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Running technique: can running on your toes really make you faster?

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What’s the best way to run? Heel strike or toe strike?

It’s a topic of huge debate: how should a runner’s foot strike the ground? Most runners heel strike, others are mid-foot runners, and some find themselves running on their toes. But which style is better? Which is faster? And does forefoot striking lessen the odds of a running-related injury?

According to a study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, where 2,000 runners in the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon were filmed halfway through the event and analysed, about 94 per cent proved to be heel strikers.

Likewise, when researchers studied middle-of-the-pack, recreational and sub-elite runners during a marathon in 2011, they found that almost 90 per cent were heel-strikers.

“If we look at gait analysis – just from walking – then we walk with a heel strike,” says physiotherapist Becky Hair. “You then roll through the lateral outside of your foot, and then off your big toe. So when it comes to running, most people naturally heel strike.”

What does forefoot or toe running involve?

Toe running is when the ball of your foot contacts the ground first, and your heel follows after. “It’s mostly used by sprinters,” explains Hair. “They don’t want any deceleration through their heels, so they naturally will move forward into their forefoot running – which is more propulsive.”

But, as the studies show, the majority of runners, male or female, slow or fast, are heel strikers. “A lot of endurance runners will end up running with the heel strike because they’ve got a slightly lower cadence and slightly longer stride length,” she adds. “Plus, as runners get tired, they tend to shift to more of heel-strike.”

So will running on your toes make you faster?

“Toe striking can help you run faster as a sprinter,” says Kerry Dixon, former athlete and founder of The Athlete Method, “you naturally find yourself spending less time on the ground using the forefoot striking running technique that may lead you rising onto your toes. So it’s an efficient way to run.”

There’s this notion that if you run on your toes, you’ll become faster when really, it’s the other way round, says Hair. “If you run faster, you will naturally start running more on your toes.”

Do those maximalist running shoes have anything to do with this trend?

Anyone who runs (or has watched any recent races – before Covid-19 lockdowns, of course) will have most probably noticed that generously cushioned running shoes are everywhere. Think: high, foam-filled midsoles, carbon-fiber plates and the opposite of the minimalist barefoot running trend from a few years ago.

Could these super-cushy shoes have anything to do with more people trying to run on their toes?

Perhaps, says Hair. “What those shoes do is push you forward – because they’re so cushioned and built up at the back you feel like you’re falling forward – you feel like you’re running on your toes or a forefoot runner,” she adds. “It’s almost impossible to heel strike heavily in those types of shoes.

And can running on your toes reduce the risk of a running-related injury?

You can’t really escape the impact of running, however you stride says Hair. “In my experience of treating runners and triathletes, running-related injuries occur when a runner changes their shoe from something very supportive to incredibly minimalist, or they make a big change to their training over a short amount of time.”

It appears, whatever way you run, you’re not immune from force – heel strikers just absorb it differently to toe strikers.  

Should I try to change my running style then?

“It’s kind of come in and out of fashion, to run on your toes, but really, a lot of us will just naturally change our gait patterns depending on the speed we’re running at,” explains Hair.

“It’s actually quite difficult to change your foot strike – and if you want to try to change to a forefoot runner by wearing very, very different trainers, for example, actually the load that you’re putting through your body can cause some niggles, tightness and injury.

“Basically, the ‘right’ way to run depends on what kind of runner you already are.”

Exercises that help with toe running

“To help develop your foot strike over time you can try various drills and conditioning exercises,” says Dixon. “It will take time and should never rush to change your footstrike as you may injure yourself.”

1. Skipping rope

“You can incorporate this into a warm up as you tend to stay on your toes,” says Dixon. “As athletes sometimes we would practice the high knees running drilling over 20-30m with the jump rope at the same time.”

2. Glute exercises

“A lot of the time running form starts from the hips. So having strong Glutes is important,” says Dixon. “Training the Glutes when landing one foot at a time is a great way to work on foot strike. Glutes also generate power which equals speed.”

Try single-leg hops: “where you stick the landing by absorbing the shock through your Glutes. Aim for three sets of six reps on each leg and build from there,” she adds.

3. Hip flexion strengthening exercises

Engaging your hip flexors past a 90-degree angle can strengthen the muscles and encourage correct form, explains Hair.

Try lunges or pigeon pose.

4. Foot flexibility and strengthening

Having toe and foot flexibility helps, too, says Hair, who suggests using a resistance band to move your foot and ankle inwards and then outwards. You can also try to scrunch up a towel with your toes or pick up a pen with your toes. Perhaps then, you’ll be a toe-striking track sprinter in no time.

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