Lacing & Top Of Foot Pain

Different lacing approaches I tried, and what I settled on, to solve top of foot pain & sore toes

Lacing & Top Of Foot Pain

As alluded to in my ultra training retros I've had a bit of a journey with the fit on my shoes now the weekly load is reaching 90+ km (55 miles).

After weeks of trying different approaches I've finally found something that works for me, and hope that others who have experienced similar things can find some value in the advice.

Background: Sore Toesies

Since the start of running I've never deviated from traditional criss cross lacing (e.g. how most running shoes come out of the box):

Ian's Shoelace Site - Criss Cross Lacing

It's worked well for me and wasn't giving me any issues until quite recently.

What changed was a new focus on longer trail runs with lots of ascents and descents. When going downhill if your shoes aren't a good fit or haven't been laced well you can find your toes (especially the big toe and second toe) get bashed against the front of the shoe. As I was running the Cotswold Way this was becoming more and more of an issue, not really during the run but certainly the pain afterwards when carrying on with daily life.

I started looking for things I could do to help prevent this and came across...

Heel Lock Lacing

A technique many runners and hikers swear by, heel lock lacing looks like this:

Ian's Shoelace Site - Lock Lacing

It works by acting as a pulley, keeping your lacing tight and "locking" your heel down to reduce slippage.

Having moved to this during training I found it incredibly effective. It solved the sore toes issue for me and kept my fit nice and snug during those descents.

In April I did The Gordano Round; a trail marathon with the most verticality I've experienced in a single run before, using the heel lock.

All went well, I tied my shoes up nice and tight and got to work.

After the run however is when the problems started to occur. The top of my left foot felt painful for days afterwards, with it making a "creaking" sensation whenever I lifted my big toe.

This got worse with any runs or walks, and even after using the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) to help heal it, the second I ran again it came right back.

My theory is that I'd tied the heel lock too tightly across the top of my foot and damaged my extensor tendon, leading to tendonitis.

I took a week off running, started again and bam, it was right back with me. Not a great start to the ultra training plan I had to begin 😅


I entered a catch 22 situation; it felt like the heel lock lacing was effective, but also the root cause behind the increased pressure on the top of my foot. If I removed the lock, my heel slipped and caused toe issues. If I kept it, the top of my foot got worse.

Here's the different lacing techniques I tried to help with this:

Relaxed Heel Lock

Ian's Shoelace Site - Lock Lacing

Same as the heel lock approach from before, however going from the first to third eyelet, skipping the second eyelet completely. This still provided a lock but reduced the pressure the last criss cross would cause at the top of the foot.

This helped a little, however my foot paint was really sitting under the criss crosses at the 4th and 5th eyelets, and this approach didn't seem to be helping it to heal.

Straight Bar Lacing

Ian's Shoelace Site - Straight Bar Lacing

Also known as "Lydiard Lacing" after Arthur Lydiard, this approach reduces pressure tremendously across the top of your foot but removing any criss crosses, therefore any points of pressure.

This helped me enormously in the healing of the top of my foot, after a week of using this the post run pain had gone entirely.

However, and it's a big however, this technique isn't a silver bullet. It is much harder to get the laces tight and I found that the heel slippage was much, much worse than criss cross lacing.

After that week my foot felt great, my toes wanted to cry

Straight Bar with Heel Lock

A combination of the two techniques that allows for reduced pressure on the top of the foot, but still having a heel lock.

This was slightly better, however I found the lock still felt ineffective in general.

Solution - Gap Lacing With Heel Lock

There's an approach that allows you to skip the criss cross on any given part of the foot by threading through two eyes instead of across:

Ian's Shoelace Site - Gap Lacing

After some experimentation I found that making the gap between the 3rd and 4th eyelets (as pictured above) vastly reduced the pressure around where the tendon pain had been.

Then I added back the heel lock at the top and Bob's your Uncle: the best of both worlds.

I've taken this lacing out on a whole series of long runs now and it remains the most effective solution I've found. My heel doesn't slip, but the heel lock also doesn't overtighten across a sensitive area.