Whether Runners Land on Heel or Toe Doesn't Matter: Study

Army study finds similar performance, injury rates between heel- and non-heel-strikers

A new study by the U.S. Army has found that how a runner’s foot strikes the ground has no effect on performance or the rate of injury.

The study’s abstract, which will be presented later this month at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, challenges recent research that says non-heel strikers perform better and are less injury-prone.

The question of what foot strike method is best for runners has been a hot one in recent years. Although the vast majority of runners land on their heels, the rise of minimalist running and a famous Harvard study from 2010 linking barefoot running to a forefoot strike pattern have practically opened up a new field of study.

The more that’s written about rear-vs.-forefoot striking, however, the less clear the issue gets.

Further research has complicated the “natural” foot-strike debate—it may be that there is no natural technique after all. Another Harvard study last year correlated heel-striking with higher rates of stress injuries in 52 college-level cross country runners, but a much larger Army study proved inconclusive on the matter. (It did find, however, that runners who used minimalist footwear had lower injury rates.)

The new study tested 342 male soldiers for foot strike method using high-definition cameras (as opposed to the self-reporting in the Army’s previous study), and compared their two-mile run times and self-reported injury histories.

The abstract makes no mention of footwear, but given that one of the authors, Donald L. Goss, also co-authored the other Army foot strike study, it’s likely that the researchers were sensitive to the changes different shoe styles could introduce and controlled for that. (We’re awaiting confirmation of this.)

Consistent with previous research, 87 percent of the runners were heel strikers and the remaining 13 percent landed either on the fore- or mid-foot.

The reported injury rate and number of days training was modified due to injury was actually slightly lower among heel strikers, but not statistically significant. The average two-mile times were identical at 14.8 minutes.

Given these results, the authors conclude that “neither [foot strike] pattern is advantageous.”

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