Heel strike, forefoot strike, mid-foot strike… depending on whom you read or watch, advice differs. I’m not going to say that any of that advice is wrong or right, because, obviously, man has been able to extend his habitat to all regions of the globe by being adaptable –technique for running on rocky mountains can differ from that used for running on sand or snow. But I believe that the patterns that initiate and control running are innate,that they appear at a certain stage of development, and, like breathing, running is best worked on not by trying to do it, but by trying to allow it. No one breathes better than a one-year-old — although the muscles of respiration will become stronger with exercise, the basic coordination is there from the beginning. The same, I believe, is true of running. When I watch 5 or 6 year-old children running in a playground, I have the sense that usually their running coordination is optimal. Of course they will get stronger and faster as they grow up and challenge themselves, but most of them will lose the beautiful reflexive coordination they had as children. I’ve written ad nauseum about the grasping reflexes which cause us to retract and, eventually, stand heavily on the heels. But until these fear responses begin to negatively affect posture, most little kids run on their toes. They extend themselves towards what they want, and their heels never touch the ground — like sprinters, and like barefoot tribesmen.
The bubbling well
In Chi-Gong and Tai-Chi practice, in standing meditation, one is told to center the body’s weight over the bubbling well (in acupuncture, the #1 kidney point), which is located in the hollow just behind the ball of the foot. When you do this, there is some weight on the heel, just enough that the calf muscles are engaged but remain soft. If you then advance the weight further forward, the heel lifts, and the calves contract more strongly. If you continue to advance the weight until it is centered just forward of the ball of the foot, then you will either rise up on the toes, or you will extend forwards into movement. This is what happens to initiate natural walking or running. However, it is possible to stand on the heels, shift the weight to one foot and lift the other to place it forward on its heel, beginning a different kind of walking or running. This is what the heel striker does, using the muscles of the thighs, primarily, and leaving the calf muscles out of the extension. The runner pulls himself along the ground, instead of extending himself over it. The disadvantages of this kind of running are:
1. By not engaging the calves fully, the heel striker fails to take advantage of the bi-articular muscle chain. The coordination of the gastrocnemius muscles of the calves with plantar flexion of the feet delivers maximum power from the gluteus muscles through to the toes.
2. Landing on the heels forces the delivery of the body’s weight through the anterior lower leg muscles, rather than the posterior ones. Jump and land on your heels, and you’ll know immediately why this is problematic. To have the body’s full weight even briefly on the heels makes extension of the legs more difficult, so, even if you roll through the foot from heel to ball, you’ll not have time to fully engage the extensor muscles that drive the body forward.
Shoes with heel lift can make forefoot strikers less efficient, because, either the extended heel will strike the ground first, or, after the forefoot contacts the ground, the heel will land, taking the load immediately from the calves. Barefoot, or with zero-drop minimalist shoes, the heel will lower as the knee and ankle flex, but the bi-articular muscles will quickly take enough tone to prevent the heel from hitting the ground hard (it may lightly touch down or not touch at all, depending on the runner, his speed and the terrain on which he runs).
Mid-foot strike? That would be landing on ball and heel at the same time – otherwise, there isn’t really a mid-foot on which to land, is there? There is no structure between the ball of the foot and the heel evolved to support weight. Try standing barefoot with your feet parallel, hip width apart. lean forward, and slowly advance your weight on your feet until your heels leave the ground. You will be on the balls of your feet, because you have no midfoot upon which to stand. So mid-foot striking would be landing in such a manner as to distribute weight between the ball of the foot and the heel. This is pretty much like heel-striking, in that the body’s weight won’t be as quickly assumed by the bi-articular chain. One can run like this, taking small steps — which is how many barefoot runners run — but doing so results in a very contained stride in which one works against both full extension and easy recovery.
On the other hand, someone who has spent years walking and running on his heels will have weak calf muscles. And, if that person has relatively strong quads and hamstrings, the weak link in the muscle chain to the foot – calf and Achilles tendon — will really be stressed by the conversion to forefoot striking. In some ways, it is easier for beginning runners to begin to run barefoot than it is for those who have been running for years in traditional shoes. In a beginner, all of the muscles involved in running will need to be built up together. The experienced runner will have relatively strong muscles in the upper legs that will exert a very strong pull on the lower leg muscles when moving to barefoot running. The calf muscles will build up fairly quickly, but tendons take much longer to strengthen. The Achilles tendon needs to be at least as strong as the patellar tendon in barefoot running. I have exercises that I teach to runners to help them prepare for barefoot running, and I’ll publish videos of them soon. In the mean time, I little bit of jumping rope is a good way to begin. Do it barefoot, it is not hard. In fact, I think it is a good idea to jump rope for a couple of weeks before trying any barefoot running. Start with only a minute or two, and build up to at least five before trying to run on the toes.