Don’t change a thing: no benefit found in adopting a new way of running

running knee injury

It may be midwinter, but we’re already a mere four months away from one of the biggest dates in the running calendar – the London Marathon. Which means that for the more serious runners amongst us, the training programme starts now.

The winter stretch is usually the less intense part of the year, physically, but it’s also the time that many runners focus on the fundamentals – especially the mechanics of running. And right at the top of the list of considerations is changing the way we run, especially if you’re a heel-to-toe runner.

We’ve all heard the stories about heel to toe being more dangerous than toe to heel, and how running on the balls of the feet can prevent sore knees, shin splints and other maladies, and many runners have switched to it, with the encouragement of coaches and medical experts. But a new review of the available data on running styles suggests otherwise.

Should you stay on the back foot?

The review, released at the beginning of the year by the La Trobe Sport and Exercise Medicine Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia, analysed 53 studies which looked at the impact of forefoot, rearfoot and flatfoot running patterns on injury, running economy and running biomechanics. Their conclusions: there is no evidence to suggest running on the front of your feet reduces injury risk or improves performance.

According to Dr Christian Barton, a La Trobe injury researcher and physiotherapist who led the study, the only major change that occurs when a runner changes from heel to toe to toe to heel is a shift in body weight from one area to another – but it doesn’t make the weight disappear.

Or should you stay on the ball?

“Our comprehensive review suggests that telling someone to run on the ball of their foot instead of their heel may make them less efficient, at least in the short term,” said Dr Barton. “Additionally, there is no evidence either way on whether running on the balls of your feet reduces injury.”

There’s always a massive temptation to tinker with – or even completely change – our running style, particularly when we’re going through a period of downtime but, in this case, the main message from the La Trobe report is ‘go for what you know’.

When it comes to running style, some experts say, there is no correct answer – the way an athlete runs is as unique as their fingerprint. And while there are certainly pros and cons in each main style, there is no such thing as the best technique. Because if there was, we’d all be using it.

And as Dr Barton pointed out, toe to heel running isn’t necessarily safer, either. “Running toe-heel might help injuries at the knee, where loads are reduced. However, it may cause injuries to the feet and ankle, where loads are increased,” Dr Barton said. “Put simply, when it comes to running style: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”