As a run coach, I’ve recorded and analyzed the strides of hundreds of runners who range in ability from beginners to elites. Overstriding is the biggest and most common flaw I see in beginners, slower runners, and those who are constantly injured. Unfortunately, overstriding is commonly confused with the ambiguous term “heel striking,” and little guidance is given on how to detect and correct it. This article shows simple visualizations of both overstriding and heel striking, using Emma from The Age Group as our fitness model.
In the first set of animations (full speed and slowed 10x), Emma shows us really nice run form. For our purposes, we’ll focus on her front foot as it lands. Note that it’s directly beneath her knee, and her lower leg is approximately vertical at foot strike. This is the foundation of good run form. Amongst faster runners, the one almost universal constant is the foot landing directly beneath the knee.
- It creates a strong braking force—not only slowing her down, but also causing a lot of impact to the lower leg.
- It causes a longer ground-contact time—again, slowing her down. (Note that her cadence is also slower in the overstride clip. Lower cadence usually goes hand-in-hand with an overstride.)
- It causes the foot to violently and instantaneously go from a toe-pointed-in-the-air position to flat on the ground. This causes huge strain on the shins.
So how does this relate to the term “heel striking”? Yes, it’s true that Emma’s overstride causes her heel to hit the ground first, with the toe pointed skyward. And most running coaches would call that a classic heel-strike. But the heel-strike isn’t the cause of her stride problem—it’s a result of her bad overstride.
Unfortunately, many runners have been led to believe that the heel strike is in fact the cause of their problems, and simply changing that will fix everything. For the past 6 years, the popular press (Born to Run guy Christopher McDougal, I’m looking at you in particular) has told runners to take off their shoes so that landing on the heel will hurt, and then they’ll magically land on their midfoot and solve everything.
This focus on the midfoot landing has spawned legions of calf injuries. Here’s why: nobody told these runners to stop overstriding. So what did they do? They kept overstriding, but simply pointed their toes down to land on their midfoot. Watch Emma to see this in action.
Why is this disastrous? Overstriding with a midfoot landing causes the calf to be contracted and tensed at impact—and then lengthened as the heel comes to the ground. This is an eccentric action, and it’s very hard on the muscle. Do too much of it too soon, and a calf strain is all but certain.
But what about “heel striking” in fast runners? We’ve all heard of (and maybe even seen video of) some elite runner who “heel strikes,” thereby “proving” that heel striking is not a problem. But let’s look at what an elite’s “heel strike” means in reality.
As we discussed earlier, virtually all elite runners land with their foot directly beneath their knee. But what varies is the part of the foot that touches the ground first. (Emma demonstrates a midfoot touch and heel touch.) Some touch with their midfoot first, and others first touch with the shoe totally flat.
But it seems the majority of elites first touch with the heel of their shoe. Why is this not a problem?
- There’s no overstride and thus no braking forces.
- There’s virtually no weight on the front leg at the time the heel touches the ground. By the time that leg bears any weight, the foot is planted squarely on the ground, and likely in that much-discussed “midfoot strike” position.
Which means the angle of the foot at its initial strike is largely irrelevant. While technically the heel is touching the ground first, it’s nothing that any coach or elite athlete would be concerned about, and they would not equate it to the heel strike caused by overstriding. In fact, trying to change just the part of the foot that touches first seems to lead to injury.
- Land with the foot beneath the knee.
- The part of the shoe touching the ground first is largely irrelevant.
- Landing with the foot in front of the knee is generally bad.
- An overstride causes hard impact forces and slows the runner.
- Changing to a mid-foot strike without correcting the overstride will likely cause injury.
Do you overstride?
The best way to check for an overstride is to have someone videotape you running from the side. Ideally, use a camera that records at least 60 frames per second and can play back frame by frame. You’re simply looking for whether or not the foot is directly beneath the knee as you put weight on that leg (not necessarily at first touch of the shoe). Look for the contraction of the quad muscles and pause there; that’s likely when you’ve fully landed.
Note that it’s really, really difficult to detect an overstride with the naked eye—our brain-eye connection just isn’t fast enough. Compare Emma’s full-speed videos of good form and overstriding. While the overstride gait looks awkward and choppy (a bit like the Proper Starky runs), you can’t actually see the foot landing in front of the knee.
Should you correct your overstride?
Note that there are varying degrees of overstride—from a slight overstride to a full knee-locked-straight-legged overstride. If you’re near the extreme end of overstriding, running probably hurts (or at least feels ungraceful), you’re probably frequently injured (shin splints, calf strains, knee pain), and you’re probably slow. And it would probably be in your best interest to correct it.
For anyone slightly overstriding, it’s a very individual decision based on a lot of factors.
For those who want to fix an overstride, your best bet is to see a qualified running coach who focuses on form (not a particular “style” of running, like POSE or Chi running—just someone who understand good biomechanics). But for those who like the DIY route, stay tuned—in the next article we’ll cover how to correct your overstride.