I occasionally get emails in which I’m asked the question in the title of this post: should we heel strike when walking? Occasionally people express frustration that they seem to be unable to avoid heel striking when they walk, even if barefoot. Now, I don’t even necessarily think heel striking is all bad even when running (if moderate and not paired with a big overstride), but when it comes to walking, heel striking is completely normal, even without shoes on your feet.
It’s important to recognize that walking and running are totally different gaits from a biomechanical perspective, and what you do in one doesn’t really translate directly to what you do in the other. You’ll typically hear walking described as a heel-toe gait, whereas running tends to be more variable depending on things like footwear (or lack thereof), surface, speed (e.g., sprinting is almost always a forefoot contact), etc.
The reality is a bit more complicated than what is described above. We probably use multiple contact types in both gaits on a regular basis depending on the situation and conditions we find ourselves in. If you don’t believe me, try an experiment. The next time you go for a walk outside, do it barefoot and pay close attention to your feet. In my personal experience, heel-toe is the gait I use when walking steadily on a smooth, hard surface such as a clear asphalt road. It’s my “travelling” walking gait. But, when the surface gets irregular or when there is debris on the ground, I tend to shift to a modified forefoot walk. Why? Because bringing the bare heel down on a rock or stick hurts, so we adapt our gait on the fly to protect ourselves. Now, the forefoot contact I make when walking feels different than a running forefoot strike – it’s more of a full-forefoot landing rather than an initial contact on the lateral forefoot of a supinated foot. So, even though we may forefoot contact in both walking and running on occasion, it’s probably not the same thing from a biomechanical perspective.
So to answer the question at the outset: yes, it’s completely normal to heel strike when walking. It may not be what you do all the time, but it’s probably what you should do under most normal circumstances.
Still don’t believe me? Take a look at the gorillas in the video below. I’m quite certain they’ve never worn shoes, and they seems pretty comfortable walking on their heels (particularly the second one – even gorillas have gait variation!) :)