Why you should care
Because who wants to be injured?
It’s a fierce debate. Documentaries have been made, books written and countless scientific studies published evangelizing opposing schools of thought, which have morphed into fundamental beliefs about human evolution. The question: Hit the ground with the forefoot, or the heel? A recent joint study by researchers at Harvard, South Dakota State University and the University of Lincoln suggests:
Strike with the forefoot!
In the study, 249 women between the ages of 18 and 40 who ran at least 20 miles a week underwent a gait analysis, then recorded their mileage and any related injuries in a database for two years. Researchers found that runners who pound the ground with stronger force are more likely to suffer injuries severe enough to require a visit to the doctor. The study and others also show heel strikers are the ones who tend to hit harder. Score one for the fans of FiveFingers. But, as was mentioned earlier, there are mounds of studies that argue the exact opposite. Lead author Irene Davis, a visiting professor at Harvard and director of the Spaulding National Running Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says the significance of the study is that it compares injured athletes to those who’ve never sought medical attention, an understudied population in this field.
More than 20 million Americans run on a regular basis, and as we pace into the fall marathon season, millions are likely battling plantar fasciitis, calf strains and tendinitis. But if running was a key component to human survival, giving our ancestors the means to hunt, why do the bodies of so many 21st-century runners reject this instinctual movement? The study suggests that changes in our striking patterns, the result of modern shoes, has something to do with it. “We came into the world running barefoot; it’s in our genes,” says Davis. But today’s cushy sneakers, with their maximum support and stability, have led roughly 89 percent of joggers to land heel-first, compared with minimalist or barefoot running, which forces a runner to land either mid-foot or forefoot.
However, Allison Gruber and many other vocal opponents disagree. Gruber, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Indiana University Bloomington School of Public Health, points to several other recent studies that considered males and females of similar age groups and didn’t find impact correlates to injury. Research on impact and striking patterns tend to overgeneralize, Gruber cautions. “The hard part of figuring out what causes injures is we all have such different body types and running form,” she says. “You need to look at the whole picture.” That includes variables such as stance, overall nutrition and other physical activity. Gruber’s position is that we move the way we’re supposed to based on how we’re built, and that trying to change your gait is more likely to cause injuries than prevent them.
Davis, on the other hand, advocates runners consider transitioning to a lower-impact strike. How? Start by strengthening the lower leg muscles, including the calf and foot, then take it slow. Shorten your stride and quiet your patter. Oh, and think about investing in a pair of Nike Frees.