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Common Question: Should My Heel Touch the Ground?

Posted by on Aug 21, 2010 | 8 Comments
When running barefoot, the foot strike (I prefer the term foot “kiss”) often receives unnecessary focus.  New barefoot runners will spend so much time trying to master the nuances of the “perfect” foot strike, they will ignore more important elements such as posture, relaxation, etc.
I routinely instruct people to do whatever feels natural.  The idea is simple- if you follow my advice of starting on a smooth, hard surface, foot strike will take care of itself.  If you land with a heavy heel strike or overstride, pain will ensue.  Giving detailed instructions cannot account for the natural variation in anatomy.  We’re all different.  As such, our foot strike will look slightly different.  
I land on the lateral side of my sole and roll my foot inward.  Others land more towards the center of their midfoot.  How you do it is mostly inconsequential as long as you can accurately react to the feedback from your feet.
There is one issue that arises repeatedly.  many new barefoot runners (or minimalist shoe runners) have a tendency to tense their calf muscles throughout the gait cycle in an effort to prevent their heel from touching the ground.  Generally speaking, this is bad.  By keeping your calf muscles actively engaged, you put undue stress on your Achilles tendon and the musculature of the calf.  The result can be a damaged Achilles, damaged soleus (or other calf muscles), bone spurs, or plantar pain that is often misinterpreted as plantar fasciitis.  
Biomechanically, your feet and legs are not designed to keep the heel off the ground through the gait cycle.  Doing so eliminates the effectiveness of the longitudinal and transverse arch, quickly tires the calf muscles, and as previously mentioned, unnecessarily increases the chances of injury.  Early on, it will also place added stress on the metatarsal bones of the foot.
Simply put, your heel should always softly touch the ground with each step. The exception to this rule is running fast.  As speed increases, there will be a slight natural forward shift in weight that keeps the heel off the ground.  The Pose method of running explains this phenomenon especially well. 
If you’re new to barefoot or minimalist shoe running, please heed this important advice!  
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8 Comments

  1. sronicker
    August 27, 2010

    Great post, I like to mix it up. I run for a while with my heel not hitting the ground (or at least barely hitting), then after a while I switch to a more rolling stride mainly hitting with the outside of my foot. Then switch back occasionally.

  2. Ryan
    August 23, 2010

    Well, I can honestly say that when I took my shoes off Saturday morning and it felt like i lost 5 pounds off of each foot. I immediate could run faster and easier than a few moments prior. It didn't really hurt until I got to the "soft" wood chips that never ended…

    That said, Sunday HURT. Mostly the calf muscle area. Obviously it was because I never have really used my "foot" muscles before. Running barefoot during ultimate frisbee turned into walking really fast, it just hurt to much to run. After some stretching and some pain killers I woke up today (Monday) feeling much better.

    Taking it slow will obviously make it more enjoyable then just "suffering" through the process and possibly causing some REAL damage.

  3. Sunami
    August 23, 2010

    Jason, I have been running for about 9 months with VFF's and recently I have been running on a hard gravel surfaces and have landed (post midfood strike) on my heel and hit a lump of gravel that made my heel sore for DAYS. Does this mean I am still hitting the heel too hard or not relaxing? I don't have any problems on any other surface.

  4. 灏群
    August 23, 2010

    傻氣的人喜歡給心 雖然每次都被笑了卻得到了別人的心................. ................................................

  5. 明RoseH_Huls中
    August 23, 2010

    It is no use crying over spilt milk.......................................................................

  6. 王雅俊
    August 23, 2010

    希望能常常看到你的更新..................................................

  7. Haselsmasher (Jim Haselmaier)
    August 22, 2010

    Good topic and great explanation. — Jim

  8. Emily
    August 22, 2010

    Oh, I couldn't agree more. Heels most definitely need to hit the ground at some point, but should usually be the last, not the first, thing to make contact with the ground, and lightly, too. I learned the hard way by running too far, too fast, and really incorrectly at first. The ankle pain while walking around my house barefoot for two weeks afterwards was pretty bad. This was because I didn't make contact with my heels at all. Then, the pain disappeared and I learned from a friend how to do it the right way. No more pain and I couldn't love running around my neighborhood more.

    I still consciously remind myself to relax while I run in minimal footwear (I'm a VFF girl), but the main thing is that my foot is landing correctly.

    I want to transition into barefoot running and living in southern California, I don't really have an excuse not to. I just haven't done it yet. My biggest problem is doing anything slowly. I want to do it all and now – I'm not a patient person. I suspect being barefoot will make me become more patient! Ha!