Many beginner runners don’t think about proper running footstrike when they first start running.
Whilst this is ok in the short term, in the long term you may be more susceptible to injury because your footstrike and range of motion isn’t as effective as it could be.
Running sounds simple, but there are actually a lot more components that you need to think about when you start upping the weekly mileage.
In this blog, I’d like to explore proper running footstrike and ways to improve it.
According to a 2013 study of 1,991 runners, a whopping 93% of them were found to adopt a heel footstrike, with more elite runners being less likely to use a heel footstrike.
Whilst there is no clear favourite in the running community, there are some advantages to using different types of footstrike in your running as I explain more about below.
Proper running footstrike and ways to improve it
Proper running form is basically your posture whilst running. It includes all the key movements from the top of your head (your head, shoulders and chest) to your mid-line and feet.
The way your foot hits the ground (also called ‘footstrike’) is important when it comes to good running form. Your footstrike falls into one of three categories:
- Heel footstrike
- Forefoot footstrike
- Mid-foot footstrike
There isn’t a clear favourite in the running community, mainly because all three footstrike types can be used in different ways and on different terrains.
Many runners will also use all three footstrikes in one form or another throughout their running life. This is partly due to the reasons stated above, and the fact that we all have different biomechanics (your body’s natural mechanisms).
Before I explain ways to improve your footstrike, here are the three main footstrikes in explained detail.
This is probably the most common footstrike. As its name suggests, this is when your heel hits the ground first before the rest of your foot.
If you sit behind a desk all day for work, it’s likely you lead with your heel first in your footstrike. Sitting behind a desk all day can cause tight hips, so when you run you drive with your legs instead of your hips and glutes. As a result, your stride reaches out much further than it needs to, causing your heel to hit the ground first.
Whilst this type of footstrike isn’t wrong, it isn’t great for proper running form in the long term. This is because when your heel hits the ground, it sends a shock wave through your foot and leg through to your hips.
This causes extra stress and load on your muscles and joints which over time can lead to joint pain and injuries for a lot of runners who adopt this footstrike.
Forefoot footstrike is on the other end of the scale. This is when your ball of your foot and toes hit the ground first, and is normally characterised by a runner whose upper body that is bent forwards from the hips.
You may already use this footstrike when you run up hills or sprint at the end of a race.
As with the heel footstrike, this footstrike type isn’t incorrect, but it doesn’t lend itself to proper running form. By landing on the ball of your foot and toes, you create extra tension in your calves and achilles tendon.
You’re effectively causing tightness in them each time you take a step forward, which can cause stress and injury over time.
Mid-foot footstrike is a happy medium. This footstrike is characterised by the middle of the foot hitting the ground first. As a result, your weight is distributed more evenly throughout the foot and ankle.
Mid-foot striking reduces the rate at which impact forces travel up the leg. Therefore, it decreases your risk of injury.
This type of striking is considered the most natural of all the footstrikes. Think about it. When you jog on the spot, do you land on your heel first?
It is also the preferred footstrike for long distance runs as it causes the least stress on the muscles and joints in your feet and legs in the long term.
How to improve your footstrike
As discussed above, there isn’t one correct footstrike. Many runners will use a combination of all three striking patterns to run on different terrains.
It’s also a question of biomechanics. Simply put, each runner runs and lands their feet in a way that feels natural to them.
If someone lands with a heel footstrike, it’s probably because this is what feels most natural for them. There are times, however, when your footstrike can cause you more harm than good.
In these cases, it may be necessary to improve your footstrike. For example, if you have run with a heel footstrike and experience knee pain every time you run, it may be a sign to change to a mid-foot strike so to cause less load and stress on your joints.
Here are three strategies to help you improve your footstrike.
Strengthen your hips and glutes
Your hips and glutes (the muscles in your buttocks) are the key parts of your body that power your leg forward when you run.
Strengthening these areas will allow you to have a more effective leg swing – drawing your leg back and cycling it forward in one fluid motion.
You’ll also want to focus on mobilising your hips and glutes. A good idea is to include exercises and stretches that increase mobility in your hips and glutes as part of your training routine.
Some effective hip mobilising exercises and stretches include: deep lunges, pigeon holds and squat holds.
Foam rolling is also a great way to mobilise the hips and glutes, especially if you ever feel tightness in that area.
Improve your arm swing
Proper arm swing complements your leg swing. When you drive your legs, you’re also driving your arms.
The key is to keep your arms at a 90 degree angle, drive them back, keep them close to the sides of your body and ensure they don’t cross your body when you run.
If your arms cross your body too much, it will cause extra rotation in your spine which can cause unnecessary stress on the back.
It’s also not the most efficient way to run if your body is swaying from side to side.
Increase your cadence
Your cadence is basically the total number of steps you take in a minute whilst out running. Every runner will have their own personal running cadence. This depends on a whole host of factors, including speed, running experience and even height.
A taller runner, for example, will have a slightly slower running cadence to someone who is shorter than them as they will have a greater stride length.
If your cadence is too low, it could mean you’re taking long strides, landing heel first and effectively breaking against your forward motion. To achieve proper running footstrike, aim to land your feet closer to your centre of gravity.
In the short term, however, monitor your cadence and see if it is impacting your run. One easy way to measure your running cadence is to count the times your feet hit the ground in 60 seconds.
Good runners usually have a higher cadence because they usually go faster than beginners. Top marathoners, for example, typically run with a cadence above 90, whereas most beginners will run at 78–82.
More tips to improve your footstrike
In order to achieve proper running footsrike, here are some more tips and advice on improving your footstrike:
- Wear comfortable running shoes. Your running shoes have a large part to play in how you run. Check out my post on how to choose the best running shoes for beginners for more information.
- Practice, practice, practice! Changing or improving your footstrike is unlikely to happen overnight. It will take time to improve your footstrike so don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
- Practice running drills. Some running drills will help you adopt a more neutral footstrike. If you’d like to adopt a mid-foot footstrike, for example, the high knees and A-skip running drills will help you do this. Check out my post on essential running drills to improve form and performance for more information.