Why Heel Striking When Sprinting Is A Serious Problem For Athletes

One of the more common sprinting errors we see in athletes who post slower sprint times is the habit of landing on their heels when they hit top speed.

To a parent watching their child in the stands, this can be seen rather easily and quite clearly does not look fast or athletic.  

But why exactly is this an issue?   And can it be corrected?

Problems Stemming From Heel-Striking At Top Speed

The issue is three-fold:

1. It requires more energy to sprint, dipping into your conditioning reserves

2. It redistributes forces into the wrong muscles/joints, raising the risk of injury

3. It leaves you on the ground for too long, causing you to run slower

A heel-strike landing has your foot hitting the ground in front of your center of gravity, instead of directly under.   Due to this, on every single stride your legs must literally pull you over your foot to move forward.   In a game or practice where you are sprinting constantly, this becomes exhausting.    Athletes who fix this issue will almost immediately notice an increase in their stamina later in games, even without doing any additional cardio work.

Slamming your heel into the ground at top speed is like diving into a pool by jumping off the back end of the diving board.   The jarring forces can cause not only foot pain, but shin pain, hamstring issues, and even back pain during seasons where you sprint constantly.   An ideal foot strike where you land on the front half of your foot allows you to, much like a diving board, use the stored elastic energy to spring out into your next stride while distributing forces much more evenly throughout all the muscles and joints in your legs.

Finally, a heel strike landing takes longer to move you to your next stride.   The difference might not be noticeable on any one stride, say 0.02 seconds per stride, but over longer distances that adds up fairly significantly.

Any athletic movement that makes you slower, raises injury concerns, and prematurely fatigues you is a fairly serious issue to address!

A 4 Step Process For Correcting Heel Strike Sprinting

Let's first establish that changing a movement pattern as ingrained as sprinting is will take time, focus, and dedication.   You are not going to make this change if you are half-heartedly committed to doing so.

For those who are all-in on correcting their stride mechanics, here's how I'd recommend you do it.

1.  Use Video To See If You Do Indeed Heel-Strike

An easy first step if you're not sure, and it doesn't have to be professional quality video to help.   Shoot it with your phone and go over the landing frame by frame.

2.  Replace Any Jogging With Tempo Runs & Sprints

A longer distance stride has more of a heel strike element to it, and at lower speeds the forces absorbed by your leg muscles typically can keep up without injury (provided you don't ramp up your mileage too quickly).

The concern is that when you spend a ton of time distance running the mechanics trickle over into your sprint stride, and your legs are not designed to absorb this pattern at higher forces very well.

To get in shape for your sport, more time can be spent on interval work doing tempo runs and full out sprints with rest periods in between.   This allows you more time to work on your sprint skills, still get the conditioning you need to be game-ready, and helps you begin to get beyond the long-distance, heel-striking pattern.

3. Check Your Posture - Are You Upright At Top Speed?

Go back to the video you shot for Step 1 and look at your upper body posture.  If you are leaning forward, the natural solution to keep you from falling on your face is to bring your foot out in front of you, landing on your heel, serving as a sort of braking action to protect you.

Until you get back to a more upright posture when sprinting at top speed, you'll never lose the heel strike.   Focus on fixing this in workouts, practices, and even games when you can free your mind to focus on it without losing track of game conditions.

4.  Fix It With Sprint Coordination Exercises

Properly executed skipping, high knees and other technical exercises can force you to change your mechanics for the better.   Having a coach and/or video analysis to ensure you are doing them right is highly recommended due to the fine line between what is right and what isn't, but some progress can be made on your own with focus and effort.

Changing any movement skill is also harder as you get older, when the pattern has been ingrained far deeper than it had when you were younger.

Everyone can improve their sprint mechanics, though.  And if you are currently running slower than you'd like, or consistently deal with nagging lower body pain, it is likely that you are sprinting with a heel strike and it is a major contributing factor to your problems.

The key to remember with any sprint technique adjustment is that changes take time, a lot more time than improving flexibility or even strength can take.    

If it truly matters to you, get to work and stay at work until you see the changes you seek.

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