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Actual data on foot strike patterns

December 6th, 2011

The debate rages on about how your foot should land when you’re running — but we still know remarkably little about how people’s feet are currently landing in the real world, outside of biomechanics laboratories. Pete Larson (of Runblogger fame) has a new paper in the Journal of Sports Sciences that offers some interesting data. It’s a very straightforward study: he (and his undergrad researchers) hung out at the 10K and 32K marks of the 2009 Manchester City Marathon with a high-speed camera, and filmed the runners going past. Then they went back and classified the foot strikes into three categories as illustrated here:

At the 10K mark, he got data for 936 runners who were doing either the half or full marathon. The results:

  • rearfoot: 88.9%
  • midfoot: 3.4%
  • forefoot: 1.8%
  • asymmetrical (i.e. different with right and left foot): 5.9%

It’s worth noting that virtually none of the runners were barefoot or wearing Vibrams — this was 2009, before the frenzy really started. Larson collected more data this year, so it will be interesting to see what (if anything) changes when that data is analyzed.

At the 32K mark, it was just marathoners, and Larson was able to positively identify 286 runners at both the 10K and 32K marks. Of these runners, 87.8% were rearfoot striking at 10K, and 93.0% were rearfoot striking at 32K. Basically, some of the runners who weren’t rearfoot striking initially got tired and settled into a rearfoot gait. There were no forefoot strikers left at 32K. To me, this is the most interesting avenue for further research: can people who switch to a forefoot strike maintain it all the way through a marathon? Do you have to grow up barefoot to develop that strength, or can it be acquired in a few years?

One last point: no significant relationship between race times and foot strike (though the number of non-rearfoot strikers was so small that any relationship would have been hard to find). Anyway, great to see some hard data, and I’m sure we’ll see a lot more like this in the years to come.

  1. December 7th, 2011 at 00:34 | #1

    I’ve recently started running using a more minimalist footwear choice. I’d started out running heavily on a heel strike 12 years ago. In recent years I’ve moved to a more mid-to fore foot strike. I’m interested to see how newer information correlates with this 2008 data. It has helped me fight a chronic lower back issue and by changing the my foot strike has allowed me to run much more pain free but not entirely. Comparison information would be interesting… I’m not sure how it would affect my running foot strike but I think with the hype it is important to know what the benefits truly are. Thanks for sharing this info!

  2. December 7th, 2011 at 03:22 | #2

    The evidence is interesting and begs a lot of questions about proper footwear during longer races. Some podiatrists have even pointed out that a heel-strike is more energy-efficient than mid-to-forefoot striking (http://bit.ly/ufYTtb). I am a minimlaist believer, but everyone should be armed with the best information before making a switch.

  3. December 7th, 2011 at 10:51 | #3

    I find the persistent fascination with forefoot, midfoot, rearward foot placement by many parts of the media currently interesting. Interesting because it misses the point….

    The point is not how the foot is placed but where it is placed in relation to the centre of mass of the person.

    Now if someone did a study on elite, National and just everyday runners foot placement wrt COM in a marathon THAT would be a useful and relevant study……

    My 2c….

  4. December 7th, 2011 at 13:47 | #4

    David, I think it is really hard(if not impossible) to heal strike under your center of mass(COM). If you are heal striking you are probably reaching in front of your COM. So heal or forefoot striking is a consequence of our running technique. So lets all forget about our feet, and think about what everything else is doing and our feet should literally fall in the right place.

  5. Paul Wallis
    December 7th, 2011 at 17:57 | #5

    Yes it’s nice to see some hard evidence, and I’m also excited to see how these stats change in the near future. It’s interesting to note the number of heel strikes are drastically reduced in the unshod population. Forefoot, and midfoot striking is definately more natural. Heel striking seems to be only found in the shod population. Whether or not this makes it better or worse remains to be seen. If there were some hard data that makes shoe wearing to be better then barefoot, I may buy myself some new shoes. Until then I’ll be happily running barefoot.

