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Sore Calves? Achilles Problems? Stress Fractures? Plantar Fasciitis? Get Off Your Damn Toes!

Posted by on Oct 31, 2012 | 10 Comments

Over the last few days, I’ve been answering questions on Reddit. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. The number of people that complain about the following injuries is increasing dramatically.

  • Chronically sore calves
  • Calf cramps
  • Achilles tendonitis
  • Metatarsal stress fractures
  • Bone spurs around the heel
  • Plantar fasciitis

The weird thing- this is occurring in people that aren’t necessarily making a transition to barefoot or minimalist shoe running.

There’s a growing recognition that there are benefits of changing running form to eliminate excessive overstriding. This usually involves shifting from a heavy heel strike to more of a forefoot/midfoot strike. The problem has to do with overcompensation. When making that switch, runners have a tendency to “run on their toes” and not allow the heel to touch the ground.

What Should You be Doing?

Every biomechanics and physiology expert I’ve ever talked to agrees the heel should be allowed to touch the ground when using a forefoot/midfoot strike. The lone exception may be sprinting, but some even advocate a heel touch then, too. The reason is three-fold.

First, allowing the heel to touch unloads the calf muscles for a fraction of a second, which dramatically reduces muscle fatigue. Fatigued calves cause soreness, acute pain, and cramping. Furthermore, a contracted muscle probably uses more energy, thus is less efficient.

Second, allowing the heel to touch allows for a full range of motion as the foot dorsiflexes, which maximizes elastic recoil potential. The Achilles is like a rubber band. It returns the most energy when allowed to fully stretch. The only way that happens is if the heel is allowed to touch the ground.

Third, allowing the heel to touch prevents constant strain on the calf, Achilles, and everything else attached to this mechanism… including the plantar fascia.

How Do I Know if I’m Doing it Wrong?

Sometimes it’s obvious because we consciously try to stay up on our toes. Other times it’s an unconscious compensation after years of heel striking. When it’s an unconscious process, the first step is to recognize we’re doing it. Here are some clues:

  • Calf pain: When we first transition to a midfoot strike, sore calves can be expected for a week to several weeks. This soreness feels just like the soreness we’d experience after we begin weightlifting. If soreness develops after about a month, we’re probably doing it wrong.
  • Foot pain: Some degree of soreness of the foot is expected when transitioning, but this pain usually subsides after a month or two. If the pain lasts longer, it may be due to excess stress on the metatarsals from running on our toes and not allowing the heels to touch.
  • Blisters: This isn’t quite as reliable as the previous two, but can still be a valuable clue. When we don’t allow our heel to touch we tend to also “toe off” by plantarflexing the foot immediately before the foot leaves the ground, which often causes blisters to form on the tips of our longest toes.
  • The paint trick: We can do a simple test to determine if our heel is touching. Paint the bottom of your feet or shoes with a layer of tempra paint. Run about 100 meters on asphalt or concrete. The tempra will wear off easily. If the ball of the foot/shoe has the same wear as the heel, gait is probably okay. If the heel isn’t worn, the heel isn’t being allowed to touch.

How to Fix the Problem

So… how do we correct this common mistake?

I’ve used a wide range of teaching cues over the years, and the absolute most effective method was given to me by Jon Sanregret:

Try landing with your foot pancake flat.

In practice, almost everyone that uses this teaching cue allows the ball of their foot to touch the ground immediately followed by the toes and heel. The magic of this cue seems to be simplicity. It removes a lot of the conscious thought from foot strike. This is most evident when using this cue to run at different speeds. At a slow pace, the heel touches longer. At a faster pace, the heel touches less.

Conclusion

This seems to be a growing issue for a variety of reasons.It’s leading to unnecessary injuries and decreased efficiency. Worse, it gives new adopters a negative experience which decreases the likelihood of them continuing to work on running form.

If you know of a runner that is experiencing any of the problems listed at the beginning of this post, please share with them!

