Switching Safely: From heel strike to mid/forefoot strike – Part 1

If you were sober your entire life, would it be a safe to go out and have 5 shots?

- cue traumatic flashbacks -

Gradually building up a tolerance and allowing your body to acclimate is the better strategy.

That same concept of gradual acclimation applies to changing foot strike patterns – it allows your musculature, neuro-muscular control, and mind-body connection to adapt slowly and safely. 

Otherwise, you increase your risk for injuries like Achilles tendonitis, posterior tibialis tendonitis, peroneal tendonitis, gastroc (calf) strains – to name a few major ones.

If you want to do it safely, you have to do it gradually. I’d wager the book Born to Run has boosted business for a lot of medical professionals.

Changes in Load on the Foot/Ankle Joints and Muscles

The modern day running shoe has been around since the 1970's and if you’ve been wearing these shoes for awhile now, your body has adapted to the features of the shoe.   

Three of these features and subsequent adaptations are critical to understand:

1) The shoe has a force dissipating cushion, resulting in less force through the foot joints.

2) The shoe has a heel rise, resulting in the Achilles being in and adapting to a shortened position. Here’s a visual:

3) The shoes’ heel rise biases gait toward a heel strike pattern.  This pattern reduces load on specific running musculature, namely your plantar flexors which include the gastrocs and soleus - both of which make up your calves - , achilles tendon, the posterior tibialis, and the peroneals.

In contrast, a mid/forefoot strike pattern - although reducing total peak force - changes the load and stress on these three areas as it flips the heel-strike mechanics.  The foot is now making contact with the ground at a more distal point and the heel subsequently drops to the ground.  You can see the difference in this picture here:

Left: mid/forefoot strike – distal foot strikes the ground first and then the heel drops to the ground

Left: mid/forefoot strike – distal foot strikes the ground first and then the heel drops to the ground

The mid/forefoot strike results in:

1) The distal foot joints, accustomed to reduced force, taking on more force as they become the initial contact point with the ground. 

2) The Achilles tendon, accustomed to a shortened position, now has to stretch farther than it’s used to in order to control the heel’s drop to the ground– in other words, eccentric control of dorsiflexion.

3) The gastrocs, soleus, posterior tibialis, and peroneals also eccentrically control dorsiflexion, resulting in them lengthening and taking on additional eccentric load. 

The overall theme is this: joints and muscles doing things they aren’t used to.  Without proper acclimation, that’s a recipe for injury.

Just ask my liver after those 5 shots.  Ugh.

Neuro-Muscular Adaptation

The neuromuscular system adapts to new training and movements by facilitating new motor control and muscle activation patterns - think: “motor memory”.  

With continued practice of a task, your skilled motor control and muscle recruitment patterns improve - increasing the efficiency and ease of movement.  In fact, the improvements seen in roughly the first 2 weeks of a new task are predominantly comprised of neuromuscular adaptations.

When changing foot-strikes, it is crucial to allow the neuromuscular system the needed time to adapt – therefore increasing your running economy and reducing the risk of injury.

Mind-Body Connection

The brain often interprets change, good or bad, as threatening - like a Dad who hears his daughter has a new boyfriend and instantly goes on alert without knowing anything about him.

This perception of threat creates a heightened sense of vigilance and sensitivity in those regions of change –like shining a spotlight on that area.

In order to mitigate this sense of threat, the brain requires time and reinforcement to become accustomed to the changes, eventually settling onto a new normal.

To Sum it All Up

The changes in load on the joints and muscles in conjunction with the time needed for the neuromuscular system and mind-body connection to adapt highlight why you need a plan that gradually and safely acclimates you to the new mid/forefoot strike.

In part 2, I will go through my specific suggestions for making a safe change from a heel to mid/forefoot strike.

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