At a workshop with sprints and jumps coaches one of the coaches lamented that many of the athletes (all young women in his view) used a toe-first style of takeoff that had no power and limited their ability to get any vertical lift.

It’s a common issue that arises at workshops, particularly if young athletes are present as demonstrators. I try to point out that it is not just young women who display this technique: what the coach is observing is a compensation for cushioning the initial impact of a takeoff as speed or gravity introduces more overload. I believe that it’s a learned behaviour that has been normalised over time. It might also be a learned skill from other areas such as gymnastics or forms of dance where pointed toes are the norm.

It’s worth exploring the implications of toeing as it applies to sprint and takeoff skills, starting with recognition. While some athletes will toe-in with an obvious forefoot placement that looks tentative and placed, most are only contacting with the forefoot a split second prior to heel contact. Regardless, the sequence of foot rocker placements is the same: forefoot-ankle-heel-ankle-forefoot. Just looking at the sequence gives you the picture of a great deal of work being done with the lower leg. Further, that sequence is unstable, requiring a huge amount of work to ensure that the foot doesn’t result in ankle, Achilles or knee damage.

If you look beyond the foot dynamics a clue as to why athletes would use such a pattern of movement becomes more obvious. The three major joints of the leg that extend and flex with each stride are the ankle, knee and hip. While they have different abilities of movement due to structure, for running, jumping, throwing and landing skills they can be viewed as hinges that open and close forwards and backwards. The ankle and hip hinges face forwards and the knees backwards. Our movement skills are created with patterns of accordion-like opening and closing of these three hinges so that the outcome is an extension or flexion.

We tend to focus on the dynamics of ground contact with regards to power-speed skills with a great deal of research informing us of the patterns of eccentric-to-concentric flow. With this issue it’s worth looking a few milliseconds prior to the initial impact to see what the hinges are doing. Anticipating the landing is important for that initial eccentric loading and the tension that resists excess eccentric action. From a hinge point of view all three hinges open to anticipate the landing, which also gives them an ability to absorb some of the overload of the landing: if you land with rigidity then the load tends to be absorbed up through bones and cartilage rather than tendons and muscles. If the landing allows too much hinge work the leg collapses. With our various skills we learn to have a balance of compliance and stiffness that gives us ‘bounce’.

With toeing patterns we see that the use of the hinges is somewhat imbalanced. The hips are not used much with the knee and ankle doing proportionately more of the anticipation. As result the hips are underused and the bulk of the landing-takeoff sequence is accomplished by the lower hinges. Invariably the athlete will develop calf and shin problems over time, and perhaps knee issues.

If this is such an inefficient and ineffective pattern, why does it occur? Like all compensations there will be a weakness or faulty movement pattern (or both) that then demands that some other part of the system do more work to accomplish the required movement. In many cases it will be the hips that are the source of the pattern. Simply telling the athlete to not point their toes will be of limited value if the real issue is further up the chain. The hips are closer to the centre of mass and the spine. We learn from a young age to protect that region. The spinal muscles themselves cannot withstand a great deal of jarring or sudden overload, so we learn to use the abs and hips to protect the area. The same muscle groups are also involved in supporting the alignment of the hips with respect to movements of the free leg so that the hips don’t collapse to one side as we swing the leg forwards. If those areas are weak relative to the demands we tend to make that area more rigid and pass the duties of anticipation down the chain. 

Another potential source of this compensation pattern relates to early training history. If the athlete has experience of landing from higher heights, doing takeoffs at speed or sprints when the hips and knees didn’t have the movement patterns or strength to both absorb and respond to the forces then the body finds another way to accomplish the task. If the training methods used are incremental or competitive in nature the athlete will also tend to find ways to accomplish the movements without a regard for efficient action. A great example from the world of athletics is the triple jump. Standing triple jump is often used at younger ages and is a different event because the performer is trying to generate momentum from a static position. As soon as they add a few strides of approach the emphasis shifts to conserving momentum. Invariably the hop landing has more force and speed than they are used to and first efforts result in a leg collapse. After that the athlete lands with a rigid hip and knee and opens the ankle to cushion the landing and avoid jarring the hips and spine.

The solution? I believe that the athlete needs to be prepared for landings and have the sensations reframed so that the hips, knees and ankles are used proportionately. For most athletes who toe, the focus needs to also emphasise the full action of the hips in an extend-flex-extend pattern: a balance of compliance and stiffness.

 A good example of a developmental series is the Balancing Hop. With this group the athlete performs a short series of hops with the free leg held out in front. The objective is to keep the free leg fixed in position without being rigid. The landing leg is tasked with anticipating, controlling and responding to the ground contact. This movement skill can start with a standing pulse if the athlete cannot manage a hop. It can progress towards doing kick-up hops and overloads with medballs or dumbbells.

From a coaching perspective, moving around the direction of movement, it becomes easy to see if the hips are being used to control the ground reaction and also prevent the free leg-hip from collapsing. Foot placement along the direction of movement, tall posture and arm actions can also be monitored easily. Further, a full-foot placement and reaction will develop more easily when all three joints in the chain are engaged.

This skill doesn’t take long to develop. By taking the athlete away from the specific demands of the sport for an intervention that corrects an imbalance the athlete is able to restructure a movement map in their brain and then reinsert it into other areas.

J. Erik Little