Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Runners World Heel Strikers

I remember this Emo Philips joke really well. Don't ask my why.

When I was a kid, my parents used to tell me "Emo, never open the cellar door!" One day when they were away, I went up to the door, opened it and walked through. I saw strange and wonderful things I had never seen before, like trees, grass, flowers, the sun. That was nice... the sun.

I feel like heel striking is like this joke. Everybody was completely content with slamming their heels into the ground with padded running shoes until all of a sudden (at least it felt that way), heel striking is out. Nike was wrong. What were we thinking? It's hard to find a running publication that isn't warning about the dangers of heel striking. Born to Run slammed the final nail in the coffin I suppose. It's actually fun to see the running shoe companies all trying to get a cut of the minimal shoe market in response to this shift. Minimalist runner or not, I think it's good for everyone when companies are forced to innovate.

Let's be honest, lots of people heel strike. Some will want to transition to a mid-foot strike like I did over a year ago. Some will want to stick with what works for them, especially if they have been running injury free. There are elite heel strikers out there who won't want to mess with success. It is what it is. This post isn't about making judgements about heel striking or making judgements about Runners World for reporting on the shift from heel striking. It's just an interesting observation I made.

Last week when I was looking at Runners World, I couldn't help but think about the shoe advertisements. Many of them show a shoe that is contacting the ground at the heel. I was thinking that the shoe company marketers must be torn. On one hand, they have shoes built for heel strikers and they have Runners World readers who are currently heel strikers. On the other hand, Runners World (like all running publications) is talking a lot about heel striking as a thing of the past—something we need to correct on a path to natural form. No shoe brand wants to be seen as promoting something that isn't good for people or something that is no longer in vogue. After thinking about this and flicking through the pages, I suddently realized that Runners World is full of images of heel strikers. Here are some examples from the last two issues that I screen captured from my iPad...

Homer Simpson's heel strike is so pronounced that it's easy for a running nerd to overlook the pint of beer he is chugging as he sprints on the old mill. 

Here is an example of an elite athlete heel striking. She is high off the ground in this picture, so when she contacts, it will be a less pronounced heel. Clearly it isn't hurting her performance. Desiree Davila was second in the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials and is going to the 2012 Olympics.

I suspect that articles like this feature stock photography. These guys may be models and not real runners but regardless, the guy in white is about to heel strike like it's 1999. 

Probably a model stock photo shoot. It's hard to tell if she is running or power walking. Since it is about running, I have to assume that's what she is doing. The camera angle makes this photo scream heel strike.

Yikes. There is nothing magical about injuring yourself running over the moat of the Disney castle. This lady is going to crack a tile. Even the seven dwarves are all heel striking for crying out loud. See.. we have become so accustomed to heel striking that illustrators draw it as the default.

Holabird is a sporting store near Baltimore. I'm not sure where they got this low budget photo from but the man's a heel striker and darned proud of it.

Lucy makes "activeware" for women aparently. I had to look it up. Their model who may or may not be a runner is just about to heel strike.

Is Lululemon so well known that they can only show their symbol? I'm not so sure. It took me ages to remember who it was. It also took me a while to work out what the ad meant. For a progressive wellness brand, there is a whole lot of heel striking going on in this picture. To be fair to them, it looks like a photo of a real race.

Here we go again with Disney's obsession with heel striking. Thank goodness that candles and mop heads (I think that's what they are) can't heel strike. 

So, what does all this mean? Nothing really. I think the images in Runners World reflect what is happening in the real World. Sports scientists and running publications may be excited to talk about the benefits of a mid-foot strike but there are millions of heel strikers out there. Just because we have become enlightened about running form and body mechanics doesn't mean everyone became a mid-foot striker overnight. Maybe overly padded shoes will become the exception—not the rule. Maybe mid-foot striking will be the default for most runners. Maybe illustrators will think mid-foot when they draw runners. We'll see what the future holds. Until then, check out the discrepancy between articles that talk about running form and running photos in mags like Runners World.

POST UPDATE 03/01/2012
My friend Doug made a good point. He said that a heel strike looks more elegant in a still photo and many photographers love to capture the moment when the foot is fully extended outward. Doug is a heel striker who re-trained using Chi Running in order to avoid chronic injury.


  1. I've been running competitively for over 36 years and minimal shoes haven't been around long enough for me to have an opinion about them. However, I do have an opinion about heel striking vs. mid-foot & fore-foot striking that I'd like to share.

