In an ideal world, all runners would land on their forefoot or midfoot when they run. In an ideal world, though, all runners would be lean, healthy, and have spent most of their lives clocking 5-minute miles.
There’s no question that forefoot striking is more efficient than heel striking. It uses the elasticity of the Achilles tendon and the arch of the foot to translate the body’s downward force into forward motion. Less energy is lost to the ground. It’s also a given that landing on the forefoot, as barefoot runners do, prevents the heel striking that cushioned shoes enable, which can lead to so many joint and tendon injuries.
But it’s also true that it’s not a perfect world. Beginners run. Out-of-shape people run. And for them forefoot striking might increase the risk of tendonitis or other soft tissue injury. That’s especially true for anyone who hasn’t grown up running barefoot through rural Kenya.
Most researchers would say that a midfoot landing is the most efficient and shock-absorbing technique. But there are people who fall on both ends of the spectrum—heel strikers and those who run on the balls of their feet—and they do fine.
What’s important isn’t what part of the foot you strike but where it strikes. It should land slightly in front of your center of mass or right underneath it. When you have a high stride rate and land with the body centered over the foot, you won’t be slamming down hard, even if you connect with the heel.
Regular running is satisfying in itself. If you’re the competitive type, even greater satisfaction lies in running faster and longer, in challenging yourself. Progress can be a great motivator and a great incentive to keep exercising.
If you want to improve as a runner, you can (and should) do supplemental training, which involves strengthening, flexibility, and technique work. But the simplest way to improve is to run faster. And the way to do that is to train yourself to run harder, the way I did during my long climbs at Mount Si.
Here’s how: After you’ve been running for 30 to 45 minutes at least three times a week for six to eight weeks, you’re ready to start running occasionally at 85 to 90 percent of your physical capacity, or the point where lactate is building up in your muscles but your body is still able to clear and process it.
Build to where you can maintain that lactate threshold level for 5 minutes. Then take 1 minute of easy running to give the body time to recover, then repeat. As you progress, increase the number of the intervals and their length while maintaining a 5:1 ratio between work and rest. So you would do 10-minute intervals of hard running followed by 2-minute breaks, or 15 minutes of hard running followed by 3 minutes of rest, and so on.
After four to six weeks, you’ll be able to maintain this effort level for 45 to 50 minutes. And you’ll be faster.