The problem with the “foot-strike”

Proponents of minimalist and barefoot running often suggest that we should run by striking the ground with the ball of our foot (forefoot-striking). Most expert coaches these days try to get their athletes midfoot-striking (at the level of the arch). And minimalists and experts agree that both forefoot- and midfoot-striking are better than heel-strking (where the heel hits the ground before the rest of the foot).

This post isn’t about any of that.

It’s about the problem of thinking that when our foot lands on the ground, our foot must “strike.”

Why is this important? Because most common source of running injuries is undue mechanical stress. In running, we can’t get around some stress: every time that we step and the body is lifted off the ground, gravity accelerates it back to the ground. But exactly how we do that—whether we do it in a way that’s amenable to the body or not—will influence whether we become injured or not. And if we think that the action of accelerating towards the ground is supposed to be “a strike,” then our subconscious is liable to make our footfalls increasingly aggressive. They’ll tend to evoke all the things that we associate with “striking:” disruption, damage, and violent displacement.

“But we can’t damage the ground!” You might say.

My argument would end there, if it were not for Newton’s Third Law of motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

All the force that we put into the ground also travels into our body. And you could say: “Yeah, but we just call it striking. It doesn’t really affect our footfalls.”

If only that were the case. The brain happens to be an associative machine. Our knowledge quite literally grows by linking concepts with other concepts, and these links powerfully influence our actions. Their repercussions extend at least to the physical and social systems we navigate. As the saying goes: neurons that fire together, wire together. Neurolinguistic Programming—the idea that we can affect the ways in which we do things by thinking of them differently—is based on these scientific findings. So is most of the advertising industry, which tries to make us associate eating McDonalds with being an Olympian, and Coca-Cola with happiness.

It logically follows that if we associate footfalls with the act of striking, we’ll inevitably put greater stresses into our body than if we associated footfalls with something less violent.

That, by the way, is not a new idea. It’s all over, but rarely seen in Western culture. I believe that we care too much about combat, too much about shock-and-awe, and supremacy—ideas I don’t feel I have to justify further, given our long-standing colonial tendencies—to accommodate it easily. One example of this idea is a Tarahumara saying (which has also been attributed to the Navajo and the Apache, just to name two of many): “The fastest runner leaves no tracks.”

Other examples crop up in many, many of the cultures that have a firsthand appreciation of the biosphere (as opposed to a firsthand appreciation of a constructed world, in which the biosphere is referred to as “the wilderness” or “the outdoors”). Many of these cultures teach their youth to walk “like a leopard” or “like a tiger“—very softly, that is. To many of these cultures, there was practicality in stealth.

The point isn’t to impress upon you the alleged wisdom of the Other. I mean to make the point that the core defining values of a society, and the attitudes from which we gain social capital, will have effects all over—including in our biomechanics.

The social systems in which we live are quite capable of affecting the way in which we run, whether we’d like them or not. This assertion should not be construed to mean that we can’t have softer biomechanics if we live in these “shock-and-awe” societies. We just have to pierce through the veil of the everyday and become aware of something we used to be blind to. Basically, we have to understand what paradigms we’re coming from. We internalize the idea that our culture comes with lots of baggage, some of which may be conducive to better running and better training, and some of which may not. Having internalized this idea, we have the power to make new associations: maybe a footfall doesn’t have to be a “strike.”

I think about it in terms of “receiving” the ground. When I run, I don’t strike the ground. I don’t want my body stiff as all those forces go into it, thank you very much. I receive the ground with my foot and move it behind me, like in judo. I offer no resistance to it, like in aikido. Then, as my center of gravity moves forwards, I express myself again. With practice and mindfulness, our footfalls, our action of reception and expression, can become faster and increasingly more powerful.

Suggested Reading:

Corbett, Jim. Jungle lore. Oxford University Press, 1953.

Lee, Bruce. The art of expressing the human body. Vol. 4. Tuttle Publishing, 1998.

McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run: A hidden tribe, superathletes, and the greatest race the world has never seen. Random House LLC, 2011.

Powell, M. Norman, and Ingwe Powell. Ingwe. Kendall/Hunt, 1995.

Pulvermüller, Friedemann. “Brain mechanisms linking language and action.”Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6.7 (2005): 576-582.

11 thoughts on “The problem with the “foot-strike””

  1. Hola Ivan, que padres estan tus articulos, profundos, sistemicos y educativos. Felicidades!! Me vas hacer correr de nuevo… Gracias!

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  2. Iván , me encanta escucharte de este tema cuando vas a Obregon, ahora mucho mejor como casi no te veo , esta es una forma de seguir aprendiendo de ti y de saber que siempre estás un paso más adelante en todo. Gracias por compartir tus conocimientos .

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  3. Here’s another analogy perhaps more in line with Western analytical thought that loves cars and drives over everything: when I run, I try to think of my feet more like a wheel producing torque rather than two pistons striking the ground. You want to have the ground convey you horizontally without undue stress on your “shocks”. (Obviously you should be mindful of horizontal stress also, which is where this analogy breaks down and the more organic “receiving the ground” analogy works much better.)

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    1. Absolutely!

      I agree with your analogy completely, but in addition I have to say: I encourage anyone to use whatever metaphors they need to in order to soften their landing.

      Ultimately, use whatever will get you there.

      My observation in this post consists of 2 main things:

      1) Build an idea of how your body (and mind) and of how the world works that is both accurate and useful

      2) Use whatever metaphors or mental tricks you need to in order to actually put that useful, accurate idea in play

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