My husband recently began going on the treadmill. He walks most of the time, but he’ll toss a few tenths of a mile worth of running in there, too. He suffers from shin splints, and this has been an issue for him since he was on the cross country team in school – at least 20 years ago.
I took a look at his foot strike one day, and suddenly, the reason behind the shin splints made sense: he heel strikes. In fact, over 80% of runners heel strike. There is conflicting information regarding whether or not heel striking is problematic, but most of the research points to a loud “YES” – heel striking is detrimental to your training and body for many reasons.
This week’s #fridayfive provides you with some insight!
First, let’s define heel striking: Heel striking occurs when runners strike down on their heel rather than the ideal forefoot. Running places the stress of about 80x your body weight on your lower half with each stride you take, and heel striking dramatically increases the amount of force absorbed by your lower legs (hence the shin bone thing).
Thankfully, heel striking can be corrected. First, let’s take a look at the issues that heel striking can cause for runners.
Fact 1: Shin Splints. Shin splits occur when the muscle fibers attached to your shin bones begin to tear away little-by-little. Sounds pleasant, right? This is one (like, the only one) runner ailment I haven’t had to deal with, but according to my husband, the pain can be excruciating and can stop runners in their tracks.
Some common remedies for shin splits including kinesthetic tape and compression sleeves or socks. However, those may simply be the equivalent of putting a Band-aid on the wound – do those “remedies” truly address the cause?
Because heel striking places so much force absorption on the calves and lower legs, the shin bones are put to the test as are the calf muscles – causing shin splints.
Fact 2: Achilles Injuries. The Achilles tendon runs up the back of the heel and ankle. I know Achilles issues well – it’s what caused me to DNF at the 2017 Pittsburgh Half Marathon. I had to walk off the course at mile 10 because I could barely bend my left foot at the ankle (fun times!). I do not wish Achilles issues on anyone.
When you heel strike, so much force and emphasis is placed on the heel. All of this force and pressure can inflame and injure your Achilles tendon. It would be great if there was a quick fix for this common runner ailment, but there isn’t one other than the dreaded rest with the possibility of physical therapy.
Fact 3: Wicked Leg Cramps. Have you ever had a charley horse? Is this a regional term…? Anyway, a charley horse is a horrible muscle cramp. It’s as though someone is taking your muscles, hardening them completely, and then trying to twist them. I’ve had them before, and while they have been rare, I’d like if I never experience them again!
Back to the point that heel striking places a ton of force on the lower legs, if nothing else – this force can cause terrible lower leg cramps and charley horses. No amount of pickle juice will save you; trust me.
Fact 4: Stop/Start vs. Propel. One of the lesser known facts about heel striking is that it can compromise your pace, performance, and running economy. When we run in ideal form, we lean into the next step and essentially propel ourselves forward. I like to think of it like a slinky – fluid movement that uses our body weight to keep moving forward and, hopefully, pick up speed!
When you heel strike, you stop yourself every time you step down. You put the brakes on. So, every time you take a stride, you are stopping and starting. Imagine what would happen to your car’s gas mileage if you constantly stopped-started-stopped-started over and over and over. The car would lose a ton of fuel economy, and you will, too.
It’s debatable, but most science says that heel striking compromises your running economy, and I agree. I used to heel strike until I corrected it, so I’d know. And that brings me to my next point…
Fact 5: You can correct your heel strike! There are two ways to correct heel striking, and I often prescribe one of these two to my athletes:
- Jog, barefoot, on a soft surface (such as grass). Your natural foot strike is NOT a heel strike; it’s the ideal forefoot strike (remember that whole barefoot running movement? Yeah, that’s the idea – but I do NOT recommend consistent barefoot running by any means). Once you get a feel for what it’s like to strike on part of your foot other than your heel, you can put your kicks back on and can replicate. Sometimes it takes a lot of practice and repetition, but it can be done. This is how I corrected my foot-strike.
- Switch to zero-drop shoes. Be VERY careful here. “Zero drop” refers to the difference in the height of the sole from the heel to the toe. The typical difference is 10-12mm. Obviously, then, 0mm means no differentiation in sole height. This mimics your natural strike a lot more than typical 12mm drop shoes. If you choose this route, you must ease into the shoes. Failure to do so can cause several running ailments including the dreaded Achilles tendonitis that you may be trying to avoid by changing your foot-strike!
So, that is that. I hope this helps you as you embark on your spring race training journeys!
Peace, Love, and Running –
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