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Stomping on the Heel Strike by Dr. Daniel Lieberman - CrossFit Journal

Stomping on the Heel Strike

By Dr. Daniel Lieberman

In Running, Videos

August 19, 2010

Video Article

Why do we run? And more importantly, how should we run?

The legions of marketing mavens hawking running shoes will tell you a heel strike is safe with their shoes on, but some scientists happen to vehemently disagree. The controversy over this subject can be as heated as the ideal-diet debate.

Dr. Daniel Lieberman is a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and an avid runner. His research on human evolution and accident prevention has led him to believe in—as well as utilize—the forefoot running pattern.

Scholarly Ian Wittenber of Again Faster stops by Harvard to discuss this topic with Dr. Lieberman in hopes of understanding more about the evolution of proper running form.

15min 39sec

Additional reading: Running the Wrong Way? by Dr. Lon Kilgore, published March 17, 2010.

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35 Comments on “Stomping on the Heel Strike”


wrote …

Very interesting video.

The question I wished was asked was the difference between persistence hunt running and what recreational runners do. As Dr. Lieberman stated, persistence hunting was interval running, with periods of fast running interspersed with periods of tracking. This is not the same as running a marathon even if the distances were similar.

I am very suspicious of the "runner's high" being used as proof of an evolutionary adaptation to long distance running. It could just as easily be a stress reaction to the extreme demand of an unnaturally long run. Given that we know long slow running is muscle wasting then running for that "high" could very well be a detrimental and inflammation inducing habit.


wrote …

Wow, that was a really interesting perspective on running. I liked how well he explained heel strike forces vs running more on the forward part of the foot. I'm one of the people they spoke about who does not like running and that video held my attention the entire time. The CF Journal puts out some great info. Thanks to our media department and everyone running around making these articles and videos.


wrote …

Awesome video and an interesting perspective. Anyone read the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall? Great read that re-enforces what Dr. Lieberman was saying. Not sure I'm completely sold, I get a pretty good high from Fran that I don't think can be matched with long, slow distance.


replied to comment from Matt Lentzner

My thoughts were also provoked by the "runner's high" sensation being unique to runners/running. I agree with Matt and Kyle that multiple variables feed into such a sensation and it probably has to do more with the biological and psychological perception and awareness surrounding the accomplishment of a difficult physical task. We just did the "grinder" at crossfitvalleypark and I have done multiple variations of "helen" as well as run a marathon with each providing a euphoric state either during or post event. I think it is more of a mind body connection; your body telling your mind, "Hey! You're a bad ass for evening attempting something that most people wouldn't think of trying." Mind subconsciously replies, "Thanks... I am a bad ass!"... smile... euphoria..continue! Why else would we continue to CF (besides the obvious)?


wrote …

I happened upon the article that Dr. Liebermen is refering to and have been developing a end of the year project that tackles Physics and Evolution for students in my science classes. I love natural concept of it all and it really allows us to think about what makes us human and why we have evoloved the way we have. The article is great the science is sound and the book by Chris McDougall referenced above is a really fun read on the subject. I love this topic please crossfit bring me more great info.


wrote …

As a longtime runner, I was turned on to Newton running shoes.
Any thoughts, reviews or recomendations?


wrote …

I find that barefoot running is incredibly enjoyable, but when I sprint I tend to feel my heel strike a lot. Is this just from being attuned to heel striking?


wrote …

I am in the same boat as Pat, hate running. I only do it because I want to stay a middling Crossfit athlete.

Some good data in there, and I understand that Evolutionary Biology requires a significant amount of conjecture (What Would Grok Do?), but "runner's high" as evidence? That seems thin.

Great stuff from CFJ though, glad we are bringing together folks from different fields and different perspectives. Would love to see Dr. Lieberman's reaction to Dr. Romanov work. That would be a good give and take.


wrote …

I'll back that up- I never much liked running until I learned about POSE running, then I found I was kinda good at it...


wrote …

I found this video more informative than the Dr. Romanov videos. I believe Dr. Romanov knows a hell of a lot about running but doesn't come through for me on the videos. I plan on attending a running cert but there is only one listed. Will there be more Dr. Romanov running certs?


wrote …

I'm really interested in various fitness perspectives and I came across a discipline called Movnat probably 6 or 7 months ago. The creator Erwan Le Corre is very big on primordial forms of fitness, and barefoot running is at the forefront of that. Anyone really interested in what was discussed in this video should check it/him out. Its a really interesting discipline altogether.
Also, I agree with Pat Sherwood: CF Journal has just been cranking out one great video after another. This one is no exception.


