5 Key Aspects of Tirunesh Dibaba Running Style

Tirunesh Dibaba is one, if not, THE best female distance runner in the world and her running style is effortless, smooth and beautiful to watch. Nonetheless, Tirunesh Dibaba running style is the forefoot running technique, which makes her standout from the rest, especially her impeccable sprint finish.

But how did she learn her forefoot running style?

Tirunesh Dibaba Running

5 Key Aspects of Tirunesh Dibaba Running Style

1. She Ran Barefoot!

Until the age of 16, Dibaba run barefoot which enabled her to build-up a larger plantar proprioceptive field as compared to shod-joggers. The result, the proprioceptors in her feet, ankles, knees and hips repsond faster and more strongly to tactile stimulation during ground contact.

A younger experience to barefoot running creates significantly richer neuronal connections in the feet and lower leg joints, resulting in better mechanical efficiency and safer landing strategies to avoid harmful impacts.

2. She Land’s on Her Forefoot

Tirunesh Dibaba Running Style
When Tirunesh Dibaba is running, she lands with a forefoot strike.

Tirunesh Dibaba is a forefoot striker, whereas most joggers are heel strikers.

  • Dibaba lands on the balls of her foot, then lowers her heel to the ground.

Most Ethiopian runners forefoot strike, too. A forefoot strike landing is typically a by-product of running barefoot, whereas a heel strike landing is necessitated by regular running shoes.

  • Recent studies have found that runners who ran barefoot landed on their forefoot, but adopted a heel strike in regular running shoes, and consequentially produced more impact.

Thus, foot strike impairments are due to regular running shoes and the effects of regular running shoes are reversed by running barefoot.

It is reasonable to conclude that Dibaba’s forefoot strike landing style is from having ran barefoot for many years –earlier adaptations to barefoot running obviously has positive impacts on performance due to efficient forefoot running mechanics.

3. Her Feet Kick Up Higher Behind Her

Tirunesh Dibaba Running Form
Tirunesh Dibaba’s leg swings more behind her than in front.

Even though Dibaba is a distance runner, her leg swing is similar to that of a sprinter –Dibaba has a high back kick!

Most joggers display a pendulum leg swing (shuffle-like stride) when they run. But not Dibaba.

Dibaba’s leg swings rearward enabling her foot to kick up higher off the ground, like a butt kick –a back view of Dibaba running looks as if she’s doing a series of butt-kicks.

  • Keep in mind that when Dibaba is running fast, her back kick is higher than when she is running  slow. Therefore, the height of the back kick increases with speed.

What are the performance implications of a high back kick when forefoot running?

A high back kick is a function of a proper withdrawl reflexes that were manifested during barefoot running. And, a high back kick means the legs are repsonsive — an indicator of good elastic strain energy usage in the Achilles tendon.

  • High elasticity adds spring to ones stride and makes it smooth as well.

This is why Dibaba’s stride is not rigid like many heel strikers. Because she runs forefoot, Dibaba’s legs act like springs, letting her feet rapidly pop off the ground, propelling her forward with minimal muscular cost.

4. She has High Arm Carriage

Athlete Tirunesh Dibaba
Tirunesh Dibaba has a high arm carriage.

I have read comments on Dibaba’s arm swing as being ‘out of control’, ‘her arms cross her midsection’, but her arm swing is very relaxed, and definitely not as robotic as most of her non-African competitors.

Obviously Dibaba’s arm swing works, as she consistently out performs the rest. The keyword is relaxed. Dibaba’s arms always look relaxed, and when a muscle is relaxed, it requires less energy.

East African distance runners are known for their high arm carriage, and relaxed arm swing, which I believe contributes to their outstanding athletic performance.  Rarely do Ethiopian runners show excessive arm pumping, or stiff arms.

5. She Looks Down at the Ground

Tirunesh Dibaba Runner
When Tirunesh Dibaba runs, she has a tendency to gaze at the ground mostly.

Watch Dibaba run, you will notice she spends more time looking down at the ground then looking up and straight a head.

Interestingly, many Ethiopian runners  gaze down at the ground when they run. This may be a reflexive, or a habitual response to having ran barefoot for so many years.  Barefoot runners tend to scan the ground with their eyes to avoid stepping on sharp objects.

Keep in mind, just because Dibaba looks mostly down at the ground, does not mean she runs with her head down; Dibaba’s head is kept neutral, in the same position as if she was walking, only her eye gaze drops down.

The Take Home Message

Analyzing Dibaba’s running technique has greatly improved mine. Now I feel smoother, more efficient than when I was a heel striker and my heel striking injuries are behind me.

Ultimately, I think we can learn a lot from watching Dibaba run as her forefoot running technique is considered the preferred, and safest running technique in humans.

More From Run Forefoot:

Why Older Runners Need Barefoot Shoes – Learn how barefoot like running shoes can help any runner, especially older runners, stay injury-free.

How to Make Your Stride Smooth – Research suggests that stride smoothness depends on foot strike.

Running with Rigidity – Find out why heel strike runners have a more ‘choppy’, rigid gait than forefoot runners and why gait rigidity may cause injury.

More Bad News on Traditional Running Shoes – Here I talk about how traditional running shoes influence poor performance.

Proper Running Shoes – Need help finding the right shoe for forefoot running? Here are my reviews on barefoot like running shoes that will help you maintain your forefoot strike and keep your legs and feet strong.

Bretta Riches

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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