Heel-striking and a brief history of the modern running shoe

Recently, Rick asked me to act as judge in a debate with a friend, who works in a store that sells running shoes, about heel-striking versus mid-foot landing.  

At first sight, it does seem rather amazing that the manufacturers of  running shoes continue to emphasize the virtues of cushioning and stabilization (to reduce pronation – the ‘natural’ tendency to roll from outside edge of the foot towards the medial edge as the longitudinal arch absorbs the energy of footfall)) five decades after Gordon Pirie trenchantly pointed out to Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas, the reasons why the leading principle in running shoe design should be  ‘less is more’.   But the story has some interesting twists and turns.

Pirie argued that the arch of the human foot is well designed to absorb the stress of footfall provided the runner lands on the forefoot.  In chapter 3 of his book ‘Running Fast and Injury Free’ Pirie cites two observations to support his argument.  The first was the set of video recordings of 100 elite athletes at the 1972 Montreal Olympics, by Bill Toomey (winner of the decathlon gold medal in Mexico City in 1968).  According to Pirie, all 100 elite athletes filmed by Toomey were fore-foot strikers.  The second observation was more anecdotal: Pirie himself ran more recorded miles than any other human being (around 216,000 miles in 40 years) and suffered minimal injuries.  He attributes this to his forefoot running style. 

 

Zatopek and Dassler shoes

However, more recently video analyses reveal that a large number of elite and sub-elite are heel strikers.  What has changed?  I think the seeds were sown two decades before Montreal.  In Helsinki in 1952, Emil Zatopek won gold medals in the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon, wearing Dassler shoes.  As far as I know, the shoes worn by Zatopek in Helsinki were in fact rather light-weight, though he is reputed to have trained in army boots.  However the more relevant fact is that at around that time, Dassler added the famous three stripes to Adidas shoes to stabilize the mid-foot.  As far I can see, that was the point at which engineering and marketing formed an alliance and abandoned the ‘less is more’ principle.  Fueled by Zatopek’s achievement, Adidas rapidly came to dominate the market.  Ultimately, the engineering led to more cushioned soles and marketing managers persuaded runners that cushioning and stability were crucial.  With heavy cushioning, it was no longer essential to land in a way that absorbed the energy of impact in the longitudinal arch of the foot, and eventually, many runners accepted heel striking as the norm.

In recent times, several schools of thought (most notably Pose and Chi) have resurrected Pirie’s ideas about efficient running, and there has been a resurgence of interest in minimalist shoes.  Nike, which grew from the foundation provided by Bill Bowerman’s famous waffle iron technique for fabricating a durable sole, and went on the eclipse Adidas, have recently capitalized on the minimalist trend with the Nike Frees.  Nonetheless, Nike are currently putting a lot of resources into promoting the Lunarglide, a lightweight shoe designed to combine cushioning and stability, and are targeting their marketing at female athletes.  Whatever the merits of the engineering, marketing has now made it almost impossible to draw any useful conclusions about how it is best to run from observations of elite and sub-elite athletes.

However, neither can we draw reliable conclusions from idealized accounts of ‘primitive’ tribesmen who are reported to achieve phenomenal long distance feats running barefoot or in rudimentary shoes.   Running a 10K in less than 27 minutes, or a marathon in just over two hours, are quite different from pursuing a wild animal for hour after hour across the African savanna or the North American prairies.  Drawing on arguments based on the evolution of the human foot to guide us about the most efficient way to run competitively might not be the best way to settle the question of how to run fast on road or track.

     

Short time on stance is crucial

One thing is fairly clear.  The fastest runners spend a short time on stance.  Studies by Peter Weyand and colleagues at Harvard University have demonstrated convincingly that the feature that distinguishes the fast runners from slower runners is a short time on stance (Journal of Applied Physiology, volume 89, pp 1991-1999, 2001).  A short time on stance necessarily entails a very strong push against the ground, resulting in powerful upwards propulsion, a long stride and relatively high cadence.

Schools of efficient running such as Pose also emphasize a short time on stance.  However, the theory of Pose promulgated by Dr Nicholas Romanov rather misleadingly  implies that the runner becomes airborne due to un-weighting of the foot as a result of gravitational torque, and a hamstring contraction that pulls the foot from the ground.  I believe that it is impossible to become airborne by this means.  A runner who spends 20% of the gait cycle on stance must necessarily exert an average downwards force on the ground that is 5 times body weight. 

Unfortunately, I do not know of any force-plate data that confirms that this is the case for a Pose runner.  I was a little disappointed when I attended a weekend Pose course with Dr Romanov, at Loughborough University (the home of Sport Science in the UK), and none of the Pose experts present showed any inclination to arrange a force-plate recording session.  Nonetheless, the Law of Conservation of Momentum requires that the impulse generated by ground reaction force must balance the downwards impulse generated by gravity acting on body weight, and hence the force exerted by the foot on the ground averaged over the entire gait cycle must be equal to body weight. 