    First of all, I believe the proper landing point on any given foot should be directly proportionate to how fast you're going. I don't know why this isn't being discussed during these debates because it's completely relevant. I am a heel-striker, mid-foot striker AND fore-foot striker. And it all depends on how fast I'm going.

    If I'm walking (which is one extreme end of the spectrum) then I'm landing on my heel as is just about everyone else. If I'm in an all out sprint, I'm landing on my forefoot and my heels never touch the ground at all. If I'm somewhere in between I'm likely landing on my mid-foot. All three of these are perfectly natural and do not need fixing.

    It's always bothered me when sweeping generalizations are made about running form because there is no such thing as PERFECT running form that applies to everyone. There are exceptions to every rule (probably even including the one I just stated :) based on height, weight, experience level, leg length discrepancies, overall genetics etc.

    Long story short, if you're running 10 minutes per mile or slower you'll probably still be landing on your heels and that's more than likely, perfectly OK. Your stride and point of impact should always feel comfortable to YOU relative to how fast you're going. The reason we see heel-striking running poses in advertisements is generally because they're not really running at all. A camera man told them to slowly jog towards the camera. Thus, the heel-striking.

  2. I am well aware of your barefoot and minimalist peeves Jim :) I don't think most reasonable people would argue that the foot isn't meant to move between heel and fore-foot depending on your speed. The heel is designed to be used for walking. You only have to look at slow motion of Usain Bolt to see the amazing power in a fore-foot strike for sprinting. There is plenty of evidence to show that when you heel strike at a long distance running speed, the forces on your body are more extreme and therefore potentially more injury inducing when you are heel striking. Obviously the impact isn't the same for everyone. I benefitted from the change. It may have been very different if I had been a runner since I was a kid. I think your point about heel striking at slower speeds in "jog" mode is an interesting point. I haven't seen any research that specific. Very slow speeds may be more akin to walking. Speed walkers certainly heel strike. My only point with this post was to point out that it's ironic to hear all the hoopla that running magazines put out about mid-foot striking when the majority of their images portrait heel strikes. You are absolutely right about the way in which some of these shots are captured. You only have to see the Kara Goucher's photo shoot in the studio to realize that she isn't actually running on the cover of Runners World. Another thing to consider too is that many art director types believe that running shots look more elegant when the runner has a very extended leg. There is something pleasing about catching someone in that running position. Continue to push on the subject Jim!

  3. No, I hear you. Frankly I'm amazed that so much attention is being paid to it in the first place. And my point of view was admittedly oversimplified. There is certainly value in trying to improve your form and become more efficient. But I believe that there are also plenty of injuries to be had that aren't as directly related to shoes and foot strike as people think. In that photo of Desiree Davila you see that she is clearly landing on her heel but it doesn't look like she's over striding (which is probably the real heal strike no, no). I'm sure she doesn't run like this all the time, it's likely just a camera pose shuffle. I guess my only real point is that I believe it is quite possible to land on your heels without "slamming them into the ground". I did it just this morning on my recovery run because my calves were a little sore.

  4. I'd be a fool to not respect your opinion Jim. You are a running machine and I jealously watch your training on DailyMile. Like all things, this barefoot/minimalist thing is too black and white with little of the gray being discussed. People like to pick sides on issues like this. I think your points are very well taken. Even if Desiree is a heel striker, it would be hard to say that there is anything wrong with it if she runs injury free and is one of the best runners in the World. I'd heel strike like a bandit if I could have a piece of that. Heck, I'd do it if I could run anything like you run Jim. Your new point about degrees of heel strike are valid. When I was at New Balance (a newer post), the camera showed that one of my feet was subtlety heel striking. It was nothing as extreme as the Disney lady and I'm sure if you tested the stress of both, mine would be far less likely to cause injury. I'm still experimenting with the minimalist thing. On one hand it has gotten me out there running with less injury. On the other, my feet can't tolerate very little padding. When I run with low drop padded shoes, my form tends to get lazy. This factor would probably be different if I had been an efficient runner all my life like you. I'm going to continue to play with it and see what happens.

  5. I think the mop-heads might be napkins with rings.
    Anyway, regardless of what running form we each prefer, I can't imagine anyone denying that the lady in the first Disney photo is about to wreck her knee and those dwarves seem to think it's pretty funny!


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