Heel striking v. forefoot

A few weeks ago I had speculated on how Dathan Ritzenhein might fare in the New York marathon on 7th November.  As I described, he has been cruelly afflicted with metatarsal problems throughout his running career, and in the past year or so has taken three steps to banish these problems.  First he moved from Boulder, Colorado with it hard trail surfaces, to join the Nike team in the verdant environment of Portland, Oregon, where the trails are softer.   Secondly, Nike’s head of biomechanics, George Valiant, designed some shoe inserts which relieve the pressure on the downward protruding head of the third metatarsal of his right foot.  Thirdly, and more controversially, under the guidance of Alberto Salazar, he has adjusted his style from heel striking to a landing with the impact point nearer to the forefoot.  I think that such an adjustment must be approached cautiously by any runner, but especially by an individual with metatarsal problems.

On Saturday he returned to racing following his most recent metatarsal injury, running in the Great Northern Run.  He finished 4th in 62:35., which was disappointing in comparison with his time of 60:00 in Birmingham a year ago when he won the bronze medal at the World Half Marathon championships. In his recent blog post [1] he put a brave face on his performance in the GNR by pointing out that it was not bad for a first race after injury.  He had done only about 10 weeks of serious marathon training, though he had previously posted on his blog on Sept 9th that he felt not far off his fitness a year previously in Birmingham.  At Gateshead on 19th Sept he set out in the lead group, covering the first mile in 4:38 (on target for around 60 minutes for the HM), but dropped off the pace when Kiplimo Kimutai surged shortly after the 5Km mark, which leaders had reached in a fairly brisk 14:09.  Only the eventual winner, Haile Gebreselassie was able to stay with Kimutai after the surge and perhaps it would be expecting too much to expect Dathan to hold that pace at this stage in his training.  However, in the later stages of the race he slowed even more due to tight calf muscles.  In his blog post he reported ‘my calfs were barely working in the last 5K of the race’.  He blamed this on his light weight Streak XC shoes, which is perhaps plausible though I would also wonder whether his changed running style might  contributed. While it is currently popular to advocate a forefoot landing, even for  long distance runners,  there is little doubt that a forefoot landing places extra strain on Achilles and calf.

The good news is that Dathan suffered nothing worse that tight calf muscles.  At least his metatarsals are surviving.  I still hope he does well in New York, but after Haile G’s comfortable win in the GNR it is clear that Haile is in dominant form and he must start as the favourite in New York.  I hope his run in New York will dispel the disparaging whispers that he has shied away from the head-to-head competition in recent years, to focus only on world records on flat courses.  I think that these whispers are unfair on the greatest distance runner the world has ever seen.  So I am hoping for a great race in New York, with Haile prevailing, but others including Martin Lel, Meb Keflezighi and Dathan running really well.

Meanwhile on a much more humble stage I have been pleased with the result of my regression from my usual forefoot striking to heel striking, to deal with the recent acute exacerbation of  my own longstanding metatarsal problems. Since temporarily adopting a high cadence, heel-striking style, I have gradually increased my training volume with runs in the lower aerobic zone (HR around 120 b/min; pace around 5:45 /Km). I have had no metatarsal pain while running and only mild discomfort later in the day.  However, while the metatarsalgia has receded into the background, the knee problems that have hampered me all year are still lurking.  I am aware of the potentially greater jarring forces on the knee when heel striking and have been ensuring that I land with a ‘soft’ flexed knee so that the quad absorbs much of the impact.  I think this has been successful, because my knees have also continued to improve in the past two weeks and I no longer suffer knee pain while actually running.  However I still get some pain in the anterior compartment of the knee on standing from a sitting position, and I am also getting occasional spasms in popliteus (the small muscle running transversely behind the knee, which is responsible for unlocking the fully extended knee). The spasm of popliteus had started when there was a marked effusion in my left knee during the episode acute arthritis that afflicted me in February.  The fact that the popliteus spasms are continuing indicates that there is still something not quite right about the mechanics of my knee, so I am being very cautious in building up the training volume.  I will refrain from increasing the pace for a few weeks longer.  Overall, I think that my heel strike experiment is proving to be a success.

