Foot Strike Does Not Affect Performance in Trail Runners

Foot strike may be the most hotly contested aspects of running. Should you strike with your heel, ball of the foot, or mid-foot? A new study suggests when it comes to performance, it might not matter.

Foot strike technique is probably the most hotly contested aspect of running form. Everyone agrees your arms should swing back and forth, you should limit excess vertical movement, and you should maximize your stride length. But people just don’t seem to agree on how your foot should hit the ground.

While statistics on foot strike have been studied for road races, information on trail running has been limited. With the increasing popularity of races taking place on trails, more information is needed on form requirements for different surfaces. Understanding proper form can help to prevent injuries. To that end, in a study this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers examined the foot strike patterns of racers during a trail race.

Foot strike is determined by which part of the foot hits the ground first. Forefoot striking is probably the least prevalent running method, although it is frequently recommended. During a forefoot strike, the area around the ball of the foot touches down first. A mid-foot strike is exactly what it sounds like: the middle of the foot (pretty much the entire distal edge of the foot) makes first contact. Lastly is a rear-foot strike, also called a heel strike. The heel strike tends to be most associated with injury. However, according to this study, heel striking is also the most prevalent foot strike, with 85.1% of trail runners using it. This percentage is lower than you find in road races, but still is the most common type of heel strike in trail running.

Measuring what type of foot strike was most common wasn’t the only goal of the study. The researchers also looked at other useful data. For example, there appears to be no difference between males and females in terms of foot striking.

There was a substantial difference for shoe type, however. Namely, the runners who wore minimalist shoes were less likely to be heel strikers, probably because they were both more experienced runners and also because of the greater jarring effect on the heel without a substantial shoe. Interestingly, the runners who wore minimalist shoes tended to be faster as well, performing better at the end of the race. However, overall there seemed to be no difference in performance based on the type of foot strike. Aside from minimalist shoe wearers, heel strikers did just as well as runners with different foot strike patterns.

So, while foot strike doesn’t seem to affect performance, the heel strike is certainly the most common form, despite having its own injury profile. As far as minimalist shoes go, I’d say a good mid-foot strike is probably the best for trail running in terms of preventing injuries, but would need to see more research on the topic.

In the meantime, if you’re a heel-striker, you’re in good company. Nevertheless, you may want to practice with the other forms of heel striking, especially if you are considering a switch to minimalist shoes.


1. Mark E. Kasmer, et. al., “The relationship of foot strike pattern, shoe type, and performance in a 50-km trail race,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a20ed4

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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