wrote …

I don't think he is necessarily trying to use the "runner's high" as evidence for humans evolutionary adaptation to run long distances but rather as a means to answer the question about Crossfitters hating to run. It is more likely that he was simply trying to offer an example of why it is that long distance runners enjoy the activity so much in stark contrast to how many people, including many elite Cfers, feel about distance running. By no means is a "runner's high" a legitimate piece of evidence that validates this evolutionary trait that humans developed and I doubt that Leiberman would argue. Perhaps the reason why many Crossfitters do not enjoy distance running is because they have been able to achieve this and as a result only see distance running as a slow process of increasing pain, which of course is miserable.
I think that Romanov has simply found a way to perfect what Leiberman has discovered and I'm sure a discussion between the two would only shed more light on this subject. Hope to see it in the future. Might as well throw Louie Simmons and Dave Tate in on it as well, for humors sake.


wrote …

Dr. Leiberman has a website devoted to the science of barefoot running that's worth checking out.

I can't argue with the quality of information that is being presented in the CF journal. Arguably some of the finest exercise science literature available today. Thank you CFHQ!


Aidan Mahon wrote …

Really enjoyed the vid. Deffo gonna start running more in my Vibrams.


wrote …

That video was very interesting indeed.

I really liked the analysis of forces diplayed on the screen. It put the whole theory in perspective.

Also, I was not aware of all the evolutionary adaptations the body has for running.


replied to comment from Richard Edwards

Leiberman and Romanov are on the same page with the physics (natural laws) behind skillful and safe running. However it is important to remember that running is a skill. Barefoot running may result in less heel strike; however, from a skill standpoint, it is much more important where and how the center-of-gravity is positioned in correlation to the heel/foot strike. It is possible to forefoot strike with the COG behind the contact point, which slows forward momentum and increases stress at the plantar fascia, achilles, GSC comples...

With the above known, newton's or any other shoe/device have a low likelihood of helping you run with a higher level of skill for efficiency and safety. Saying that barefoot running or a certain shoe will help with running form is like saying wrist straps make you better at snatching... might help but your brain and technique are far more important.

As far as sprinting is concerned, Romanov discussed the heel strike as being a result of fear. We are afraid of falling over and the best way to slow forward momentum/falling is to heel strike. Sprinting is done at a higher degree of forward tilt and increases our subconscious fear of falling resulting in a "reflex" to heel strike. Solution - adjust/improve tilt and skill at higher speed... in Pose terms, focus more on the pull back into pose to overcome the body's reflex to heel strike


replied to comment from Jared Van Anne

"Saying that barefoot running or a certain shoe will help with running form is like saying wrist straps make you better at snatching..."

--My thought is that it is more like saying "removing gloves will make you better at snatching." The relevant factor is feedback, and gloves and many shoes will inhibit or distort the feedback loops that running barefoot provides. In other words, I think it is possible that one could get an instantaneous improvement in technique by either taking off gloves for the snatch, or by getting rid of footwear that inhibits/distorts the information that ground contact provides to a bare foot.

My primary data point on that is that I find it is impossible to approximate a pose run with a 'running shoe.' The soft sole and the heel wedge makes a mockery of my feeble attempts to forefoot strike, focus on the pull, and/or 'fall' forward from the POSE. Barefoot running almost demands that I do all of the above, or real discomfort results.

That said - your final para was super useful to me, thanks.


wrote …

Awesome video, the CFJ is truly a resource. Thank you professor Leiberman for spending time talking to us. Totally agree with Paul - I think the best way to learn proper running technique is to run barefoot or in thin-soled shoes for a while, starting in small doses, building up your calves, but progressing that way. Some of the POSE drills can be helpful but they should not be the main show. Just my thoughts.


wrote …

I am coming at this from a different angle than most crossfitters, many of my "workouts" pre crossfit were just running and i still like to run. That said i never wear what most people think of as running shoes and am conscious of when i heel strike and work to correct it.
What i like most about what this guy had to say was "we think we are living normal lives" WRONG!Our ancestors had to work very hard just to survive, i believe what we do in crossfit mimics this. So thankyou to crossfit for helping me become more "normal" Todays WOD? 5 rounds max distance run in 15mins then eat a steak!


wrote …

Fantastic Interview.....

