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The Surprising Benefit Of Running On Your Heels

RSeveral years ago my brothers suggested I read a book called Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. In it, McDougall asserts that running “barefoot” or with minimal shoes will reduce injuries and encourage better form and a more efficient stride which will lead to faster times. My husband and I were intrigued. We went out and got some of those funny looking toe shoes the Vibram FiveFingers and we put them to work.

We loved the shoes immediately. We felt much more comfortable in them. Our feet felt much freer. I did have some pain as I transitioned, but I chalked it up to the fact that I was 7 months pregnant. After I had my baby and started running again, I made an effort to land on my forefoot rather than striking with my heel. Before too long, the pain I’d been having in my feet disappeared and I began to love running more than ever.

And I loved it even more when I started racing again and found that I’d gotten much faster.  Again, I credited the magic shoes and the change I’d made in my stride. That was how I was able to run faster and why I was able to do it without injury. I was sure the one true way to run at least for those who are beset by injury is by hitting the ground with a forefoot strike. Heel striking was a shortcut to injury (not to mention putting the brakes on faster finishes).

In the years since then, however, my faith in that assertion has been shaken. New evidence has turned up. More studies have been done. The passionate flame of barefoot (or minimalist) running has burned down to a few glowing embers. And while I still run in my Vibrams 95% of the time, I am no longer an evangelist for the movement. Not everyone wants to run faster. Not everyone has problems with their running shoes. Not everyone gets injured when they strike with their heels. And some of those heel strikers are really fast.

Then, just this week The New York Times reported on a study that sheds some light on a few of the nuances of heel striking versus forefoot striking, and why some people get injured when others don’t. Everybody has their own biomechanics, their own physiological quirks. Some of those physical differences create weaknesses that can be exacerbated by a heel strike and lead to knee injuries. However, other physical differences create weaknesses that lead to ankle problems and Achilles’ tendon injuries in forefoot strikers.

Everyone has their thing.

And while there may be no way of escaping injury altogether (unless you are one of the lucky few whose biomechanics and physiology work together to allow them to run forever with hardly a twinge), there are things you can try to get around your particular poison: knees or ankles. And that is to change your stride. Heel strikers who suffer from knee injuries can work to become forefoot strikers to keep their knees healthy. Forefoot strikers whose Achilles’ tendons give them issues may want to consider taking some of the pressure of those tendons by exploring the heel strike.

These findings make sense to me and lead me to believe that my magic minimalist shoes may not have been as magic as I thought they were. And that maybe I didn’t need to work so hard to change my stride.

Still, I wouldn’t trade my new personal records for my old heel strike any day. And I still really like those funny toe shoes.

 

image via istockphoto.com

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