What is a proper running foot strike?

A barefoot running technique might be slightly alien to most of us, but if you introduce it gradually, then you could benefit by having fewer injuries and improved performance.  So why is that?

We evolved to run or walk in bare feet, and each running stride ended with the front or ball of the foot striking the ground first (forefoot strike).  However, a typical long distance running technique nowadays involves the heel striking the ground first (rearfoot strike), since the vast majority of us wear a shoe with a raised  and cushioned heel. ie. a  ‘heel strike running shoe’.

I have long assumed that cushioning in the heel and the shoe as a whole is a good thing for injury prevention, especially when running on what may be considered unnaturally hard surfaces such as tarmac and concrete.  However, research has shown (see link below) that the opposite is perhaps true, and that barefoot or forefoot strike running shoes could lead to less injuries, as the runner naturally adopts a footstrike which creates less reaction force from the ground.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/nov/21/trainers-less-cushioning-padding-loading-rate-running-reduce-injury-study

So order the barefoot shoes, throw away your old trainers and get on with it.  Not quite.  It takes time to readjust to the barefoot style, so take it slowly.  First of all, if you don’t already do so, throw away the slippers and always walk around barefoot or in socks at home.  Then, when you get your barefoot shoes, wear them when out walking and for everyday use (go to work in them if that is acceptable).  Do this for a couple of weeks,  and then build up the running steadily.  I started out by jogging/walking on grass for about twenty minutes and built up my mileage and reduced the walking spells very gradually (this suited me as I was recovering from injury anyway).

Abebe Bikilas barefoot triumph

I have been running almost exclusively in my barefoot shoes for over three months now.  I did a few runs in my old heel strike running shoes as I was working on the assumption that it would perhaps be taking it too far to run a half marathon and then a marathon in barefoot shoes on the road.  But it didn’t feel right, having got used to the forefoot running technique (in contrast, running in bare feet always felt good to me, even when I rarely did so).   I have since researched further and have been given reason to believe that it might well be safe to aim to complete these races in barefoot shoes.  For example, a number of top British runners in the 1960s, inspired by the great Ethiopian Abebe Bikila’s triumph in the Rome Olympic Marathon, regularly raced barefoot on the track and cross country. One of them, Ron Hill, even ran and won the Beverly Marathon, on the road,  unshod.  I’m not suggesting that this is something I would want to emulate, and even the great African runners of recent years don’t actually race barefoot as far as I am aware, but having the added protection of barefoot shoes is a different matter.

Ron Hill wearing shoes on this occasion

With this in mind, and a half marathon scheduled in three weeks, I am gradually increasing my road mileage (I normally try to avoid the roads – see my post on What surfaces should I train on?).   A few days ago, I completed a steady run of just over an hour on the road with no obvious ill effects, and as my half marathon pb is just over an hour and a half, then I’m hopefully already two thirds of the way there in terms of time on the road.  A couple of days later I successfully completed a tempo run of about 2 miles on tarmac, again wearing my barefoot shoes,  so half marathon race pace shouldn’t be an issue either.  We will see how I get on, and if I come through the half marathon unscathed, then I will plan to do likewise in the full marathon, which is two months later.  Before then, I will be running a (most likely very muddy) cross country race next weekend, and will be wearing my new spikes, which should be fine as they have a low heel, not unlike barefoot shoes, and I have worn them in already.  I wouldn’t consider my barefoot shoes in these conditions, as the grip isn’t that good, and I have had a few slips when running off road in wet conditions.

My barefoot running shoes

My experiment with barefoot running shoes is yet to be completed, and my performances over the next three months should tell me more.  But the evidence so far looks encouraging in terms of injury prevention, as this has been a decent  injury free spell for me (notwithstanding my very recent encounter with a couple of spaniels – see my post Dogged by bad luck?)

 

 

Product reviewSAGUARO Unisex Minimalist Trail Running Barefoot Shoes Aqua Water Sports Shoes

If you’re interested in trying barefoot shoes, but don’t want to (or can’t afford to) spend huge sums of money to find out if they suit you, then I would definitely recommend these great value Saguero minimalist shoes.  I personally like the ample width of the shoe, as I  have relatively broad feet for my size, and right from the off they felt comfortable.  I worried that they were perhaps too comfortable and would perhaps become loose, but the drawstring type lace tightening mechanism works pretty well and ensured that my feet stayed firmly in place.

Sizing seems to be pretty standard, as  I bought a pair matching my normal shoe size, and they are a perfect fit.

I tried them on a variety of surfaces, including grass of varying levels of dampness, muddy footpaths and roads.  The grip on the shoes is moderate, and I had to be very careful on very wet grass and slightly muddy footpaths, coming to grief on more than one occasion.

As explained above, the shoes can work on the road, but I did suffer stiff calves when I tried to go beyond a few miles,  especially over undulating routes.  This may be a feature of any minimalist shoes, and it obviously depends on how familiar you are with the process of running in this type of shoe.   I wore them when walking around and going about my day to day business before attempting to run in them, and I’m sure this is good advice for anyone, as is the the suggestion to at least start by running only on forgiving (and not too slippery)  surfaces .

Durability is OK.  I am seeing significant signs of wear after about three months of wearing my barefoot shoes for most training sessions (a very rough estimate would be 350 miles),  but the price means that even if they only last about four months, or 450 miles, then that would represent decent value.

So, if you are looking to try minimalist running shoes and don’t want to break the bank, you can’t go far wrong with these.

SAGUARO Barefoot Shoes Men Women Road Trail Running Shoes Indoor Gym Fitness Trainers Outdoor Hiking Climbing Walking Shoes Quick Drying Water Shoes, Grey, 7.5 UK

Update – read my recent posts Second thoughts on barefoot racing? which explains why I am probably going to make a compromise on my intention to race the half marathon and  marathon in barefoot shoes.  The later post Gone with the wind?   explains how I actually ran the half marathon (sort of) in minimalist shoes and this experience made up my mind that it would not be wise to wear them for the full marathon.

2 Replies to “What is a proper running foot strike?”

  1. Wow John, what a great topic and good info on a subject I would have never known about. I’m glad I read it. In my local running community there is a woman who runs with those toe running shoes, and by the end of the race when I see her she is running in her bare feet!! A question for you, if you experiment with this level of training, I’m guessing you must have to stick with it? There’s probably not any going back and forth between the two methods as I’m assuming it must take some time to adjust??
    Thanks for any info, great site,
    Regards

    1. Hi Kerry. Thanks for your comments. I’m very pleased that you enjoyed the post and found it of interest. It would be good to hear the views of the toe shoe/no shoe woman, as its still experimental for me. I agree its probably better to stick with either barefoot or heel strike shoes on the whole, but also, on my limited experience, I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be harmful to do a bit of switching when required or desired. There may be situations (eg. in the snow, on cobbled roads or muddy footpaths) where barefoot shoes might be unsafe or uncomfortable.
      John

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