A short time on stance not only ensures a powerful push against the ground, but also necessitates landing only a short distance in front of the centre of gravity, with the foot traveling backwards relative to the body’s centre of gravity at footfall.   This is most easily achieved with a forefoot or mid-foot landing.  Thus simple mechanical principles support Pirie’s argument for a forefoot landing.  However, it would be foolish to under-estimate the forces involved. 

 

Risks of minimalist shoes and forefoot landing

I was interested to note that Dallas Pose coach and stalwart of the PoseTech forum, Jack Becker, suffered a metatarsal stress fracture about two years ago.  While I have a great respect for Jack’s thoughtfulness, and I am personally grateful for advice that he once gave me regarding choice of shoes, I am inclined to think that his enthusiasm for minimalist Puma H-street shoes may have contributed to his stress fracture.  It is an interesting side-issue to note that Puma was founded Rudolf Dassler, brother of Adi – perhaps Rudolf took more note of Gordon Pirie’s opinions.  On balance, I am a little cautious about minimalist shoes, but certainly believe that cushioned heels, and heel striking, are undesirable.  It might be argued that it is better to train the intrinsic muscles of the feet to distribute the load along the arches of the foot rather than to allow these muscles to atrophy within heavily cushioned shoes.

There have been very few studies that have directly compared the benefits and risks of fore-foot, mid-foot and heel striking.  Perhaps the best known is the study by Arendse and colleagues from Tim Noakes’ laboratory in Capetown (Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: Volume 36,  pp 272-277, 2004).  The fore-foot landing group was instructed by Nicholas Romanov.  The main finding reported in the published paper was significantly decreased stress on the knee joint in the fore-foot runners compared with the heel-strikers.   However, forces around the ankle were noted to be higher, and Ross Tucker, who assisted Dr Romanov, reports on the Science of Sport blog that calf and Achilles problems were common in the fore-foot group.

 (http://scienceofsport.blogspot.com/2007/09/running-technique-part-ii-scientific.html )

In fact since the publication of the Arendse study, many Pose coaches have reduced the previous emphasis on a ball-of-the foot landing with marked plantar flexion of the ankle.  At least some Pose coaches acknowledge that the heel should be allowed to touch the ground lightly, to relieve the strain on the plantar fascia and Achilles tendon.

 

Conclusion

A short time on stance is essential if you want to run really fast, and this is most easily achieved with a forefoot or mid-foot landing. However the ground reaction forces are necessarily large, and landing on the ball of the foot with ankle plantar flexed places a great strain on the feet, ankles and calf muscles.  At least during long races, it is probably best to let the heel lightly touch the ground, to minimize risk of injury to the plantar fascia and Achilles tendon and perhaps even, risk of metatarsal stress fracture due to bone fatigue resulting from repetitive impact.

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14 Responses to “Heel-striking and a brief history of the modern running shoe”

  1. RICKS RUNNING Says:

    Thanks for your time and trouble, as always a great and veryIntelligent article, which I will show my friend! I hope it may change his mind but I fear he may have been brain washed by all the shoe reps who come in his shop!
    When I first started running my brother said to me, “you will have to stop running on your fore foot” I asked why and he pointed to the heel of his running shoe, see this is where all the padding is, so this is where you need to land.!
    I think the shoe companies have spent the last 30 years trying to out do each other with technical advances , bringing out new gadgets to solve problems that there last technical advancement caused!
    Arthur Lydiard back in the 80’s recommended runners to go back and use light flexible flat soled shoes to run faster and avoid injury.
    The truth is that the shoe that a runner needs is very basic, light flexible, and with a reasonable amount of padding in the fore foot, in fact your average supermarket could sell it for about £15=20 and put the giant running shoe companies in very serious trouble!

  2. Scott Brown Says:

    The last year or so I’ve been forefoot or mid-foot landing and found it helped in most respects. But the last 12 week training has seen me suffering from, like you mentioned, plantar fascia and Achilles tendon problems.

    I will try to “let the heel lightly touch the ground” and let you know if it helps. Your posts are just about the most interesting and informative in blogland. And I’m sure that you should get more people reading and commenting. Perhaps like me they are a bit intimidated.

    Keep running and writing

    All the best

    Scott Brown

  3. RICKS RUNNING Says:

    HI SCOTT TRY THIS
    http://petemagill.blogspot.com/2009/02/petes-home-remedies-plantar-fasciitis.html

  4. RICKS RUNNING Says:

    Video active ball of the foot running;
    changing from midfoot to ball of the foot increases speed.

