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December 2022 Update

Spotlight on Running: What Is A Heel Whip?

If you are finding that you are kicking yourself on the inside of your ankle while running, this information if for you!

A heel whip is a common problem while running (or less often walking) that can lead to hitting the inside of your ankle until sometimes it is raw or bloody.  This often develops as a consequence of other foot problems such as bunions and can lead to serious injuries if left untreated.


What is heel whip?

A “heel whip” is a fairly common running gait issue.  In fact, according to a 2015 study in the journal PM&R, over half of the 256 recreational runners studied were found to have some form of it.
Heel whip actually comes in two types: The most common is medial heel whip, which occurs when your heel turns in and your toe turns out as your leg “whips” around (possibly causing you to kick the inside of your other leg). Lateral heel whip, meanwhile, occurs when your toe turns in and your heel turns out. That’s when you’d actually see your leg kick out to the side of your body.


What causes heel whip?

A whole host of factors can contribute to heel whip, ranging from mobility issues, range of motion difficulty, or strength imbalances. And while it’s your foot flicking either inward or outward, the cause of heel whip doesn’t always originate quite so low on your kinetic chain.
First of all, heel whip can occur because of a lack of range of motion in the toes or ankles. If you can’t move fluidly through a normal stride, your body may compensate by adding a little twist to the motion.
Weakness in the intrinsic muscles of the foot (muscles which are contained solely in the foot and move the toes and stabilize the foot) can also contribute to heel whip, by causing your foot to collapse and roll inward. And a bunion could play a role too, by making it harder to push off the ground straight through the big toe.


It’s also possible that the issue might instead begin farther up the kinetic chain. If you don’t have full hip extension—say, you’ve got tight hip flexors that restrict the movement of your hip joint—you might not be able to move your leg as far behind you as you need to execute a full stride without swinging your leg around.
Weakness in the muscles that stabilize your pelvis (most notably the gluteus medius, the small muscle on the side of your hip) can also cause your upper leg to cave inward as you balance on one side while running. As your thigh and knee rotate inward, your foot and heel have no choice but to turn out so you can maintain your balance.


Is heel whip dangerous?

Even if you’re pain-free now, if your heel whip is asymmetrical—meaning one leg whips out while the other moves in a straight line—you could have a strength or mobility imbalance. That means even if the heel whip isn’t causing you problems right now, you might want to address the underlying issue before it contributes to injury in the future.


How can you fix heel whip?

Because the contributing factors are all different and individualized, there’s no one approach or one exercise that’ll stop heel whip. But it does likely depend on improving three things: mobility, range of motion, and strength. So exercises that focus on these factors in the affected areas likely can help.  Talk with one of the physicians at SOSR if you think you have a heel whip!  We can help!