More running-related research, namely on biomechanics, keeps momenting the fact that the low-impact nature of forefoot running may be better for injury prevention as compared with heel strike running.
But now some compelling evidence suggests that you can develop functionally stronger toes through forefoot running, too!
The problem with weak toes in general is not only are they more vulnerable to over-strain and injury, but balance and footstep stability may become compromised during running which can also make bad mechanics even worse and the legs can be subjected to many stressors in this capacity.
There are many ways a runner can develop stronger toes, such as walking barefoot on uneven surfaces and being barefoot more often in general, but one sure way is by running with a forefoot strike. A 2014 study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that a forefoot strike landing when running naturally increased muscle activation, which is a major prerequisite for increases in muscle strength, in the long and short toes when the center of mass is concentrated over the forefoot during the early stages of stance (when the heel is still lifted off the ground).
The purpose of the increased muscle activation in the toes helps reduce damaging dorsiflexion moments (shown below) around the MTP joint (the big-toe joint) (Goldman et al. 2013).
- The touchdown and stance phases in forefoot running naturally increases MTP joint dorsiflexion moments (shown above) which demands greater muscle stabilization from the toes as compared (Perl et al.2012).
- In simple terms, the touchdown and stance phases of forefoot running requires ongoing active muscular activation and functional engagement of the toes which is also necessary for promoting more growth in soft tissue and muscle strength throughout the forefoot and toes.
Even more encouraging, forefoot running either barefoot or in minimalist shoes with a wide toe-box offers more potential for positive change in toe strength as the toes have more freedom to engage with greater toe splay, extension and flexion. These functional movements of the toes also helps expand the forefoot loading area.
The functional relevance of this is the contact area of the foot with ground is made larger which not only provides a more secure base from which balance becomes more steadied, it also prevents excessive loading from reaching beyond a tolerant limit to one small area of the forefoot, rather underfoot pressure is more highly dispersed over a larger surface area. This is how impact overexposure on the foot can be easily avoided as impact pressure spread best when the toes and forefoot can expand while landing with a forefoot strike during running.
You can check out many examples of barefoot-inspired minimalist running shoes (here!) that have a wide-toe box, enabling more functional engagements of the toes.
Below are also more examples of the evidence that supports the facts that not only can minimalist running shoes boost foot strength as well as the sensory functions in the feet, but they can significantly reduce impact loading across the legs and back:
Got a Bunion? Barefoot Running Shoes Impacts Bunion Growth, For the Better.
Minimalist Running Shoes Great for Treating Sore Knees.
Minimalist Running Shoes Improves Sensory Processing in the Feet, Especially in Older Runners.
Minimalist Shoes Linked to Less Lower Leg and Back Pain.
Goldman et al. The potential of toe flexor muscles to enhance performance. J Sports Sci, 2013;31:424-33.
Miller et al. The effect of minimal shoes on arch structure and intrinsic foot muscle strength. J Sport Health Sci, 2014, 3, 74-85.
Perl et al. Effects of footwear and strike type on running economy. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2012;44:1335-43.
BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.