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Are You Running in High Gear 👍or Low Gear 👎? The Importance of the Big Toe during Push-Off.

Written by: Sean Rimmer, PT, DPT, OCS


The activity of running is something we can all do, though it may look slightly different for each individual. This can be due to a multitude of factors including (but not limited to) the anatomy of an individual, mobility, strength, coordination, fitness, etc. However, if you've ever appreciated higher level (faster) runners, we start to see similar trends in running form. The posture, the hip extension, the tight arm swing, the hip/knee drive during swing, and the short ground contact time is beautiful to watch! That's because when it comes down to it, running truly is a SKILL, and improving efficiency starts with form awareness. Do you really know how you are running?

In my practice, I've analyzed A LOT of individuals run, and I've seen a lot of different strategies, some strategies more efficient than others! One of the strategies I see regularly is a low gear push off during terminal stance. So, what exactly is a low gear push off?

Let me explain.

We first need to differentiate between a low gear and a high gear push off. This can be best appreciated from a posterior view (behind) of the runner, as we look for the motion of the foot interacting with the ground during push off. A low gear push off is when the runner pushes off in terminal stance through the lesser toes or the outside of the foot. A high gear push off is when the runner pushes off through the big toe.

Don't get me wrong, you can run with both strategies and get away with it...BUT, if you want to improve your efficiency and potentially reduce the risk of an over-use injury on the lateral (outside) portion of the foot, then moving into a high gear pattern is important. If I view this running pattern in someone's gait, I then tend to look at a single leg calf raise to slow things down. This is where I can truly appreciate how they navigate motion through the foot. Often times, it comes down to a few different reasons why this occurs:

  • Lack of awareness or impaired coordination

  • Reduced rear-foot, mid-foot, or big toe extension mobility

  • Reduced strength in the calf muscle complex as well as the peroneus longus muscle

  • Impaired loading response (energy storage) after the foot loads into the ground

You can appreciate the illustration below demonstrating the differences between a high gear and low gear push off during a single leg heel raise assessment.

Low Gear Push Off
Low Gear Push Off

High Gear Push Off
High Gear Push Off

Hopefully, if I did a well enough job demonstrating the differences, you should see a clear difference in the illustrations. In the low gear push off, the bottom of the foot is tilted laterally with a majority of the pressure moving through the lesser toes/lateral foot. In comparison, to the high gear push off, where you can appreciate a relatively flatter bottom of the foot with more direct pressure going through the big toe. Though the big toe is on the ground in both illustrations, there is a major difference in engagement.

Why is this important as a runner? 🤔

In a nutshell, a high gear push off allows an enhanced ability to release the stored energy in our muscle-tendon units to produce force. If you can move through the big toe (larger surface area for a reason!) during push off, it will enhance your your leg's ability to be "springy" transferring force from your hip all the way to your foot/toe. There is also a higher risk for injury when all of the force during push off is transferred through the lesser toes/lateral foot, as this bone and soft tissue is not anatomically optimized for both high and repetitive loads in running.

To conclude, running form starts with awareness. If you're not aware of how you're running, you won't ideally understand how to optimize your form (You don't know what you don't know!). However, once you become aware, motor control changes take intentional practice...and more practice...and even more practice until motor learning becomes automatic. So be patient with any motor learning, stay the course, and you will get better :)

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