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.
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!