolm Balk, running coach and Alexander technique teacher, and barefoot aficionado John Woodward, who convinced me that heel striking was inefficient – due to higher braking forces – and hazardous, because the “lump of bone” which is the heel is not designed to accept two to three times body weight – the level of force associated with running.
It took a couple of years before video playback of me running matched what I imagined to be happening. Now, a forefoot strike is second nature to me and I feel like a better runner as a result. Like many coaches, I’ve gone on to encourage others to work on improving their running form – and eliminating a heel strike has been part of that. But recently, I’ve begun to feel a little like someone who was converted to a religion by zealots who have now forsworn their faith – because there’s been a distinct shift away from the “heel striking is evil” preaching of the past few years.