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  • Writer's pictureDoug Joachim

The Most Important Toe

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

  1. It has a separate set of control muscles and tendon insertions than the rest of the toes.

  2. It’s the only toe that is made up of 2 bones as opposed to 3.

  3. It’s the biggest and strongest toe.

  4. Its length is usually comparable to one’s thumb.

  5. This is one of the most commonly injured and abused toes – stubbed toe and bunions.

  6. It is usually the longest toe except in Morton’s Foot (toe), where the 2nd MTP is longer.

  7. 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 big toe's function 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 the 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) 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 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 dominant 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.

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3.  Windlass Mobilization: Using a golf ball or other small hardball, 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!

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