Beware of Footstrike Studies Focusing on Only One Variable

A recent study of less than 40 East African tribesman showed that most  land on their heels while running at a slow pace on a compliant surface (not pavement) and when they sped up most changed their pattern to midfoot landing.  Some in the media then grabbed onto this small sample and somehow arrived at the following “conclusions”:

•    Barefoot running is not a good thing…the fad is over
•    This supports cushioned running shoes with elevated heels

The study looked at the Daasanach are a pastoral tribe living in a remote section of northern Kenya. According to the New York Times, “Unlike some Kenyan tribes, the Daasanach have no tradition of competitive distance running, although they are physically active. They also have no tradition of wearing shoes.”

The study looked at the Daasanach who are a pastoral tribe living in a remote section of northern Kenya. According to the New York Times, “Unlike some Kenyan tribes, the Daasanach have no tradition of competitive distance running, although they are physically active. They also have no tradition of wearing shoes.”

Let’s see now, the African subjects were running barefoot; but 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 study. 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 professional 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. On soft golf courses and easy pace, I roll nicely from the heel.  Running fast on concrete, I 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. Not 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 it does have a role in the relearning process.

See our Stability and Mobility section on the Natural Running Center, and notice 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.

Screen shot 2013-02-08 at 11.45.24 AM

Men’s Race at the USA Track and Field 2013 XC Championships

Everyone’s form changes when they go from 9:00 per mile to 5:00 per mile. As one moves faster it is efficient to eccentrically stretch the triceps surae the 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 personal take-home messages from this recent study of African tribesman and the “barefoot” attention that resulted from it is as follows:

•    Do not focus on footstrike in isolation
•    Gradually increase cadence
•    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!

4 Responses to “Beware of Footstrike Studies Focusing on Only One Variable”

  1. Cody R. says:

    i’m sure they were “heel striking” differently than what we are familiar with

    landing out in front is totally different than landing under your center of gravity

  2. Charles Stubin says:

    Dr. Mark-
    As usual, and excellent discussion, like the clarity of the sun breaking through the clouds on a rainy day. Let he who has ears to hear listen!

  3. Frank says:

    Heel strike is a vague term. The way overstriders heel strike is different from the way those who don’t overstride heel strike. With proper form — landing under your body — the heel strike promotes a rolling motion of your foot, as in walking, which is probably the way foot is designed to work. How you heel strike is important.

    It’s hard to dispute the fact that the heel is, by far, the largest bone in the foot. If we are indeed “born to run” then the heel has obviously evolved to take much of the stresses of running (and walking, and standing). A heel strike shouldn’t be considered “the bogeyman” by this new craze for “natural” running.

    It depends on speed. You heel strike when you walk. You land on the forefoot when you sprint. And in between you modulate the foot strike according to the terrain, your fatigue level, etc.

  4. Matt says:

    As a long time barefoot runner (but required to wear shoes, VFF KSOs, at the gym for winter running workouts on the treadmill), all I have to do is listed to the noise made while my foot strikes compared to others who slam their padded heels into the belt. As I’ve developed my walking stride to adapt to the supportless, padless shoes, even my heel lands more quietly while walking fast/jogging slow.

    After I read this article and walked around a little and jogged around the block to really drive your point home! I finally realized I was landing directly under my center of gravity, and that’s why I seem to feel less impact! I always thought it was about my “shock absorption” landing style where I land near the outside of the foot and roll onto my arch.

    Thanks for this writeup. Very informative, even for a guy like me who transitioned to barefoot running years ago in response to constant shin splits and knee/hip pain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *