By Christopher Cudworth
Is there really controversy over the benefits of mid-foot versus rearfoot striking for distance running?
Every decent distance runner knows you need to use a combination of both. You don’t sprint on your heels and the efficiency of running distance races over 5K completely on your forefoot is diminished as you fatigue.
So here’s a hint: Learn how to do both, and use both running methods in every training run you do.
Classic yet modern form
If you want to see the perfect stride in action, consider the running form of 1984 Olympic Marathon and World Cross Country champion Carlos Lopes. This video of Lopes shows his smooth form. Notice how his feet seem to “kiss” the ground rather than strike it either with the heel or the forefoot.
This is a runner who knew how to use his feet properly in races ranging from the 5K to the marathon. If you’re struggling over whether to run strictly on the heel or the forefoot, take the example of Carlos Lopes to heart. At 38 years of age he won both the World Cross Country championships and the Olympic Marathon.
It’s all about running “over” the ground whichever foot plant you choose. The greats of course combine the two forms. The efficiency of stride in Carlos Lopes is something few people can really replicate. His form was honed through thousands of training miles and races to boot. At one point he ran the second-fasted 10,000 meters of all time.
Those of us without the physiological or biomechanical gifts of world class talent must learn how to use both methods depending on pace and conditions. It’s as simple as that.
As a distance runner who has raced 5K in 14:45 or so, and now runs closer to 21:00 in my mid-50s, I have learned to adapt my running form from a clear mid foot strike to a combination during a race and training that enables me to run both long and fast, depending on the distance and pace.
But let me be honest. For half a year I moved completely forward to a mid-foot strike because I was interested in reducing the pounding my body was taking. For a few months it worked. Then my achilles became sore and the discomfort would not go away.
I have moved back to a combination mid and rear foot strike and for distances up to 8 miles my achilles are fine. Beyond that there is some soreness from fatigue. There is weakness somewhere in my lower leg or foot structure that even my orthotics cannot correct entirely. This may be something I accept or else try to use calf strengthening and weight work to overcome.
It’s all about learning the right way to run from the beginning however. I’ve had many years to work on my stride mechanics and still maintain enough flexibility to do speed work on the track at just under 6:00 pace. As time goes by that will likely be reduced and I may find myself a pure rear foot striker.
Our foundations change with training and time.
However, there are still some basics to follow when “training” your body to be able to run with both a forefoot and a heel strike.
1. Practice your forefoot running on a predictable surface.
It is preferable to do faster paced running with a forefoot strike where the surface is level and predictable. That way you can concentrate on the form and not your balance due to road camber, cracks or God Forbid, tarsnakes trying to trip you up.
2. To run faster and use your forefoot for speed, you do not necessarily need to lean forward, but you do need to increase leg turnover.
Take note that the sensation you should feel when using your forefoot to run is not to “grab” or strike the ground. If you are doing that you are overreaching with your forefoot in a way that may actually slow you down. Instead, thinking about what is basically a “paddling” motion in which your forefoot is actually coming back toward the center as you run “over” the surface.
3. Use your forefoot to increase tempo, conduct surges and for a finishing sprint.
Those three situations are when you need to use your forefoot for better speed at efficiency.
4. Your heel strike should also “kiss” the ground.
One of the most common mistakes in running for speed is form that amounts to a jarring or “braking” effect. That can happen with over striding. When your foot strikes the ground with the leg fully straight, you’re essentially “running into” the ground every stride. Ugh. That hurts and it slows you down. Instead, you need to concentrate on moving your legs through like the Road Runner cartoon.
But we can’t all be gazelles.
Need inspiration that speed can come even from an ungainly stride? Watch this video of John Tracy racing Steve Ovett in the 5000 meters. Talk about contrasts! Ovett is a miler running with perfect forefoot speed. Tracy is the consummate “mudlark” as they call him in the video, somewhat staggering forward with the Irish determination. Yet his form gets him where he needs to go. What a lesson and an inspiration for all of us.
But controversy over rear or mid-foot striking? I don’t think so. The only controversy is why you would to want to train yourself to be able to do both, and use them as needed during races and training.