I remain convinced that the choice between heel and forefoot striking, at least when running slowly, should be decided by an appraisal of one’s own situation rather than being dictated by popular dogma.  For a person with metatarsal problems, heel strike might well be safer, provided one lands with moderate flexion of the knee.  Nonetheless, I anticipate returning to my habitual forefoot landing once I start increasing the pace a bit, because impact forces are greater at higher speed, and the forefoot landing helps distribute the task of absorbing the impact between structures of foot, lower leg and thigh.  However I will take care to ensure that I condition my calf muscles to cope with the extra stress.

[1] http://dathanritzenhein.competitor.com/2010/09/19/great-north-run-ouch/

6 Responses to “Heel striking v. forefoot”

  1. Ewen Says:

    Canute, it’s good to hear your humble experiment is going well. You make a good point that a runner should use a style/method that suits their particular circumstances.

    On Dathan’s situation, my take is that he just isn’t in the same shape that he was for the World Champs Half last year. I think the same thing about Ryan Hall after his half in Philly. I can’t see Dathan competing with Geb for the win in NY. If he runs his own race (off the lead pace), he could run a PB – 2:09 or so.

    • canute1 Says:

      Ewen, Thanks for that comment.

      On Ryan’s blog before the Philadelphia Rock and Roll HM he stated that he felt fitter this year than last year, when he had won that race in the failry credible time of 61:52 (well ouside his best of 59:43) but nonetheless over a minute faster than this year. I think he over-did it with his last long run up to Tioga Pass on the road to Mammoth Lakes. I have done a posting on this issue.

      As for Dathan, I think that his injury problems have resulted in a lower level of fitness than last year. It is noteworthy that it appeared to be tight calf muscles that slowed him in the final 5 Km. He points out that he had done less speed work on the track than last year, and this will have contributed to the inadequate strength in his calf muscles. I agree that the evidence from the GNR indicates that he will not be a match for Haile G in New York, but the good news is that his metatarsals appear to be OK. So maybe his shift to forefoot will eventually prove to be a success, once he strengthens his calf muscles. However, if I had been him I would not have changed from heel striking at the beginning of preparation for a marathon. Nonetheless I hope he does at least manage a PB.

  2. Ewen Says:

    Thanks Canute. Will comment on your latest post.

  3. Derrick Says:

    Unrelated post here:

    I’ve found a journal article, which speculates that there’s an inverse relationship between flexibility and economy. In other words, lower flexibility may translate into higher running economy. Canute may have even mentioned this study or one like it in a previous post.


    “…these results suggest that inflexibility in certain areas of the musculoskeletal system may enhance running economy in sub-elite male runners by increasing storage and return of elastic energy and minimizing the need for muscle-stabilizing activity.”

    • canute1 Says:


      Thanks for that comment. Several studies have confirmed that lower flexibility is associated with greater running efficiency. This makes mechanical sense as a stiffer muscle would be expected to store and return elastic energy more efficiently.

      However, this is not the whole story. For most runners the greatest obstacle to peak performance is injury. If a muscle is stiff because previous micro-tears have healed by formation of fibrous tissue that is not well aligned with the direction of pull of the muscle, then the muscle is more likely to tear again. So gentle stretching that encourages fibrous tissue to align itself to the direction of pull of the muscle probably decreases the risk of future serious tearing of muscle.

      So I believe that some stretching of muscles and tendon is useful provided it is gentle enough (and done when the muscle is warm) so that it teases apart mis-directed fibres and promotes well aligned fibres. My own experience indicates that gentle stretching of tensor fascia late helps decrease the risk of ITB syndrome and gentle stretching of the calf muscles and Achilles reduced the risk of Achilles tendonitis. I spend an average of about 3 minutes per day stretching; maybe a little more would be beneficial.

  4. Preston Says:

    Canute, I appreciate your post. I started having some metatarsal pain on my right foot about 3 months ago so I stopped running for a little while and increased my cross training volume.

    I originally was a heel striker, but switched to a mid-forefoot strike about 3 years ago because of knee pain – and all of the knee pain left. But now since I am coming off of a light injury, I’m considering doing some low volume running with a heel-mid foot strike to help strengthen my foot (like you said you are doing). I hope it continues to work well for you!

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