  5. Ewen Says:

    Thanks Canute. As you know, I’m a huge fan of minimal shoes. I still wear my original Frees, even though the uppers have almost disintegrated. I credit these shoes for overcoming my achilles and PF problems.

    Interestingly, I came across a blog of a runner who recently ran a marathon in the Vibram 5-finger “shoes” – in 2:35
    http://sasha.fastrunningblog.com/blog-06-2009.html

    Regarding the minimal time on stance, wouldn’t you agree that time on stance will reduce for all runners the faster they run? How much can time on stance be reduced further (at a particular speed) by using a forefoot, midfoot, or mid-heel-forefoot stride?

  6. canute1 Says:

    Rick, Thanks for the interesting links.
    Scott, thanks for your encouragement. I hope that allowing your heel to brush the ground might reduce the Achilles problems and the fasciitis.
    Ewen, I agree that for a runner with a particular style, time on stance will usually decrease as speed increases. However different running styles can produce different amounts of time on stance at a particular speed, and I think these differences are associated with difference in efficiency and in risk of injury. I will post a more detailed discussion of this soon. Meanwhile, I was interested to note that my new S3 foot pod gave an inaccurate distance reading this evening – 6.7km over a 6.4Km course. I examined the pod before releasing it and found that I had not anchored it as firmly to the shoe as during recent runs. So my current hypothesis is that the S3 is unreliable if it is not well anchored.

  7. Bruce Says:

    Hi , thanks for the article , very interestiung. I’m also a big fan of mid foot landings and am convinced that heel stiking contributed to my recent injuries. I’m going to be on the lookout for some new shoes better suited to mid foot running. Have you tried Newton Runnings shoe?

  8. RICKS RUNNING Says:

    Would NIKE FREE’s be a better choice

  9. canute1 Says:

    Bruce, I have not tried Newtons, but as an individual with thin fat pads under the balls of the feet, I would expect the springy lugs under the forefoot to make the Newtons comfortable on hard pavement. However my present policy is to run mainly on softer terrain with less cushioned shoes to encourage development of the intrinsic muscles of the foot – and I think this approach this is working for me. I can now walk comfortably on rocks for the first time for years. Maybe, when I next prepare for a marathon I will look into the possibility getting some Newtons – though if I do decide to get them, I will do so well before the event, because I anticipate that they might encourage even less contact between heel and ground than in my current style, and hence I might need to increase the resilience of calf muscles and Achilles.
    Rick, I think that the Frees encourage development of the intrinsic foot muscles, and they are good for general use, though as outlined in my comment to Bruce, if I were about to begin preparation for a marathon I would consider Newtons.

  10. RICKS RUNNING Says:

    Fivefingers footwear is more efficient for runners than conventional running shoes
    http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/fivefingers-footwear-more-efficient-runners-conventional-running-shoes-41153

  11. canute1 Says:

    Rick, As you know, the pponline article refers to a study by Squadrone and Gallozzi which shows that five fingers closely resemble barefoot running and that both the barefoot and five fingers are more efficient than normal running shoes. This is not surprising. For me, the most important feature of the study by Squadrone and Gallozzi is the detailed examination of the mechanics. In particular both barefoot and five fingers encourage a shorter stride, higher cadence and forefoot landing. This is likley to be efficient but will only be safe if the intrinsic muscles of the feet and calf are very well conditioned.
    The pponline article places some emphasis on the observation that five fingers was a little more efficient than barefoot, but I am not sure that difference has any significance. I think that emphasizing this small difference is poorly justified advertising in favour of five fingers. I find Peak Performance is a little too commercial for my taste. The main conclusion drawn by S&G was that five fingers and bareoot are similar in efficiency and mechanics. That is of course a still good enough reason to take five fingers seriously.
    Nonetheless, running a relatively short distance on a treadmill is quite different from running a marathon on a road, and it probable that only an athlete with well conditioned feet (like Abebe Bikila) could sustain the increased efficiency for a full marathon. For a runner with less well conditioned feet, I suspect that exhaustion of the intrinsic muscles of the foot might lead in inefficiency in the later stages of a long race.
    So on balance, I think five fingers is very impressive, but I would not use them for along race before I had done several years of conditioning of my feet.

  12. Paul Says:

    Canute, as always, some amazing food for thought here. I look forward to reading “Canute’s Lore of Running” soon! Cheers, PB

  13. Pest Repeller : Says:

    i always choose running shoes made of synthetic leather because they last longer than natural leather“

  14. rythm squats Says:

    Wow, amazing blog layout! How long have you been blogging for?

    you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your website
    is magnificent, as well as the content!

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