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The Heel Striking Experiment: Why Bad Form is Stupid

Posted by on Nov 26, 2011 | 21 Comments

Go to any road race.  Stand at some random spot along the course.  Watch as the runners pass.  Count how many land with a heavy overstriding heel strike.

It’s obvious this style of running is still extremely popular.  Hell, it’s even advertised for products that are supposed to be designed for midfoot striking:

Despite gobs of emerging research, diminishing support within the medical community, and even a changing paradigm within the shoe industry, overstriding with a heavy heel strike is still the preferred gait of many runners.

If everybody is doing it, is it really that bad?

YES!

It doesn’t take a professor of kinesiology to recognize that the calcaneous, or heel bone, is not designed to absorb impact.  Landing on the heel generates a tremendous amount of violent impact force which travels up the leg to the knee, hips, and back.

That part should be obvious, but most heel strikers seem content with their crappy form.  After all, if it doesn’t create acute injuries today, why bother changing?

Here’s an idea that may be more persuasive:

Heel striking slows you down and limits the distance you can run.

How?

It’s simple.  Driving your heel into the ground with every step creates a braking force that slows your forward momentum.  Every step is reduced to a braking action with slows forward movement followed immediately by a pushing off force to re-accelerate to maintain pace.  Here’s an experiment for heel strikers:

Situation 1: Get in your car.  Go to a road with no traffic. Accelerate for one mile without touching the brake.  Notice it’s smooth and seamless.  This is equivalent to running with good form.

Situation 2: Now do the same thing, except this time tap your brakes about 140 times each minute as you drive the same mile. This is what you are doing when you overstride with a heel strike.

How did that work out for you?  Notice a significant difference?

If you have a fancy car that measures average miles per gallon (or kilometers per liter for the rest of the world), try the experiment again and reset the MPG counter each time.

You get significantly better gas mileage when you don’t hit the brakes, right?  It’s far more efficient, allows you to drive faster, and ultimately allows you to drive longer, right?  Hitting the brakes requires far more energy to cover the same distance.

Great!  Now apply the same lesson to running.

WHY WOULD YOU RUN IN A WAY THAT ENGAGES THE BRAKES WITH EACH STEP?!?

The best thing you can do as a runner is learn good form.  Need help?  There are lots of resources.  Learn the basics here or here, or maybe consider a book (shameless plug).  ;-)

I know the vast majority of my readers already run with good natural form, but feel free to forward this experiment to your heel striker friends, family, and coworkers.

 

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21 Comments

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    […] Why Bad Form is Stupid – The Barefoot Running University This entry was posted in Workouts by Colm. Bookmark the permalink. var addedComment = function(response) { //console.log('fbComments: Caught added comment'); //console.log('fbComments: Making AJAX call to update Facebook comment count'); $.post('http://crossfit.ie/wp-content/plugins/facebook-comments-for-wordpress/facebook-comments-ajax.php', { fn: 'addComment', xid: '_post9191' }, function(resp) { if (resp === 'true') { //console.log('fbComments: Updated and cached Facebook comment count for post with xid=_post9191'); } else { //console.log('fbComments: FAILED to update Facebook comment count for post with xid=_post9191'); } }); }; FB.Event.subscribe('comments.add', addedComment); […]

  3. Ben S
    November 27, 2011

    Any overstriding whether heel, mid or fore foot striking will result in braking action. When running in snow this winter see if any spits out in front of the toes. If it does you are overstriding. Most people do and don’t even realize it. Poor form is like a governor on an engine preventing people from performing thier best.

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  6. inov-8andrew
    November 27, 2011

    I regularly use that analogy when I’m training retailers. Why do you need scientific proof when it’s so logically obvious?

  7. Johan
    November 27, 2011

    Halleluja! He he ha…Expert in what

    And youra Dr in…? And you have study orthopdic medicin at what university.

    Heels or midfoot – were all individuals. Most importand you get a good ex exercise

    Stop hate, and run instead of preaching youre ind style

    Best
    Johan
    Ort. Dr
    Sweden

  8. Gabe
    November 26, 2011

    Great analogy.

    I’ve only recently stared running barefoot and just bought my first pair of “minimalist” running shoes a few weeks ago.

    I used to be a heel stricker and still need to be mindful of my form as I run, but I do feel so much better. I started doing only 2 or 3 kilometre runs to get used to it and yesterday did an 8k lap I do once a week. I did it in 2 minutes less than my previous best time! Maybe it’s just coincidence, but it felt great.

    I’m definitely on the journey and loving it.

  9. Dave Robertson
    November 26, 2011

    Great analogy. Also like the reference In the comments to that famous barefoot runner from Bedrock, F. Flintstone.
    Another way to re-enforce the point is running uphill or up stairs. Yesterday I watched people doing stair repeats, and it struck me that it just wouldn’t work landing on your heel.
    Tackling the stairs forces people to use good running form, which unfortunately for most, goes out the window when they resume running on the flat again.

  10. Erik Lee Skjon
    November 26, 2011

    Hey, just curious, where do you stand on mid-foot versus forefoot striking? For a while when I had some top-of-the-foot pain, I switched to a mid-foot strikes while I was healing, and this seemed to help a lot, although I did feel it in my knees a abit. Now I’m back to forefoot striking. That definitely feels better, but I’ve heard some barefoot/minimalist runners do the mid-foot strike all the time.

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    […] my friend and favorite barefoot/minimalist guru Jason Robillard wrote in his blog, called “The Heel Striking Experiment: Why Bad Form is Stupid.” In it, he addresses the very same topic that I struggle with all the time: how consistently […]

  12. mike nelson
    November 26, 2011

    i’m with Kate on this one. it’s easy to bounce on your toes but ask someone to bounce their heels and they give you a strange look yet this is how they run.

  13. Kate Kift
    November 26, 2011

    In the few instances I have ben coaching over the last year or so, I have come across a heel striker who is reluctant to change, I ask them to jump in the air and to land on their heels. I usually get one of two responses…
    1) I’m not going to do that it’ll hurt – case proven
    2) They do it and then they say “Wow, that hurt” – case proven

    It’s usually at this point they start paying a little more attention. Not sure where I got that idea from – might even have been you ;)

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  15. nils
    November 26, 2011

    saying that heel striking should limit the distance you run, and your speed is not true.
    just take a look at scott jurek.

    • Jason
      November 26, 2011

      Imagine what he could do if he stopped heel striking. ;-)

      • Alex
        November 26, 2011

        Though there is that one, famous, heel strikey picture of Scott, it’s worth noting that he’s always promoted higher-cadence, midfoot running in instructional videos, etc. The debate these days seems less over form, and more about what shoes do to it.

  16. Trish Reeves
    November 26, 2011

    So right, yet again. I wa thinking about this exact same thing just yesterday. Before I became a mid-foot striker, I spent 8 years never being able to reach 3 miles. Now, it’s not a problem to run 4, 5, 10…it’s because of my form! I’m not slowing myself down and wasting all that energy anymore. But – most people generally prefer to do things the way that most other people do them, regardless of its intelligence. I am proud to be part of a small group of people who think a little harder, and decide what makes more sense rather than just follow the general population.

  17. JVK
    November 26, 2011

    Fred Flinstone used his heels to stop his car… Not speed up.

    • Gabe
      November 26, 2011

      Best way to explain it. Brilliant!

  18. Mamarunsbarefoot
    November 26, 2011

    I couldn’t agree more!!!!! I recently tried very hard to land on my heels like I used to run. I noticed how much energy I wasted and frankly it felt like crap!