Why a majority of runners, even among international elites, are heel strikers?

Phobia of heel striking is starting to reach runners who, seeing themselves in action on pictures, are questioning their biomechanical effectiveness. And they are right to be concerned because some with heel strikes experience negative consequences to their performance and the incidence of injuries. Here are some related explanations.



10 things to know about runners heel striking, answering the question “Why a majority of runners, even among international elites, are heel strikers?”


1. Pictures rarely reveal reality. Only rely on high definition cameras or a highly experienced eye. A picture taken just before the impact loading will show the foot in dorsiflexion (pointing upward) for a majority of runners.


2. 60% of high level athletes running road race (even international elites) are heel strikers... (Note that they all use "racers" running shoes with heel-toe vertical drop of 4-10mm ... a technical aspect of the shoe that promotes heel striking!)... but 90% of track athletes are forefoot strikers.


3. The majority of these good level athletes, however, have what we call a"prorioceptive heel strike" (the foot flattens smoothly as soon as it hits the ground). We believe this way the foot grounds is no more harmful and no less effective than midfoot or forefoot striking because it doesn't involve a strong braking phase or brutal impact force.


4. The further we go back in the race pack, the more heel striking we encounter, and the more that "proprioceptive" heel strikes give way to extreme heel strikes.


5. Over 80% of barefoot runners do not heel strike... and 20% of them have a "proprioceptive" heel strike.


6. The heel strike is not the only thing to look at. A heel strike may be acceptable if the shinbone is vertical, the knee is bent, and the impact loads just in front of the center of gravity. A biomechanical analysis must therefore be global. The 4 biomechanical clues which often combine and express the same problem are:


  • less vertical orientation of the tibia/shinbone
  • deceased knee flexion during contact
  • ground contact far ahead of the center of gravity
  • the heel strikes the ground first


7. We do not know (scientifically) if local, national or international level athletes would improve biomechanical effectiveness over the long term by making technical efforts to run better (correcting points A B C and D)... but the trend suggests that it is possible!


8. The majority of athletes have developed bad habits caused by shoes that affect their biomechanics. They mostly train (up to 80% of their training volume) with cushioned shoes with a big heel-toe differential, a type of footwear which promotes less efficient biomechanics and a larger heel strike. Their biomechanical learning is consequently different from their biomechanical performance, which may explain why many of them retain these biomechanics when in competition.


9. I think if athletes incorporated more barefoot training, ran 100% with their performance shoes, and if their competition shoes were "heel-toe zero differential", we would see slightly different biomechanics and most likely improved performance for some ... simply by improving their "running economy"!


10. I think if recreational runners incorporated more barefoot training, ran 100% with performance shoes, and if these "racer" shoes had "heel-toe zero differential", we would see much different biomechanics and improved performance for the vast majority... simply by improving their "running economy"!