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10 Comments

  1. Rob Y
    October 31, 2012

    So I to try to envision landing pancake flat when I run but I know I still heel strike some but it’s a far cry from how much I used to! Besides the tempura paint test, you can just check the long term wear pattern on your shoes, I do which is why I know my running form as changed.

    I used to be a major heel striker and yes, over time and many, many years of running ultras and high mileage I started having issues but nothing debilitating. Still I saw the writing on the wall and changed the way I ran; focusing on mid foot strike and not over striding. I also started running in shoes with low heel-to-toe drop (threw away the behemoths I used to run in). The end result is that while I do mostly land mid foot I still touch my heels and do heel strike on occasion . So far so good. I’m running healthier than I ever have and quite a bit faster than the past.

    I think there has been WAY too much emphasis in the minimalist/barefoot community on avoiding touching your heels or heel-striking at all costs. The end result has been the rash of injuries you mention. The real issue in my mind is over striding. If you’re not over striding then I honestly believe it doesn’t matter overly much what part of your foot makes first contact with the ground. I know from years of trail running that the point of first contact varies wildly! Therefore what we say is “correct form” goes out the window!

  2. Franklin Chen
    October 31, 2012

    I’m curious whether anyone here wears Vibram FiveFingers Bikila (LS) shoes, because I was periodically geting injured wearing them last year. Those are my least favorite of my Vibram shoes. I now believe that their design is totally unnatural: a lot of forefoot padding that ends up preventing my heel from touching the ground and therefore results in much more impact. I have hardly worn them any more, as a result (actually I’ve been wearing Xero Shoes, at least till it got cold now). I think Vibram has gone in a really bad direction with the Bikila.

    • alvinj88
      November 1, 2012

      interesting. i never had problems with my bikila, i let my heel kiss the ground. but it does have too much padding . i like my plain kso though

  3. trissa
    October 31, 2012

    Yep. Good stuff as always.

    The tempura paint suggestion DOES indeed work.

    You can tell you were once a teacher….but wait.

    You still are. Just a different/wider classroom

  4. Phil Taylor
    October 31, 2012

    Perfect timed article since I recently finished your book and having a hard time determining foot landing (I’m a newbie), plus some PF pain. Tempera paint…great idea. Thanks for the post.

  5. Brian G
    October 31, 2012

    This whole “what’s the best running form?” topic seems to be getting *WAY* over-analyzed and over-engineered. I came away from the whole controlled fall and natural running discussions wondering why is this getting so complicated. Diagrams? Gravitational and force vectors? Moments about an axis of rotation? For running?? We’re not dealing with string theory here.

    Want to see good running form? Watch most any 4 year old run in the playground barefoot. There you go.

    Simplify, simplify, simplify.

    If it doesn’t feel natural to you when you do it barefoot on concrete then don’t do it when you run in shoes. That’s all I can say about all this.

    • Jason
      October 31, 2012

      I agree with the simplistic approach as a means of teaching form… that’s why my methodology really has only two steps: Have good posture and take faster, shorter steps.

      There are two reasons to look deeper, and this analysis may or may not be of interest to all runners:

      First, we have to be able to diagnose problems. When something goes wrong, why does it happen and how can we fix it? This post hits on this issue.

      Second, analysis of running is needed as a basis for research. Research fuels a deeper understanding of how and why the body does what it does. How many barefoot runners have complained that the medical community ignores barefoot running? Why do they dismiss it as a fad?

      There’s no good research supporting the practice.

      If we *really* want to wider running and medial community to take this stuff seriously, we NEED to analyze gait.

      • Ben W
        October 31, 2012

        While many appreciate the simpler path, many others are invested in detailed firmly entrenched paradigms.

        I appreciate Jason’s willingness and ability to talk to all sorts of people and actually communicate.

        This conversation is solid stuff, because people who normally talk past each other are reaching some consensus.

        Well done, Jason.

  6. Erik Horton
    October 31, 2012

    Well written article Jason.