Striking the ground
We can’t talk about barefoot vs cushioned shoes without talking about how your foot contacts the ground. This is a hot topic among runners, and the options are heel strike, midfoot strike and forefoot strike. The debate can heat up quickly if you ask runners which one is the best, but in reality, they’re all good. A more important question – maybe – is how long your stride is. If your stride is long, you’re probably striking with your heel but it also means that you’re striking the ground far from your body, which puts a bigger strain on your foot. If you strike the ground close to your body, it doesn’t matter which part of the foot makes the first contact. Whatever works for you!
When we wear shoes which have a lot of cushioning, it’s an invitation to use heel strike. The first thing I found out when I started using my barefoot shoes is that without the shock absorber under my heel, striking with the heel was quite painful. I’ve clearly been a heel-striker all my life and I also have a relatively long stride, which is probably not a good thing for my bad hip. But now I’m slowly learning to hit with midfoot instead (or it’s probably like heel/midfoot, hard to say exactly), and that way, I don’t need any cushioning in the shoe. The foot itself is amazing shock absorber! The real beauty of the midfoot strike is that it puts less of a strain on my knees, especially when I take shorter steps. The heel strike is quite rough actually, the force of hitting the ground is transplanted up in your body. Just try it yourself – go on your tiptoes and you’ll find yourself taking soft steps, but if you put your heel down first, it’s a hard contact. Obviously, you won’t be tiptoeing when you go for a hike or run, but I think you understand the point. I’m not sure if it’s possible to hike with forefoot strike, I think that’s something that only happens when you run; even some runners who otherwise are heel strikers can switch to forefoot strike when they run faster.
When it comes to injury prevention, the manner of strike doesn’t seem to play a part (this is the conclusion in just about all of the independent tests). Injuries still happen, the biggest difference is which body part gets injured. Heel strikers tend to hurt their knees, and forefoot strikers get hurt their ankles or legs.
The lesson here is that even though I will not be using the minimalist boots for hiking, they help me learn to walk with shorter and softer steps. By “softer” I mean that I do not strike the heel hard on the ground, but let the foot do its job instead. If you have a shoe with a high drop (say, up to 1 cm), you’re much more likely to use a heel strike, and those shoes typically have a lot of cushioning as well.