When you’re out running, do you ever think about what your feet, specifically your toes, are actually doing? Are they doing anything? You bet they are! The toes, but especially the great (big) toe is responsible for a significant amount of stability when we run. Our foot acts as a lever and we need our great toe for optimal balance and push-off, so if it’s not doing its job the rest of the leg ends up doing a lot more work. And running is already hard enough so we don’t need to add extra work, right?
How do you know if your toes are doing their job? There are a couple easy ways to tell, and if they don’t pass the test, get ready to do your homework. First, when you’re sitting or standing try to pull your great toe up as high as possible. If it’s hard to do or the bottom of your toe and foot feel tight, the joint may be stiff or the tissues may not be lengthening as well as they need to.
Homework: work on gently ranging the toe up and down as well as performing soft-tissue mobilization on the bottom of your foot/arch using a golf, tennis, or lacrosse ball.
Next test: how smart are your toes? Sit with your feet flat on the ground and try to lift only your big toe while keeping the smaller toes flat. Then reverse it by trying to lift the small toes while keeping your big toe flat on the ground. If this is difficult and you end up thinking your muscles don’t understand your brain, you’re basically correct. Luckily, practice is what the muscles and brain need, so incorporating these exercises into your weekly routine will improve the connection between your brain, nerves, and muscles.
Homework: lift only the big toe 20 times in a row, then only the small toes 20 times in a row. Then try alternating big/small toes 20 times. The smarter your feet, the better your running mechanics can become so get practicing!
Again, the great toe is so important because it acts as a lever for push-off when we run. If your foot can’t do its job, something else will compensate to preserve forward momentum, which over time can cause inefficient movement patterns, increased energy expenditure and possibly injury or poor performance. These are fairly simple things to improve your running and possibly decrease the risk of injury, so don’t miss out on the opportunity to build your best running body!
“The most beautiful motion is that which accomplishes the greatest results with the least amount of effort.”
Dr. Ivy L. Roe, PT, DPT, CSCS
Performance Physical Therapist / Running Performance Specialist
Dr. Roe received her Doctorate of Physical Therapy from The George Washington University in Washington, DC and her Bachelor’s in Exercise Science from the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. She competed for four years in cross-country and track and field while attending UMary with areas of specialty in the 1500/1600m, 3000m, 5000m and 3000m steeplechase. She continues to be an avid runner who has a strong interest in working with the running population, whether it’s achieving a personal record or taking the first step towards joining the running community. Dr. Roe is also a high school cross-country and track and field coach specializing in distance events.