To heel strike or not to heel strike? That is the question. At least, it is if we’re talking about walking in minimalist shoes. When it comes to the minimalist footwear/barefoot movement, people are constantly emphasizing the importance of running with proper form, but no one ever talks about what happens when you walk. In barefoot/minimalist running, it’s all about maintaining a forefoot/midfoot (FF/MF) strike, which allows your body to naturally adjust to and mediate the shock of each footfall. But does the same principle apply to walking, or is it based on something else entirely?
Truth be told, I stressed for quite a while about if switching to minimalist shoes, which had such a drastic and immediate effect on my running form, was supposed to have a similar effect on my walking form. I did some digging around on various minimalist footwear/barefoot fan sites and forums, and while the general consensus is that walking in minimalist shoes/barefoot is probably better for your feet, there seems to be some disagreement regarding how your feet should be landing. Furthermore, most scientific studies are, at the moment, focused on the efficiency of and possibility of injury reduction as a result of running barefoot or in minimalist shoes. However, one recent study, published by Dr. David Carrier in The Journal of Experimental Biology, has shown that there is likely a significant difference in the energy required to heel strike versus land on the forefoot when walking and the details of this difference might surprise you.
As with running, landing on your FF/MF when you walk requires that you take shorter, quicker steps. In the case of running, some have suggested that there is not a notable difference in the amount of energy required to heel strike versus land on the FF/MF, while others maintain that less energy is used with a FF/MF strike because it takes advantage of the natural spring motion of the leg muscles. The new study on walking, however, suggests that, when barefoot, heel-striking is more efficient than landing on your forefoot and that the amount of energy consumed by walking with a forefoot strike is a whopping 53% more! Because your body tends to want to operate in the most efficient manner possible, this seems to imply that heel-striking when walking is likely our bodies’ natural tendency.
So, where does that put me? And how does this apply to minimalist shoes?
When I walk around, my foot lands heel first. Calling it a heel strike seems like overkill, because my footfall is relatively gentle and it is definitely not as pronounced as one might observe in a heel-striking runner. At slower speeds (~2 mph), the difference between walking around in my bare feet and walking around while wearing a zero-drop minimalist shoe is negligible. However, I have noticed that a difference does develop between unshod and shod when I transition to faster walking speeds (~4-5 mph). When I am barefoot, I will continue to land heel first, but my footfall does seem to adjust so that the point of impact is slightly forward on my heel (closer to midfoot), relative to a slow walk. On the other hand, when I have shoes on, even if they are zero-drop and very minimal, my heel strike feels like it becomes more pronounced at faster walking speeds, which, as you might guess, is probably not so great for my joints.
The take home message here is that, yes, heel striking when you walk is probably the natural tendency for most people. Turns out it is also part of what makes us (and the great apes) unique relative to other members of the animal kingdom. So, if you are heel-striking while wearing your minimalist shoes, don’t freak out! However (and please keep in mind that I’m not an expert in this subject), I would suggest paying attention to see if your walking form changes depending on whether you are shod or unshod. Heel-striking is OK when walking, but not if it is paired with heavy footfalls. In the end, the key to success with minimalist footwear, whether running or walking, is being light on your feet, listening to your body, and allowing it to do what comes naturally.
Do you heel strike when you walk or do you land on your forefoot or midfoot? Vote in the poll below and then share your thoughts in the comments!
Meagan is a geochemistry research lab manager, runner, Netflix binge-watcher, and Mom to a rescue dog, a bunny, and a human child. She started running in May 2011 and ran her first half marathon in October 2012, followed by her first marathon in October 2013. In July 2018, she joined the triathlon world and completed an Olympic-distance race. After an extended break (pregnancy/maternity leave), she is making a long-overdue return to running and is preparing for a high-elevation half marathon at Crater Lake National Park in August 2020.