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Are You Hurting Yourself With Each Step You Take? (Part 1)

By December 14, 2013March 10th, 2017Gait, Osteopathy

Let’s face it, you walk and run wrong (if you run). I do not say this to be critical of you. It’s not your fault, most people never give any thought to their form as they walk or run on a daily basis. The truth is that with thick padding under our heels, we never learned to ambulate correctly. Every time your heel strikes down with every step, you send a terrible shock throughout your body. It may not cause you direct pain, but chances are it very well could be hurting you and damaging your joints. There is currently not sufficient research showing this but you can do simple experiments and decide from there. Let’s look at how you are designed to absorb shock.

One way you can see how you are designed to absorb shock is by using your body the way it is meant to be used – barefoot. Now that you have kicked off your shoes. I want you to stand up preferably on a hard surface. Next I want you to jump up in the air. No big deal, right? There’s many things your body does to absorb the impact and not all of it takes place at your feet. If you landed correctly, you likely landed on the balls of your feet and then your heels came down. When you land on the balls of your feet, the  arches of your feet compress to absorb the impact as your heels come down and then subsequently decompress to spring you. Your calves contract as your heels come down to the floor putting tension on your achilles tendon. Simultaneously your quadriceps contract putting tension on your patellar tendons as your knees bend further to absorb the impact. In addition to this your hips should be bent. The higher you jump or the harder the surface, the more exaggerated this position is. You may look like you are in a  slight squatting position at the end of this. From this position, your body could use the potential energy it has built up in the arches and tendons due to their elasticity and with less effort, propel you to another jump. Although this is description is not complete, this is the big picture of what takes place during jumping rope or running in place. There is a rhythm one can get into that is more effortless. Whether you jump forward, backward or to the side, you always land this way. This way of absorbing shock is what should also take place when you walk or run.

Are You Hurting Yourself With Each Step You Take?

Are You Hurting Yourself With Each Step You Take?

Now let’s consider the alternative. If you are like most, the next experiment is how you are using your body to absorb shock when you heel strike as you walk or run. Many runners are convinced that using this method of shock absorption is correct and are unwilling to change unless there is hard evidence showing it is harmful. So now try this- jump up in the air like you did before, but now land on your heels. Does the idea of doing this make you nervous? It should. Do you realize that even psychologically you are hard wired not to heel strike? Your brain is giving you a signal that landing this way is dangerous. Now, let’s imagine you are willing to jump up an inch and land on your heels. Let’s look at what has to happen. For one, landing like this is very difficult. You have to make an effort to land like this but the adjustments you have to make are consistent with what is commonly done by heel strikers.

In order to land on your heels, you must shift your feet forward a little bit and bend your feet back. In essence this is locking out the ankle joints. Another important adjustment is that in order to land on your heels, you must straighten your knees locking out your knee joints. What this looks like is a leg that is completely straightened out in front with your foot bent back. This is how your leg looks when you are walking or running if you are heel-striking. So by landing like this, you are preventing the arches of your feet, your calves, your knees and even your hips from absorbing any of the impact. It may feel more stable with padding under your heels but it is not. The muscles and tendons do not play a significant role in absorbing the shock. Instead you may feel your bones starting at your heel jarred all the way up your body even into your head. The interosseous membrane that helps to transfer weight from the tibia to the fibula, is jarred as well in an unnatural way. Constantly doing this could be a reason for shin splints. Your center of balance is also shifted into a less stable position. Once again, this is the big picture and does not cover every detail about how the body is unable to adapt to the shock. Now this is only from jumping up an inch or less. Many have vertical leaps much higher than this and I would not recommend anyone jump up as high as they can and land on their heels. This could be damaging.

Using my body’s shock absorption mechanisms correctly, I can repeatedly jump up in the air as high as I possibly can without damaging my joints. This is true regardless of the surface. Yes, that includes concrete. Jumping forward does not change how I land.  I will still never land on my heels unless something goes wrong. So the padding under your heels has dampened down your anxiety about landing on your heels and taught you to walk or run incorrectly. The padding has blocked the pain you might feel from heel striking if you did not have it, but it does not block the impact. Why? Because your joints are still locked out unable to adapt to the shock of the impact. It’s hard for me to think of many, if any, scenarios when locking out your joints is preferable to maintaining some flexibility in your joints. Ask any martial artist how often it is a good idea to lock out your joints. What if you are jumping rope and landing on your heels repeatedly sending shock waves throughout your joints in your knees and hips? You will likely be injured regardless of whether you are doing it on concrete or grass. We blame concrete when we should be blaming ourselves for using our bodies in a way it is not designed to be used. It’s time we tune back in and start listening to our bodies. The evidence that heel-striking is incorrect is there. Are you willing to listen?


Daniel Lopez, D.O.

Author Daniel Lopez, D.O.

Daniel Lopez, D.O. grew up with a lot of pain trying many things that did not help. Realizing that if he could not help himself, he would be unable to help others effectively, he dedicated himself to finding real answers. Since that time, Dr. Lopez has found a unique but powerful style where he has patients from around the country and the world that travel to see him for headaches, TMJ issues, eye issues, neck pain, back pain, and more. Daniel Lopez, D.O. is an osteopathic physician with Osteopathic Integrative Medicine. Prior to that he had a private practice in NYC for 6 years. He is the author of the Amazon best seller "Unwinding the Body and Decoding the Messages of Pain: An In-Depth Look into the World of Osteopathic Physicians and How They 'Magically' Use Their Hands for Healing." He lives in Aurora, CO with his wife and daughters.

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Stuart Bridge says:

    I understand how we can run better, but how does one walk without putting the heel first? Women do this with highheels but should men walk like that in normal shoes too, with balls of the feet first?

    • Daniel Lopez says:

      Hi Stu,
      The simplest thing to try first is marching in place (you cannot heel strike this way) and then working to keep that form as you move forward. People also land on the balls of their feet trying to walk silently across a room or walking with a cup completely full of liquid.

      Walking in high heels actually produces the worst heel strike. The very first sound you hear when you hear a woman walking in high heels is the sound of the heel hitting the ground. It would be very difficult to actually land on the ball of your foot first with high heels.

  • lola says:

    Hi, i agree with every single word (ran even a forefoot marathon 25 years ago)… Just to get this clear: do you recommend also (slow) walking on the balls of the feet? I always had the feeling, a tigress-like smooth touch with the outer edge of the heel would make it, combined with arch activity and free unlocked joints, towards the big toe….?

    • Daniel Lopez, D.O. says:

      Hi Lola, I do think landing on the balls of your foot and letting the heel come down with most of the pressure on the outer edge would be better. I believe in a natural environment where a lot of variability in the ground would force one to land more on the balls of the foot. On flat, smooth surfaces, then I would agree with you.

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