The Running Technique of Tirunesh Dibaba

Tirunesh Dibaba, an Ethiopian distance runner, is the most accomplished runner in the world having won 3 Olympic gold medals, countless World Championship gold medals, not to mention she holds 3 world records.

Tirunesh Dibaba running techniqueAside from being incredibly fast, she is best known for her flawless, effortless running style.   And, lets be honest, her running form looks better than any female runner I’ve ever seen.

Dibaba Doesn’t Heel Strike

Unlike most joggers, Dibaba does not heel strike, she is a forefoot striker which means she lands on the balls of her foot before bringing the rest of the foot, heel included, down to the ground.

Why care that Dibaba runs on her forefoot and joggers do not? Because barefoot runners, like Dibaba once was, land on their forefoot and forefoot running may equal efficiency.

Like Dibaba, many Ethiopian runners ran barefoot during childhood and adolescence and are mostly forefoot strikers, not heel strikers. The top runners in the world are Ethiopian runners who forefoot strike and look incredibly effortless while running.

Humans Evolved to Run, But with a Forefoot Strike, Or a Heel Strike?

Studies show most barefoot runners also land on their forefoot, not their heels.  Yet, runners in raised heeled running shoes often present strikingly different biomechanics than barefoot runners:  they over-stride and heel strike.  And, the injury rate is profoundly high in recreational runners who mostly wear thick, heeled running shoes.

Maybe humans were meant to run forefoot, just not in a heeled running shoe?

Interestingly, some studies have found that shod runners who heel strike instantly adopt a forefoot strike when running barefoot which led researchers to believe that the human body may have an innate preference to land on the forefoot when running barefoot.

You also have to look at the fact that heel strikers are not winning gold medals, or  smashing records like Tirunesh, and her sister Genzebe.

Tirunesh and Genzebe Dibaba are forefoot strikers
Above left, Genzebe Dibaba. Above right, Tirunesh Dibaba. Both runners are forefoot strikers and grew up running barefoot and have smashed countless records.

From a performance perspective, running barefoot in her earlier years is a major attribute to Tirunesh Dibaba’s flawless, efficient running style.

  • forefoot running may optimize lower limb kinematics by using less muscular effort and more use of potential energy stored in the Achilles tendon.

This is why Dibaba makes running a 10,000m race in 30 minutes look easy.  Her legs are relaxed as she uses less muscular effort for momentum. Her forefoot strike prevents her from braking with the ground, allowing her to glide across the track.

How does Tirunesh Dibaba run?

I know you look at Tirunesh Dibaba and think to yourself, gee, I wish I could run like that!  Dibaba’s forefoot running style is not hard to replicate.  Ultimately, the stride of many barefoot runners, or forefoot strikers resembles that of Dibaba’s, smooth and efficient.

The Take Homes Message

Yes, we can’t ignore that Dibaba trains harder than all of her competitors, and of course there are many other variables contributing to her superior athletic status.  But, we can’t ignore that her forefoot running style may be directly related to energy cost, which obviously contributes to Dibaba’s success as a runner.

As I continue to review the scientific literature on heel strike and forefoot strike mechanics, I do so with a healthy does of skepticism.  But, watching Tirunesh and her sister’s run, along with other Ethiopian athletic super-stars such as Kenenisa Bekele, and Berhane Adere, the more I realize that to get faster as a distance runner, maybe we should do so without the heel strike.

In my opinion, Tirunesh Dibaba’s running form is a perfect example of how humans may have been designed to run, on their forefoot, not on their heels.

How Forefoot Running Improves Running Economy:

Run Forefoot Because You are Faster than You Think!

Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

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.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!

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