  6. Alex
    December 7th, 2011 at 22:41 | #6

    I don’t think this data is really at odds with much of the minimalist running idealogy, the focus of which seems to have moved from footstrike to foot placement at strike. I think the thing to consider is this: How much cushion and structure is really needed to allow a comfortable and efficient footstrike – whether heel, mid, or forefoot? Personally, I think it’s a lot less than we’ve been sold.

  7. Paul Wallis
    December 7th, 2011 at 23:42 | #7

    @Alex
    Personally Alex I believe the same, but playing devil’s advocate for a moment. Do you have any specific evidence to suport that any cushioning is necessary?

  8. Alex
    December 8th, 2011 at 06:30 | #8

    @Paul Wallis
    None. I do, however, think there is a place for common sense. I tried to run a rocky 50 miler in Merrel Trail Gloves. After a great 50K (I was leading), I was reduced to a walk; my feet had turned black. Proprioceptive matters, but so does minimizing damage. Of course, this is me, on rocks, over 50 miles. But it does make the point that there are endless variables to consider.

  9. alex
    December 8th, 2011 at 18:14 | #9

    Thanks for the comments, folks. (And I’ll just point out that @Alex is a different commenter, not me!)

    I agree with the general sentiment that foot strike data like this doesn’t provide us with any great insights into how we SHOULD run, or whether a particular foot strike is good or bad, or even whether foot strike matters at all. The point is, it’s data, and it provides a baseline. Now things are clearly changing in the running world, so it’ll be very interesting to see how Pete’s 2011 data ends up comparing. And his 2013 data… and so on…

  10. Aaron
    December 8th, 2011 at 21:34 | #10

    @David, @EJ
    For what it’s worth, there are two somewhat relevant blog posts, including examples of shod/unshod conditions causing forefoot/heel strike without changing position relative to CoG:
    http://www.runblogger.com/2010/08/on-running-form-ii-where-should.html
    http://www.scienceofrunning.com/2010/08/why-we-land-in-front-of-our-center-of.html

  11. December 8th, 2011 at 22:24 | #11

    Alex- i think you are right. It is just observational data. We can’t make a lot of assumptions based on this information without more data. If we took still images or weights of many Americans we would learn that many of them are overweight. This would not tell us that this is normal, or a good thing. Just that it is common. The same is true here.

  12. December 8th, 2011 at 22:29 | #12

    “Basically, some of the runners who weren’t rearfoot striking initially got tired and settled into a rearfoot gait.”

    Fair to point out the obvious: technique declining due to being tired happens to almost everyone in every sport. Running, boxing, swimming, playing tennis, doing Judo, etc etc etc. Even in other activities such as singing.
    Now, as far as running is concerned, if the shoe isn’t the most adequate and makes running with proper technique more difficult, then said decline is guaranteed to happen since proper technique was being consciously enforced and not happening naturally.

  13. Paul Wallis
    December 10th, 2011 at 19:42 | #13

    @Alex
    Anecdotal doesn’t account for much. I could equally point out that many runners have completed rocky terrain races in minimalist shoes without a huge amount of foot damage. Also what does “turning my feet black” mean? Did you have some blisters, or bruises, or were your feet just tired and dirty? Sometimes science flies in the face of what may be considered common sense.

  14. Enric
    December 15th, 2011 at 12:09 | #14

    @David
    Interesting factoid: Gbrselassie is rear foot striker AND seems to overpronates:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAW87NsiGuI

    And this guy runs in flats. Maybe pronation also changes during the run?

  15. Jimmy B
    January 11th, 2012 at 10:47 | #15

    I think the other big factor that needs to be considered is pelvic position. If you are a posterior pelvic tilter as many runners are (increase with fatigue) you are going to almost certainly be a rear foot striker. Simply going barefoot or minimalist will not automatically change an engrained motor pattern

  1. December 7th, 2011 at 04:24 | #1