Our big toe, sometimes referred to as the great toe, the first MTP (metatarsophalangeal joint) or simply the hallux, plays a critical role in dynamic balance and forward motion during a gait cycle (AKA running). It is arguably the most important toe for normal arch functioning, particularly when it comes to propulsion and shock absorption. Without your big toe, running would be nearly impossible. In addition to bearing the majority of contact pressure (60-65%) during movement, this tough little joint is unique in many ways:
- It has a separate set of control muscles and tendon insertions then the rest of the toes.
- It’s the only toe that is made up of 2 bones as opposed to 3.
- It’s the biggest and strongest toe.
- It’s length is usually comparable to one’s thumb.
- This is one of the most commonly injured and abused toes – stubbed toe and bunions.
- It is usually the longest toe except in cases of Morton’s Foot (toe) where the 2nd MTP is longer.
- The large toe is only 5 times larger than the small toe, yet it carries 12 times the amount of pressure.
Crazy but True: Surgeons have successfully replaced an amputated thumb with a big toe.
Typically a runner will hit the ground on one foot with the force of three times their body weight. During the stance and propulsion phase of this gait cycle the great toe will take on the majority (about 2 thirds) of forces and handle it with ease…if everything is working properly. Complications in the function of the big toe can arise if you develop a bunion, turf toe (sprain), sesamoids, hallux limitus, hallux valgus, or gout.
The ‘Windlass mechanism’ is a sailing term also used to describe the tightening/shortening of the plantar fascia (thick connective tissue on the sole that supports the arch) on the bottom of the foot. It stiffens the tissues around the medial arch and allows for greater propulsion by creating a rigid lever. The great toe is the strongest ‘puller’ of the plantar fascia and most important component in the functioning of the Windlass mechanism. If your first toe does not sufficiently dorsiflex (curl upward) this mechanism will not activate. During the late stance phase of the running gait cycle the 1st MTP should dorsiflex at least 65 degrees (up to 100 degrees) in order to produce the most effective elastic return. If the toe does not extend well your body will have to make up for it by compensating: more knee and hip flexion followed by decreased hip extension which in turn will put more strain on the lower back. Great toe extension (dorsiflexion) is critical for efficient running.
Three Things To Improve Your Great Toe Function:
1. Janda’s Short Foot: Stand with both feet planted on the ground and focus on your dominate foot. Find your tripod and distribute weight between your 1st and 5th MTP and your heel. Attempt to ‘shorten’ your foot by contracting your arch and driving your big toe and heel toward each other (without flexing any of your toes). Your navicular bone (on the medial side of your foot lower than the ankle) should rise. Hold for 8-10 seconds. Practice any time you have a moment of standing (you can even do it in your flat shoes). Shorten your foot, elongate. Shorten, elongate. Always keep your metatarsals down on the floor. When you get good enough do it while standing on one leg.
2. Toe Lift Exercises: Stand with both feet flat on the floor and lift (extend) your great toe upward as far as it can go while keeping all the other metatarsals flat on the floor. The only joint moving here is the 1st MTP. Then perform the reverse: push your big toe into the ground (don’t flex/curl it) and lift all the other toes up. These may be hard to do, but once you able to convince your nervous system to perform the patterns they’ll stick – sort of like riding a bike. Practice this a couple times a day.
3. Windlass Mobilization: Using a golf ball or other small hard ball, pull your big toe into extension and slowly press the ball into the plantar aponeurosis (the rope like tendon sticking up). If you feel discomfort hold the ball in that position for 30 seconds. Do this for about 1 minute on each foot.
Adding big toe mobilizing exercises to your routine (especially before you run) will enable the foot to start sending more effective neural signals to optimize movement from the ground up while minimizing the risk of injury. It’s a small joint but it can do great things!