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Heel Touch vs. Heel Load

“Oh no, my MilestonePod says I’m a heel striker. That’s bad!” Not so fast…

by Stephen Suydam, PhD.

Foot strike became a hot topic in the running industry a decade ago, and the discussion around the best strike pattern has not faded over time.  Though foot strike has never been directly correlated to injury, some runners equate heel striking to being a “bad” runner.  We hear a lot of runners swear they do not land on their heel and say “I have been training to land on my mid-foot, so there is no way I am a heel striker.”

First, what exactly is a foot strike? A foot strike is determined by where the foot make its initial contact with the running surface.  A foot strike does not necessarily equate to where the force of your body weight is being applied to the ground. A better word for “strike” could actually be “touch.” It is very possible to be a “heel striker” but actually load your weight on the mid-foot. This would mean you are a “heel toucher” but not a “heel loader.”

Heel loading leads to a situation known as over-striding, and this is where you can run into trouble. Over-striding often produces that dreaded “mini-braking effect” on every stride, reducing efficiency.  It also increases the rate of impact, which increases the risk of injury (especially tibial stress fractures).

Let’s look at two real-life examples. In both examples, the blue icon pinpoints the runner’s center of mass. The red line, which is perfectly horizontal, indicates the center of mass at heel contact. The dotted white line indicates the vertical alignment of the knee to the ground (where the foot is in relation to the knee).

Example A image jpg

Example A: Heel touch and mid-foot load. In image 1, you can see the heel touch the ground with the knee slightly bent. However, weight is not being loaded onto the leg at this point. Peak impact typically occurs when the center of gravity is at its lowest point. Notice in image 2, the runner’s center of mass continues toward the ground and the leg is being loaded as the stride progresses.  The “loading” does not start until the knee is over the foot, and does not finish until the foot is almost under the hips (image 3).  This runner is not increasing risk of injury by over-striding.

Example B image jpg

Example B: Heel touch and heel load. In the first image, you can see the knee is almost straight and the foot is very far ahead of the knee.  In image 2 and 3, the foam of the shoe is compressing, the knee is remaining stiff, and the center of mass is not moving.  This shows the body weight is beginning to load the leg, but the foot is still in front of knee, indicating this runner is “heel loading” or over-striding.

Where you make contact with your foot is not nearly as important as where your foot is loaded in relation to your body.  Focus on landing over your foot and you should feel the results of a softer impact. Remember, heel striking is not a bad thing, but “heel loading” should be avoided.

This is post #4 in a mini-series entitled: “Because How You Run Matters.”

Author: Steve Suydam

Steve is a PhD and Director of Research at Milestone Sports. He can be reached at steve@milestonepod.com.