I recently worked at a really great event called the RidgeWalk. This was a walking event of varying distances; 13 miles, 26 miles, or 52 miles. As I was on Post Event duty, nearly everyone I saw was in dire need of some TLC to the feet. And to a man/woman, they all apologised for the state/stench of their feet! I found myself explaining to most the importance of the first 2 toes in the walking gait.
Your big toe plays a crucial role in both balance and forward motion. As we push off from ground contact, our big toe extends. The extension pulls the plantar fascia tight, effectively stabilizing the foot through ‘the windlass mechanism.’ The benefits of a stable foot at push off are huge; this rigidity at push off gives you a stiff lever in which to generate large amounts of force (think of a stiff spring as opposed to a floppy spring!). If our big toe lacks this extension, not only will our foot lack the stability needed at every push off, but something else up the chain can easily begin to compensate. There are two in particular that we see in clinic, in both walkers and runners.
Increased Knee Flexion
Very little in the body works in isolation. Big toe extension allows for your foot to supinate (heel turning in – opposite to pronation), this allowing your knee to externally rotate and so achieve full extension, creating power in your stride and lowering stress through the knee joint. Of course poor big toe extension = the opposite.
And further up the chain still;
Decreased Hip Extension
I talk about this on my S&C for Runners Workshops; without extension at our big toe our ability to extend our hip is adversely affected. Due to a lack of big toe extension, the body tries to push off using the other toes; toes not built for the job. This leads to a lack of knee extension (see above), which is consistent with a lack of hip extension (try fully extending your hip with a bent knee!) as the angle of the toe simply does not allow the angle required at the hip. Again, this creates less power and more stresses.
So can we improve toe extension? Absolutely, there are lots of ways (many more fun and beneficial than the picture below!) – however there are some instances where it will not be possible – bunions or osteoarthritic joints for example. So get to work on that toe.
N.B. There are no ‘one size fits all’ style quick fixes in most injury scenarios, so these article shouldn’t be seen as such. They are merely guides to a better understanding of how our bodies work.