Would you ever think something as miniscule as big toe mobility could plague your running career? Well, start answering yes. All of our joints are part of a bigger picture of movement and function. When we lose motion, balance, or strength our body compensates. Compensations are seamless, automatic, and subconscious. They are perceived as ‘normal.’ Your body has one goal: task completion; however, task completion doesn’t correlate to efficient and correct movement. If you want to stand from a chair you can stand up driving from your hips or through your knees. Both get you to standing (task completion), but each loads your body differently. A good chunk of the population believes that the way they complete a task is most efficient, because, well, that’s the way your body decided to do it. While I’m not looking to start an argument here, I can tell you you’re wrong. Ok, maybe I am looking to start an argument.
The first toe, or big toe, but plays a crucial role in balance and locomotion. As we push off our big toe extends. The extension draws our plantar fascia taut, effectively stabilizing the foot through what’s termed ‘the windlass mechanism.’ [See Image to Right] The benefits of a stable foot at push off are fairly obvious. Stability at push off gives you a rigid lever in which to generate large amounts of force. If our big toe lacks extension, not only will our foot lack the stability needed at every push off, but something up the chain (i.e. the foot, knee, or hips) will compensate for this lacking flexibility. Here are a few compensations that result from lacking first toe extension:
How to check motion
Checking motion is fairly easy and can even turn into an effective stretch. Normal range of motion into extension measures 70 degrees but may exceed this number while running. Drop yourself into a half kneel position and flex your foot. Attempt to put your first toe flat on the ground. If you feel anything it will likely be in one of three places: your arch, heel, or joint. Feeling any tension in the arch or heel is likely due to tightness in the plantar fascia. Go ahead and stretch it. For those feeling it within the joint you’re likely suffering from hallux rigidus. No, that’s not the name of an ancient Greek warrior, but a condition often caused by osteoarthritis in the joint. A static stretch is likely to yield minimal results. An arthritic first toe may respond better to joint mobilization or external support. A more rigid shoe may help protect the toe, while a rocker-bottom can even help with push off.
This is a real life butterfly effect. Something as seemingly insignificant as your big toe can have major effects elsewhere. Remember, it’s common practice (or should be) to assess the entire movement chain when assessing an injury. Hip pain, knee pain, and foot pain could be stemming from your big toe. If you feel tight or restricted, try stretching. As always, seeking the help of a physical therapist or other clinician who has a higher understanding of movement is always advised.