Footstrikes and the Elusive ‘Perfect Stride’

Image: Dr. Iain Hunter / BYU Biomechanics Lab

It’s an age-old question: what’s the best running form?

Especially common in conversation among runners is the topic of footstrike: how much does part of the foot that comes into contact with the ground first affect your ability to run faster, and with reduced chance of injury? Though current theories suggest a mid-to-forefoot strike to be “ideal,” the science is still very much in the air.

Rather than just studying biomechanic models, why not come at this topic by taking a look at the actual strides of the top runners in the world? Aside from being the fastest, these runners have warded off injury enough to make it to their level, so if there is a “perfect” footstrike, surely it would be shared amongst the running elite, right?

This is what Dr. Iain Hunter of Brigham Young University wanted to find out. Using a high speed camera placed trackside, Hunter recorded the strides of the runners in a number of distance events at the 2012 US Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.

Olympic Trials Men’s 10,000m – Video: Dr. Iain Hunter/BYU Biomechanics Lab

Think a midfoot strike is the key to running success? The results may not be so conclusive. Though many of the runners do exhibit the coveted mid-to-forefoot strike, there is much variation in footstrike patterns from runner to runner. If anything, this shows us that there is no perfect stride – every runner will be a little different in what is most effective for them.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

  • Luke

    I think the recent focus on footstrike is a bad thing that has only been encouraged by armchair biomechanics experts on youtube. I say “recent” because when I started running pre-internet I don’t really remember it being mentioned at all. No one cared what the guy next to you in the corral ran like. That would be be weird and awkward.

    It also just ends up confusing novice runners who worry that if they are a heel striker it’s something to be embarrassed about or worse, that they should just quit now because they’ll never be a good runner.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been sprinting the last 400m of a half marathon only to have some guy or gal with “incorrect” form blow past them.

    It also has a negative impact on what shoes novices or even experienced runners buy and creates myths about footwear. I was once told that unless I run in zero drop shoes I will heel strike, even though I do not heel strike even in 14mm Nike trail shoes.

    The bottom line is that there are more important things to worry about, such as nutrition, proper rest and recovery. How you “strike” is only a small part of the package.

  • Matt

    Excellent comment, Luke. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We agree that footstrike is just one small part of the puzzle. We’re encouraged to see Dr. Hunter’s research suggesting that there is not one “right” footstrike, and we think studies like this will help to make footstrike less of a concern over time. You’re right that there are much more important aspects of training and form that are more important.

  • http://n/a dirk smathers

    What does “best running form” mean though? Does it mean the form where you are the fastest? Where you are the least prone to injury? Where you are the most efficient?

  • Nate

    My mechanics are such that I can’t heel strike much at all but at the same time, I don’t care to run in really low drop shoes. All the variety in shoe configurations and heel drop is great so everyone can find their stride. Please, please, fellow runners, stop suggesting the Nimbus, Vomero, Rider, etc need a 4mm drop! ;)

  • a physical therapist

    where are all the heel strikers??? AT THE BACK!

  • David

    Luke, I appreciate your comments. Your thoughts regarding novices is spot on. You said, “It also just ends up confusing novice runners who worry that if they are a heel striker it’s something to be embarrassed about or worse…”

    That was me a good while back. I had been running for fun and needed badly to get in shape. My first running shoes were from a department store and they worked. After dropping about 100lbs, I felt great! Then I started getting into some technical apparel, digital gadgets and the shoe industry started changing. It hindered my enthusiasm and momentum.

    Sure enough there were many myths coming up about footwear. I wasn’t competing in races and was running for fun; still unfamiliar with much of the running industry in regards to terms and what not. I run for health, I am my own cause for now.

    After visiting 2 specialty running stores in my area, getting different reviews on my pronation and running form, ended up just slowing me down further. Shoes were changing and I started hearing discussions on running form, and reading articles that were coming up in a few running magazines.

    I personally don’t care about form and all the technical jargon I run into from fellow runners. I run for fun, the thrill and my health. As a graphic designer, I’m more into the shoe designs from concept to completion and the branding aspect of the business. Wether it’s Scott Jurek running next to a sandal-wearing Kenyan or if it was Caballo Blanco learning from the Tarahumara with shoes made from tire-treads, we all are different runners with different needs, of which I say that form is least important of those needs.

    So yes, many myths can be created with regards to the shoe industry, culture, demography and so on. On the whole I just say, “run for fun!” It works for me, thanks Luke.

    With regards to the above article, I take it as food for thought. It’s a good post nonetheless by RW, an amazing place to shop. The video segment is interesting, however, to see the different strikes. Thanks RW!

  • Calvin

    Pretty sure there won’t be any major problems as long as a runner doesn’t over stride and doesn’t *load* with the heel. Foot strike won’t really matter if a runner makes contact with the heel, but loads with his or her mid-foot. The contact with the heel would still be considered a heel strike which actually has many variants.