Written by: Ian Murray
One of the most important elements of run technique is stride length, yet it is often overshadowed by the debate about which part of the foot should meet the ground first. In fact, stride length and foot-ground contact point are linked, but one is far more important than the other. When runners talk about the foot meeting the ground, the term “heel striker” is often spat out with disdain. The vague idea of mid-foot is tossed about nearly as frequently as the precise location of the ball of the foot. We even hear discussion of the seemingly acrobatic idea of running on one’s toes.
Where the foot meets the ground in relation to the hip is far more important than which part of the foot touches down first. There are many benefits to shortening one’s stride so that the foot touches down just millimeters in front of the hip, including greater efficiency, greater speed and a reduced risk of injury.
Heel striking is frowned upon because it’s associated with a long stride. A long stride is one where the foot is cast forward, reaching well ahead of one’s center of gravity and then meeting the ground. This consistently results in a heel strike. The trouble with this long stride is not that the heel meets the ground first but that the heel crushes into the ground, sending a jolt up through the ankle, knee and hip. That impact creates breaking that slows a runner down. The long stride also causes vertical oscillation, so precious energy is wasted bouncing up and down rather than moving forward. The long stride also forces the foot to remain on the ground much longer as it waits for the rest of the body’s mass to move forward. A short stride results in far less impact, less braking and more efficiency, and it keeps the foot happier because it spends less time on the ground.
One way to check your stride length is to count how many times your feet touch the ground in a 10-second period; the number should be about 30. Try this on your next run, and if you come up with significantly fewer than 30 steps, consider shortening your stride. Initially, this may feel uncomfortable and require more effort than normal, so shorten your run distances for two weeks while you work on effecting this change and break up those runs by walking for 60 seconds every few minutes. In time, you will adapt to this new style and be better for it. Keep your mind focused on placing the foot on the ground almost under the hip: Your turnover will increase, the foot will only be on the ground for the briefest period of time and your upper body should feel steady and smooth as your legs roll like a wheel beneath you.
Remember: As long as the foot lands more or less under the hip, it matters little whether it’s the heel, the mid-foot or the ball that touches down first.
Ian Murray is head coach of the Los Angeles Tri Club and author of the instructional DVDs, “Triathlon Training Series.”