I've read quite a few articles on "Evolutionary Running" and it is quite fascinating. I really enjoyed the segment on pursuing animals that regulate heat through a panting mechanism. Anyone who has ever run with their dog in heat knows that your dog will quit long before you ever need to.

Dr.Liberman's site is also worth checking out.


replied to comment from Richard Edwards

The idea behind "Evolutionary Running" is that your foot is a perfect design. It has been slowly crafted over the course of millions of years to become this instrument of your body.

Anything that comes between this design and you is simply going to interfere with the function of that design....

The Newton is no exception. It has artificially created an elastic support system that interferes with the fore foot strike. It will change the way you strike, the rate at which you can strike, and the force you can strike with. It actually springs your forefoot up and this is not what your foot is supposed to be doing.

The one thing you need is some coverage for the skin from elements (hot asphalt, glass, sharp rocks). You want the shoe with the very least amount of......shoe.

Track flats are often minimalist shoes. They don't have much to them.

You can google barefoot running and find all kinds of shoes.


wrote …

More Vid's like this please!

Educational, interesting and the Dr is obviously passionate about what he does.

Great viewing, thank you CFJ and Co.!


Dane Thomas wrote …

Runner's high is most typically associated with endorphin release during prolonged aerobic exertion. It might make sense that it would be most often associated with running, but I've also experienced similar feelings while cycling.

That pleasant escapist feeling of effortless motion is great, but I don't really associate it with the more adrenaline-driven altered state that prevents me from noticing the way that my hands are ripping and bleeding during the late stages of Cindy. I suspect that that type of reduced awareness of pain has more to do with battle focus than runner's high.

I've never run down an ungulate, but prolonged and repeated interval work over uneven terrain is not the type of running that I associate with endorphin release. I've only found it on flat and fairly straight runs, the more even the surface the better. By smoothing everything out to where the wind over my ears drowns out my footfalls and my focus is so acute that I can feel every heartbeat in my belly, chest, neck and temples. There may have been deer in the forest watching, but I certainly wasn't with a band of brothers and sisters trying to chase them down.


replied to comment from CHRIS DOZOIS

"The idea behind "Evolutionary Running" is that your foot is a perfect design. It has been slowly crafted over the course of millions of years to become this instrument of your body."

My feet are not perfectly designed; they pronate significantly. I need to wear custom orthodics or I experience severe discomfort in my low back and hips from standing, let alone running. I go back and forth between wanting to try barefoot/minimalist type running and sticking with my sneakers with orthodics. Any suggestions?


Dale Saran wrote …

Not trying to be contrarian, but I always wonder about the "evolutionary design" argument for human running. I think there's likely truth - but humans didn't always live on plains or in climes where tracking animals down with long-distance running was possible. In other words, how many Eskimos/Inuits ran down polar bears across the frozen Bering Strait? How about mountainous areas? Hard to "run down" animals there with some kind of efficient stride on the side of a mountain. Ditto for areas that are swampy, or very heavily forested, etc. In other words, the assumption underlying the idea for long-distance running seems to presume that we evolved on some very hospitable geography that's conducive to running.

This doesn't necessarily dispute what the good doctor is saying (and maybe my pleistocene/prehistoric evolutionary history is off), but I've often thought that the reason we're the animals watching TV and eating microwave dinners is because of our incredible adaptability to almost any environment (oh, yeah, and those opposable digits and that brain, thing).

I guess I just wonder if we're meant forever and always to run down animals over long-distances or if there are counter-arguments and explanations for why the nose is the way it is or the foot the way it is. e.g. Is it possible that we're really meant for short sprinting (which almost requires you to run on the ball of your foot) for combat and self-defense? Try springing from "back on your heels," for example. And breathing through your nose tends to pull more O2 into the lungs.

Fascinating, though.


replied to comment from Jimmy D

Jimmy D, bro you gotta read "Born to Run" by Chris McDougall. Talks a lot about orthodics and "why does running hurt" type stuff. I'd head to the nearest Borders and pick it up Or for free from your local library.


wrote …

"In other words, the assumption underlying the idea for long-distance running seems to presume that we evolved on some very hospitable geography that's conducive to running.:"

That is the assumption. Correct.


replied to comment from Jay Stellwagen

Thanks.. I'll definitely check it out.


Great vid, Thanks!
Dan is a great scientist and his ability to explain the evolutionary concepts are just about as good as they get.

There are many people showing the relationship between evolutionary pressures and optimal physical fitness/performance. My group is finding that through fitness we are having luck teaching people about evolution. I am going to start with some running stuff this term at the college, as well.

