The members of Harvard University’s men’s and women’s distance running squads are young, fast, fit, skinny, bright, disciplined and, without exception, dutiful. Every day during the cross-country and track seasons, they enter their mileage and pace into an online training Web site overseen by the team’s coaches and trainers.
They also, like most serious runners, get hurt with distressing frequency, often missing practice due to aching muscles or over-stressed bones. Each of those injuries, no matter how niggling, also gets duly reported and entered into the computer.
Meaning that these student athletes, in their high-achieving way, fashioned an excellent database through which to examine running-related injuries, as evidenced by a study published online last month in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise....To look into the issue, Mr. Daoud, who had been on the cross-country team as an undergraduate, and Dr. Lieberman not only gained access to the team’s training database, they also gathered the team members and videotaped them.
No one is always a forefoot striker or a heel striker. Your form depends on many factors, including your speed, the terrain, whether you’re tired and so on. But most of us have a predominant strike pattern, and so it was with the 52 Harvard runners. Thirty-six, or 69 percent of them, were heel strikers, while 16, or 31 percent, were forefoot strikers. The proportions were similar regardless of gender.
More interesting was the distribution of injuries. About two-thirds of the group wound up hurt seriously enough each year to miss two or more training days. But the heel strikers were much more prone to injury, with a twofold greater risk than the forefoot strikers.
This finding, the first to associate heel striking with injury, is likely to fuel the continuing and not-always civil debate about whether barefoot running is better. (It hurts to hit the ground with your heel if you’re not wearing shoes.) But both Dr. Lieberman and Mr. Daoud, now a medical student at Stanford University, are quick to point out that their study did not in any way address the merits of going barefoot.
All of the Harvard runners wore shoes, and most, as Dr. Lieberman says, “wore different shoes every day of the week.” Some ran in well-cushioned shoes and became injured, while others did not. Likewise for those who usually ran in minimal racing flats. Some got hurt; some did not. And forefoot striking, over all, was not a panacea. Many of the forefoot strikers were felled by injuries.
But in general, those runners who landed on their heels were considerably more likely to get hurt, often multiple times during a year.
Does this mean that those of us who habitually heel-strike, as I do, should change our form? “If you’re not getting hurt,” Dr. Lieberman says, “then absolutely not. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
But, says Mr. Daoud, who was himself an oft-injured heel-striker during his cross-country racing days, “if you have experienced injury after injury and you’re a heel-striker, it might be worth considering a change.” (If you’re unsure of your strike pattern, have a friend videotape you from the side as you run, he suggests, then use slow motion to watch how your foot hits the ground.)