Have you ever been at the park and watched people walking their dogs? Dogs tend to trot along by walking on the balls of their feet with their heels up in the air. Whereas, people tend to walk by striking their heels first and moving forward by placing their feet to the ground and pushing off with their toes. Our heel to toe stride is different than most mammals, who like dogs and cats, tend to walk on the balls of their feet, or, like horses and deer who trot on their toes. The only animals who tend to walk more like us are apes, chimps and bears.
So, why do people walk with a heel to toe stride while other mammals don’t? James Webber, a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Arizona, has explored this question. A key component to becoming an efficient walker in other mammals is having longer legs. However, humans have dropped their heels to the ground, which physically makes our legs shorter. This action has always been a mystery to scientists. What Webber found is, our heel to toe pattern is a more efficient way for humans to walk.
Heel to Toe Stride Creates Longer “Virtual Legs”
When we walk, we move like an inverted swinging pendulum. Our body essentially pivots above the point where our feet meet the ground. When we take a step, the center of pressure moves across the length of your foot, from your heel to your toe. The pivot point of the pendulum occurs midfoot and several centimeters below the ground. This movement extends the length of our “virtual legs” below the ground, making our legs longer than our actual physical legs. It’s like we have longer legs than what we have.
Heel to Toe Stride Uses Less Energy
Compared to the toe-first gait of other mammals, heel-first walking uses half of the energy. Scientists speculate our ancestors adapted this heel-to-toe gait to help them travel vast distances efficiently when hunting and gathering food. Therefore, it gave them an advantage over other animals that relied on short bursts of energy to hunt for food. Think of how a lion hunts for food. It stalks its prey, then bounces in a quick burst of energy when it attacks.
In a study, researchers looked at how much energy people use walking heel first compared to walking with their heel slightly raised off the ground or on tip toe. People who walk with their heels slightly raised used 53% more energy than heel-first walkers. The people who walked on their tip toes used even more energy than that – 83%. Researchers believe our ancestors figured out this energy consumption versus walking style through trial and error – and eventually became heel to toe walkers. Researchers also say by landing heel first, it allows us to transfer more energy from one step to the next, which improves our efficiency. Plus, heel-first walking helps to reduce the forces on our ankles as the ground pushes against our feet.
Extra-long Feet Helped Our Ancestors Become Efficient Walkers
Our ancestors have been walking heel-first for a long time. Scientists have found footprints of ancient hominins preserved in volcanic ash in Latoili, Tanzania. It shows that our ancestors first walked heel to toe 3.6 million years ago.
Another thing that helped them become efficient walkers is their extra-long feet. Early bipeds appear to have had rigid feet that were proportionally longer than ours today. Their feet were about 70% the length of their femur, compared to 54% in modern humans. Having longer feet helped to them to become fast, efficient walkers. However, as we become better runners, our feet and toes became shorter. If you have a longer foot, it’s harder to push off since it adds more torque and bending. Therefore, as running become more important, our feet started to shrink.
In conclusion, humans shifted to a heel to toe gait because it provided more leverage and it limited energy loss.
ezWalker® Custom Orthotics Promote a Better Heel to Toe Walk
Some people when they walk may overpronate (the foot rolls in) or oversupinate (the foot rolls out). Overpronation and oversupination can cause not only foot problems, but also problems all the up through your ankles, knees, hips, and lower back. These problems can cause you pain when you walk.
To determine if you walk with an overpronated or oversupinated gait, you should be evaluated by a certified professional, like Kathy Carandang at the WalkEZStore. One recommendation to correct these issues is to wear custom orthotics, like ezWalker® Custom Fit Orthotics, in your shoes. ezWalker® Custom Orthotics will strategically raise the arches of your feet and provide them with the proper biomechanical support they need. Additionally, they will guide your feet to walk from your lateral heel to your medial forefoot. Each step you take throughout the gait cycle will be optimally controlled, so you’ll experience less stress and strain on your feet, knees, hips, and back.
Because … when your feet feel good, you feel good.®
Disclaimer: The information included in this article is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Cover image: Creative Commons / dearbarbie