After a smooth and fast T2, Matt Hanson knew his moment had arrived. It was time to unleash a monster run and close the gap on Lionel Sanders and everyone else caught in his wake, just like he did to run himself into second at Challenge Daytona last December.
The route of the half-marathon at 70.3 Galveston is mostly flat but with lots of twists and turns. Getting out of those bends as quickly as possible is crucial to keep momentum. With temperatures around 75 degrees F, a blue sky, and standard Galveston humidity Hanson felt strong; he settled into a 5:10-15 min./mile pace and sprinkled in a couple of sub-5 miles for good measure.
But the lead pack—which included Ben Kanute and Sam Long—had different plans. Despite running a 1:09 for the half (once again the best run split of the day, much like Hanson’s efforts in Challenge Daytona, Miami, and 70.3 Florida), Hanson finished the race in fourth place, one minute behind Long.
The Heel Strikes (Back)
Clearly Hanson is one of the best runners on the triathlon circuit. Yet, despite his recent race-best runs, detractors on social media poke fun at his running technique: Hanson is a heel striker with a powerful arm carriage. He said those critical comments still bother him, but the wiry midwesterner thinks there’s more to it than typical trolling. People really think his heel striking is wrong. “That’s what people believe. And that’s the lack of education we have in the triathlon world, where we think that if somebody doesn’t look like Kipchoge, they’re running wrong. The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all running form.”
And Hanson is right. First, he has proven that heel striking works well for him. And second—and more importantly to regular triathletes who aren’t cracking 1:10 for the half—biomechanics are on his side.
Heel Striking Is Not The Problem You’re Looking For
“Any run form analysis should start at the hip, not at where your feet hit the ground,” said Hanson, who is also an athletic trainer and triathlon coach who has also worked as human performance program director at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. “There, you need to see if they’re leveled, and only then can you go down and look at knees and feet. The feet are the result of everything else.”
Therefore the way the feet land (heel, center, or forefoot) matters less. What matters more is “where they land relative to center of mass [normally identified with your belly button],’” said David Tilbury-Davis, Hanson’s former coach who now works with Lionel Sanders—another unconventional-looking, but super-fast, runner.
“Heel striking in itself is not a bad thing, nor is midfoot or fore-foot striking—unless any of those things occur significantly in front of the center of mass,” said Tilbury-Davis, who has done a postgrad in biomechanics at the University of Loughborough, England. “The more you land in front of the center of mass, the more there is a braking force, the more you have compression at the knee and the hip, and the more you’re at risk of vertical oscillation.”
To run fast in an efficient way, you want the greatest forward propulsion and the least vertical oscillation possible. The secret? There are different ways to achieve these goals. The fact that we tend to idolize midfoot and fore-foot striking is because it’s much harder to land in front of the center of mass if you’re a mid/fore-foot striker than if you’re a heel striker (the technical term for landing in front of the center of mass is overstriding). This is further perpetuated by the fact that pure runners (think: track runners) tend to more often be fore- and midfoot runners.
But triathletes like Matt Hanson, Daniela Ryf, and Sebastian Kienle—among many others—are proof that if you’re a heel striker and land your feet underneath your center of mass, you shouldn’t be changing your running technique.
But just like everything with the human body, nothing is simple.
Your Anatomy Determines Your Reality
Runners can be called either pushers or pullers (or “gliders and gazelles”), depending on what their propulsion phase looks like. If you like historical comparisons, that’s how Chrissie Wellington and Mirinda Carfrae ran, respectively. Wellington’s pusher/glider style has a high turnover rate, bounces vertically very little, and rolls from the back of their feet to the front; Carfrae’s puller/gazelle style has a lower cadence and more time spent in the air. Both women are wickedly fast.
Tilbury-Davis uses Sanders as an example and compares him to Hanson. The Canadian, for example, has a little bit of kyphosis in his back, which means his lower back is very flat and—as a consequence—Sanders has a lot of anterior tilt.
“When you look at [Sanders’] stride length, it doesn’t look very good, and it doesn’t look like he has a lot of hip extension,” Tilbury-Davis said. “But that’s obvious, because he’s so anterior-tilted already, that there is nowhere for his legs to go.”
On the other hand, Hanson is more leveled than Sanders and has more hip mobility. “When you look at his stride, you can see a lot of hip extension at the back of the stride,” he said. “And the more extension you get at the back of the stride, the more you have the heels coming up towards the butt, then whipping through, and that’s a whole passive action [recovery phase] that is lengthening his stride. To an extent, these are things you can’t really train.”
The other factor that matters in running technique is height. Hanson likes to use the albatross-hummingbird analogy. “The way we are trying to approach running,” he said, “is trying to make an albatross and a hummingbird fly the same way. They’re both birds, but they’re flapping their wings in very different ways. But we think there’s a one-size-fits-all in running despite the fact there are people who are 5-feet-2-inches and people that are 6 feet 6 inches tall.”
Is Technique A Trap?
The way Hanson found his running technique was mostly natural, but then he worked on his limiters—with the help of video analysis and specific drills to address his issues.
“We’ve been running since we were two years old, so why should we think we’re smarter than our bodies? If I’m running fast, and I’m not injured, then why would I change that?” said Hanson, who also has a degree in athletic training and a masters in exercise science from Southwest Minnesota State University. “If I’m not getting the results I want or I’m getting injured, then yes, I address it, but changing success does not make sense.”
What Hanson did have to address—alongside his coaches Kevin Purvis and Julie Dibens—was a misfiring of his gluteus medium and a tight hip flexor (both on his right side). (You can see Hanson’s own run form analysis at this link, while here and here you can see how he has addressed his limiters.)
“Technique still needs to be addressed for mobility,” said Hanson. “Any run form analysis should be addressing body limitations. If you address those through mobility and then reinforce any change through drills, then you can make improvements, especially when the body fatigues.”
For Hanson this specifically meant mobility stretching and work in the gym (for the hip flexor) and via drill work like lateral agility drills, slow motion, over-exaggeration of run form, a series of skips, and more for his misfiring gluteus medium.
Tilbury-Davis also agreed that “People run in the way that their body has found the most economical solution. A lot of running coaches say you never mess with gait unless somebody is at risk of injury.” With his athletes, he only uses running drills as activation and dynamic flexibility work before—or as a part—of a track session, not with the intention to change people’s form. The only other external intervention he uses is cadence drills.
“If you have someone with knee instability,” he said, “if all you do is get them to work on increasing their cadence but running at the same speed, they’re going to shorten their stride. And then you’ll see a significant reduction in loading and forces and torques through the knee.”
Running technique is still important, but do not try to find a quick fix or change your form because you believe you should look like Kipchoge. You’re not Kipchoge. Instead, keep running naturally, as your body “tells you to” and focus instead on mobility and the technique to keep that mobility in place—even if you are a heel striker.