To Heel Strike or Not to Heel Strike, that is the Question

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

A Running Shoe Reference Guide


Barefoot Running–The Origin


Wikipedia references peer-reviewed articles describing barefoot running as “natural running” that has been around throughout history. Humans ran with no shoes or thin moccasins until plimsolls were invented by the Liverpool Rubber Company in the 1830’s. Even though barefoot running has faded in many places, it is still practiced in parts of Africa and Latin America (2021).


In the 1970’s, there was a running boom causing shoe companies to capitalize on the movement creating modern running shoes. Some researchers blame the modern running shoe claiming it encourages a heel strike pattern that leads to running injuries. In 2009, Christopher McDougall published the book Born to Run. A runner himself, McDougall studied the reclusive Tarahumara Native Mexican tribe in the Mexican Copper Canyon and their ability to run over 100 miles at a fast pace with little to no injuries. McDougall was plagued with injuries himself, and claims the modern running shoe is the cause of these injuries. He encouraged his readers to wear thin sandals like this tribe to reduce injury (Wikipedia, 2020).



Born to Run set off an explosion of barefoot runners and minimalist style running shoes still seen today. I too was caught up in this movement. I trained myself to strike on my mid-foot instead of my heel wearing minimalist running shoes for protection from rocks, sharp objects, and weather related elements. I cannot argue that my speed picked up, my knee and hip pain disappeared, and my feet and ankles were stronger. Encouraging a mid-foot strike has been growing in popularity by coaches, athletes, and researchers claiming improved performance and less injury. Even doctors were assessing gait or strides issues with mid-foot strike treatment plans. However, there is another side to this story.


Running Style vs Injury


Since this barefoot movement has grown in popularity, so has the rise in running related injuries. There has been an increase in pulled calf muscles, Achilles tendonitis, and metatarsal fractures. This is not to say that heel striking in modern running shoes are free from injury. Heel striking leads to ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis, or knee and hip pain. In the 2017 Journal of Sport and Health Science, Hamill and Gruber research if changing a foot strike is beneficial. They concluded that each individual has a unique foot strike based on our own physiology. No two individuals will strike exactly the same. We walk and run based on habitual patterns. If that pattern isn’t causing pain, injury, or decreased performance, there is no evidence that it should change. “Research suggests that there is no obvious benefit to such a change for the majority of runners. In fact, it may be that the change in foot strike may result in stressing tissue that is not normally stressed when running with one's habitual pattern, thus leading to the possibility of incurring a secondary injury. Changing one's foot strike to a mid- or forefoot strike may be beneficial to some but, based on the current biomechanical, physiological, and epidemiologic literature, it should not recommended for the majority of runners, particularly those who are recreational runners” (Hamill and Gruber, 2017).


“The American Podiatric Medical Association has stated that there is not enough evidence to support such claims and has urged would-be barefoot runners to consult a podiatrist before doing so.[24] The American Diabetes Association has urged diabetics and other people with reduced sensation in their feet not to run barefoot, citing an increased likelihood of foot injury.[25] One study showed a link to early bone damage in new barefoot runners.[26][27]” (Wikipedia, 2021).


As a personal trainer, I only encourage a change in foot strike or gait patterns if the current habit is causing significant pain or injury. I have seen cases of extreme pronation due to flat feet or one knee crashing into the other. I have even seen extreme cases of plantar fasciitis from running habits. In these special cases a combination of strike and gait correction is necessary. However, most cases are healed by improved running mechanics, proper fitting and supportive shoes, strength training the weak areas, and increased mobility.


I learned quickly that barefoot running is not for everyone. I ended up with metatarsal stress fractures in both feet and a more severe break in my right foot. As my podiatrist so eloquently said, “have you seen your tiny feet?” He said my child size feet and bones were strong, but that amount of stress and impact overtime will result in injury. The podiatrist said my feet definitely needed a supportive shoe. Americans are not running on dirt and clay out in Copper Canyon. We run mostly on pavement and concrete. Repetitive stress on these surfaces without support will lead to injury with the exception of a small population.


If you are experiencing issues from running or need help, please reach out to me at mitzi@healthyhumanitarian.com.


How to Find the Right Fit


Today we have a plethora of running shoes to choose from. In fact, too many for me to recommend in this blog. The bottom line is that you have to physically try shoes on to pick what feels the most comfortable. Does it fit like Cinderella’s glass slipper?


Before you purchase your running shoe, you need to know the following tips:


Tip 1: Buy a half to one size larger to account for foot swelling during the run.


Tip 2: Check the bottom of your current shoe to see where the worn part of the tread is. Do you run on the midfoot or the heel? The tread will tell you. Then you can alert the salesman to find shoes that support that strike pattern.


Tip 3: Make sure you are aware if your ankles or knees crash inwards as you run. Runners, typically with flat feet, need to see a podiatrist for an orthotic or a shoe designed for pronation to add support to prevent overpronation. If you supinate or run more centered, a neutral shoe is just fine.


