Toe Running, Not Forefoot Running, Causes Injury

Forefoot running is often mistaken as toe running, but they are two different styles of running. Toe running is rare, and is often attempted by heel strikers who have switched to forefoot running thinking that forefoot running is ‘tippy-toe’ running.

Forefoot Running vs Toe Running

However, in a forefoot strike (shown above), the ball of the foot contacts the ground first, then the rest of the foot flattens on the ground, including the heel.

Toe Running, Not Forefoot Running, Causes Injury

It looks as if the runner is landing on the outside of the foot, but in fact, this is how the human foot naturally strikes the ground when running barefoot.  Humans seem to be hardwired to land under, in the order of the 5th – 4th – 3rd metatarsals, then the rest of the foot flattens to the ground.

To better illustrate a forefoot strike, watch the video below of the best distance runner in the world, Tirunesh Dibaba:

At first glance, the information provided here may seem overwhelming, but avoid hyper-focusing on foot strike. As mentioned above, landing on the outside of the forefoot is a natural response of the human body when running barefoot. So, don’t over-think exactly how your foot should be contacting the ground, just run, the forefoot strike will come naturally since its automated, thanks to evolution.

Forefoot Running Safer Than Toe Running

In a forefoot strike, the initial contact of the ball of the foot followed by the dropping of the heel, eliminates collision forces, peak pressures, allows adequate impact and loading distribution throughout the foot, and therefore provides a smooth landing.

Studies show that in toe running, peak pressures are greatest at the big toe, and peak plantar flexor moments are higher compared to a forefoot strike:

  • toe running involves an extremely high touch-down angle where most of the load is on the toes, leading to toe strain and metatarsal stress fractures
  • increased magnitude, or duration, of metatarsal loading in toe running increases the risk of metatarsal stress fractures, or fatigue fractures of the foot

Toe Running Impairs Balance

Toe Running Causes Injury, Not Forefoot Running
Toe running imposes gait instabilities compared to forefoot running. We can balance better on one leg, if the foot is flat on the ground, but if you stand high up on your toes, balance is compromised -now try running like this!

Mechanically, toe running compromises balance and requires greater eccentric muscular control to maintain ankle position in the stance phase of running.

  • toe running leads to balance impairments, exerting greater loads on the plantar flexors and the Achilles tendon

The Take Home Message

Toe running and forefoot running are not the same! If you are a heel striker making the switch to forefoot running, make sure you land on the balls of the foot, just like the elite distance runners, not high up on your toes.

More on The Benefits of Forefoot Running:

Run Forefoot, Because You’re Faster than You Think!


References:

Biomechanical Characteristics of Barefoot Footstrike Modalities.  Nunns et al in Journal of Biomechanics, Vol. 46,pages 2603-2610; 2013.

Biomechanical Analysis of the Foot and Ankle Predisposition for Developing Stress Fractures. Hughs, L.Y., in Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, Vol 7; 1985.

Effects of Footwear and Strike Type on Running Economy. Perl et al., in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercises, Vol 44; 2012.

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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