How You Land Matters

As regular readers of this blog know, I train and race barefoot. When I race, I’m always surprised at how noisy the runners around me are. Not because they talk a lot (some of them do), or because they yell (some of them do that too), but because they thump. Yes, shod runners, you sound like a great thundering herd. It would be really annoying if it weren’t so comical – and sad.

Why do shod runners run noisily? Because the vast majority of them heel strike, that’s why. Barefoot runners don’t. It’s almost impossible to heel strike when you run barefoot, for the simple reason that it hurts too much. Barefoot runners have either a mid-foot or a fore-foot landing. It’s a stronger, more efficient, and more natural way to run. Sadly, running in shoes is almost certain to keep you from running naturally and quietly.

Before I go any further, I’d like to urge you to change the way you talk about running style. Instead of saying “foot strike,” say “foot landing.” In doing so, I follow barefoot legend Ken Bob Saxton’s dictum that one should never strike the ground, but always land gently on it. I also recognize that language has power beyond its mere sound. If you say “strike,” you will strike. If you say “land,” you’re well on your way to changing the way you run to something better.

Here’s an excellent graphic that shows some of the good and bad about “land” versus “strike,” and about “heel strike” versus “”mid-foot and fore-foot landing.” (When you read it, don’t forget to substitute “land” for strike.” You’ll be a better person for it.) The graphic comes to us courtesy of the good foks at Altra Zero Drop shoes. More about them later in the post.

Foot Landing

The whole story about foot landing needs some science if it’s to be understood properly. Some of the best work available comes from Prof. Daniel Lieberman, who heads the Harvard Skeletal Biology Lab. I invite you to check out this video for some good images of barefoot running foot landing, as well as how Lieberman’s research shows that barefoot runners, who tend to land on their fore-foot, generate less impact shock than runners in sports shoes who land heel first.

There’s more good stuff – the hard science data kind of good stuff – here, on an excellent page from the Skeletal Biology Lab site. On it, you’ll find some great videos and comparison data on the difference between heel striking and forefoot striking. (Remember what I said about substituting “land” for “strike”!) Long story short, the page illustrates how and why a large collision is generated when heel striking and why such a small collision is generated when forefoot striking. The page is really “feature rich,” as they say in the software world, but it’s well worth spending some time on. If you do, your understanding of running will benefit immensely.

Back to the folks at Altra Zero Drop. I’ve mentioned them because they seem to be one of the few shoe manufacturers who base their product design and development on the kind of information Prof. Lieberman offers, rather than paring down a traditional shoe model in order to sell to the growing minimalist market. They’re not the only one, of course – Vibram Five Fingers, Luna Sandals, and Xero Shoes minimalist sandals do the same. But the Altra Adam looks like a running-specific, zero drop, midfoot landing shoe that’s been designed from the ground up, rather than by a marketing team. Might be worth a look, if you’re thinking of a shoe that will allow the good form that comes with a midfoot or forefoot landing.

Full disclosure: I have an affiliate relationship with Xero Shoes, which means I get a small commission from them if you buy one of their sandals via a link on this blog. I own a pair Xero Connects and a pair Xero Contacts, which I previously reviewed here and here. I also own two pairs of VFF KSOs, but I haven’t worn either of them for about four years. And I’m working at getting a pair of Altra Adams for review. Stay tuned!

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6 comments

    1. Very nicely written, Peter. I agree with everything you say. It’s a moot point for me, though, as I never listen to music at all, running or not running.

  1. I hope your Adams don’t cut your feet like mine did. I sent them back shortly after a few attempts at trying them out. It could have been an issue with the size. I probably should have went a half size up.

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