Tip 4: Know how much padding you want or need. If you have strong feet, you won’t need a ton of cushion. If you are not sure, see a podiatrist for a recommendation or a quality running store for assistance.


Tip 5: Decide on how much you want to spend. A quality running shoe can last 1-2 years. If you want a shoe that will last, plan on spending an average of $150 for a pair of quality shoes. It is okay if you need to spend $80 or less. Just know they will wear out faster.


Top Picks


Asics


An article in Runner’s World magazine features the top 10 Asics running shoes based on your needs. Asics are known to be one of the most comfortable daily trainers on the market. My own father can attest to this. I haven’t seen him own anything else for at least 20 years. They are so popular because of their gel cushion design to reduce the stress of impact and create a smooth ride. If you are interested in a good overall daily trainer, click on the image to link to the article.


Asics Nimbus


Altra


In 2009, Altra was introduced to the running shoe market. You will want to wear an Altra shoe if you favor a more barefoot mid-foot strike running style. Now Altra isn’t a minimalist barefoot running shoe by any means. This shoe is for those like me, who prefer to run barefoot style but still want support and comfort. Altra shoes feature a zero drop heel height, wide open foot bed, and different levels of cushion. They even have a special design just for women’s shoes to accommodate a typical female foot shape. These design specifications allow you to run as if you are barefoot, but you decrease the impact with cushion. If you are a heel striker, I wouldn’t recommend this shoe for you.


I personally ran in Altra’s for years, but it lacked energy return from each foot strike. If that isn’t important to you, then I highly recommend these shoes for barefoot style mid-foot strike runners. Click on the image to go to the Altra website.



Altra Torin


Xero


Xero shoes was founded by a husband and wife team in 2009. Stephen was a sprinter plagued with injuries and Lena was an avid hiker. Stephen became part of the Born to Run book movement when he tried barefoot sprinting and running. He is one of those individuals that saw benefit and a decrease in injury from this running style.


Xero shoes are only for true barefoot runners and those who strike on the mid-foot. They feature a zero drop heel height, wide toe box, and minimal cushioning. Xero founders believe that their shoes encourage a natural foot strike, strengthen feet, and increase proprioception.


I personally cannot wear Xero shoes for running because I require more support. However, I LOVE wearing their shoes for walking. My feet feel so amazing feeling the ground with my toes spreading out naturally. I definitely notice that my feet have gotten stronger and I no longer experience pain during long walks. I highly recommend their shoes for daily walking. If you are one of the small percentage of individuals that can run in minimal shoes, then these might be for you. You can literally roll them up like a sock! Click on the image below to go to their website.

Xero HFS


Newton


In 2006, Newton was founded in Boulder, Colorado by a group of runners. They set out to create a new design with new technology to help runners “run better, faster, and healthier.” “The secret sauce powering the speed of Newton Running shoes is its proprietary Action/Reaction™ Technology. Generated by the active movement of the lugs, Action/Reaction Technology creates a responsive, trampoline-like cushioning system that provides quicker bounce-back and loses less energy than a traditional foam-core running shoe” (Newton, 2021). They are not completely zero drop, but they are still a low heel position to encourage a natural position. Basically, these shoes are designed to encourage the runner to strike on the lug placed on the mid-foot to run in a barefoot style but with support and cushion.


This shoe is my absolute go to. I want to stay impartial, but I am completely biased here. When I switched to barefoot style running, my feet ended up with stress fractures and a more severe break in my right foot. After I healed, my podiatrist said I should only wear supportive shoes. However, I wanted to maintain the mid-foot strike. So, I did some research and came across Newtons. I can maintain a barefoot style mid-foot strike with support. I also love the energy return I get from the lug. I run faster and more efficiently. Can you tell how much I love these?


I would only suggest running in Newtons if you already run with a mid-foot strike. I wouldn’t suggest these shoes if you heel strike. To learn more about Newton’s, click the image below.


Newton Gravity


Noteworthy Brands


There are also brands I recommend that are popular amongst runners. Brooks, Nike, and New Balance are all good daily trainers for heel strikers. Some runners swear by the Hoka brand. From what I gather, you either love or hate these shoes. The only way to know is try. Lastly, if you tend to have a wide foot, Saucony is your best bet. To take a look at any of these shoe brands, just click on the name to go directly to their website.


Where to Get Help


If you need help starting a running program or help finding the best running shoe for you, please reach out to me at mitzi@healthyhumanitarian.com. I have been a runner my entire life with proven results for my clients, family, and friends.


Happy Shoe Shopping! –Mitzi


Works Cited


Barefoot running. (2021, January 13). Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barefoot_running


Born to Run (McDougall book). (2020, August 09). Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Born_to_Run_(McDougall_book)


Hamill, J., & Gruber, A. H. (2017). Is changing footstrike pattern beneficial to runners?. Journal of sport and health science, 6(2), 146–153. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2017.02.004


Sneakers. (2021, January 19). Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sneakers

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