It's amazing if you teach people about why we should eat certain things, avoid others: and then ask them to do it and they see benefits, either health/medical or weight loss, all of a sudden they are open to hearing about the evolutionary underpinnings. My lab has started to do this with fitness as well - GPP type stuff. They fight it, but when they start to see rapid benefits and adaptations, all of a sudden these students who didnt want to (necessarily) learn about fitness OR evolution are now interested in both, and the interaction.

Great vid. I love this stuff!



But is there evidence to support the assumption? And not working back (circularly) from the conclusion that has already been offered. i.e. Instead, do the fossil records, carbon dating, sediment sample, etc., tend to support that man first evolved on plains and generally flat terrain? And even then, as I pointed out above, does that still command the answer proposed or is it possible (as I've also asked) that our feet are designed for forefoot striking because of the musculature necessary for all of the other stuff we do - sprint, climb, jump, etc.?

I'm not saying the good Doc is wrong - just that as of now, scientifically speaking, I hear good hypotheses, not laws.

Though I suppose whether the evolutionary argument is true or not is largely immaterial. The bottom line is that the foot is better designed for forefoot striking when running. Whether it's because we were plain-running hunters or because we were sprinters and scavengers or just because Yahweh said so doesn't really matter now. We've got the foot we've got. Now I need to get better at this style of running for distance (and that's really the question that's gnawing at me about this). Are we really designed for running long-distance on these feet or not?


replied to comment from Jimmy D

Baby steps.....

The musculature in your foot is just like the muscles in the rest of your body. If you don't use them properly they will develop (or atrophy) as such. So, just like when you started Crossfit you make small steps to reintroduce your feet to their natural design. You didn't start doing 30+ kipping pull ups on day one, and you won't go run a marathon barefoot either.

Take a walk....

That's a great way to slowly let those muscles in your feet start to feel their way around. You'll notice your toes spread out independently with your weight and it is very liberating. Your stride will shorten because you can no longer heel strike (It HURTS). In short order you'll really like these barefoot walks and the muscles in your feet will develop.

Once you're comfortable, you can introduce some interval jogging to your walk. Don't worry about any of the pronating because when you run barefoot you WILL land on your forefoot (Heel strikes HURT). Your stride will be shorter and you'll notice that your body will naturally run correctly.


Your muscles will get sore (they haven't been used this way) and your feet are tender because they've been in shoes and don't have the calluses of years of barefoot running/walking.

Pronate and supinate come into play if you "roll" from heel to toe as you run. When you strike forefoot you'll notice all of your knuckles are independently moving and will adjust to any imbalances. You don't roll to the heel so it isn't an issue.

Good Luck!!


wrote …

This guy is great! Thanks for the great info CrossFit journal. Could we get a follow up on perhaps training the heel-striking de-conditioned Neoliths to be able to run barefoot? What would proper scaling be? Proper protocols, drills, progressions etc... What adaptations occur in the barefoot runner. I have heard that the flat foot will begin to develop it's own arch-support and tighten up shrinking the size shoe you wear. Conversely, I'd imagine a fair amount of hypertophy to the bones, muscles, and ligaments which are now supporting the body as they are supposed to.

Please gain some more insight from this gentleman. Understanding evolutionary fitness makes any programming better.



replied to comment from CHRIS DOZOIS

Thank you for the reply. I'm going to slowly add barefoot walking/jogging into my routine. I appreciate your time.


wrote …

Brilliant video - even if you don't agree with it. Just look at the thought provoking debate we're all having. I used to be a runner and loved runner's high. It is something totally different to Crossfit. What it didn't do for me was give me that feeling of my whole body being supercharged when I've recovered from a Crossfit workout. Bring em both on! As a current overpronator with shin splints, orthotics etc, I'm looking forward to progressing into barefoot running.


wrote …

I run in VFFs (Vibram Five Fingers) and while I run slower right now as I haven't completely adapted, I feel like I can run forever in this barefoot-like method. I rarely felt that way in running shoes. I can attest that barefoot running helps with chronic running injuries, as I was out for a year with a mysterious foot pain that no doctor could figure out. A PT friend of mine suggested running a short distance barefoot, and 1.5 miles later, the pain had greatly reduced, disappeared a month later, and I became a barefoot convert.

It really was great to see some visual proof of the impact of heel strike vs. forefoot.

I love how CFJ is constantly inquiring and delving into the latest science behind fitness techniques. Thank you for all of the great info!

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