Big toe mobility for runners: why does it matter?
Running and walking both require sufficient movement at the big toe joint. In this blog we cover why it matters, how to measure it, and how to improve it!
The demand for big toe extension is greatest during the final phase of gait (called toe-off). Extension at the big toe during toe off activates something called the windlass mechanism. You can see this windlass mechanism in this video: when the big toe is brought up, the arch of the foot raises. The windlass mechanism essentially enables the foot to form a solid lever to push off from, what we term a “High gear push off”. If you lack this mobility, there will be a tendency to push off from the outside of the foot with a “low gear push off”. This is not only inefficient, but can place a higher load on the other toes and outside of the foot. Runners that lack big toe mobility may complain of pain underneath the other toes of the foot, or pain on the outside of the foot and ankle.
How can you test your big toe mobility?
Sit down with your foot flat on the ground, and move your knee towards your toes to be level with them. Then pull your big toe upwards and measure the angle (you can do this with a level app on your phone).
How much mobility do you need?
30deg is minimum with 50deg as optimal
How can you improve this?
Firstly you should have this assessed by your health professional to see if this:
a) Needs to be improved: are you running ok despite a loss of mobility?
b) Can be improved: certain conditions can result in irreversible loss of movement at this joint, and trying to improve it would be futile and cause unnecessary discomfort. For these patients, an orthotic assessment or a rocker soled shoe may be indicated.
There are a few different ways to improve this.
Using a massage ball on the sole of your foot and further up the leg where some of these muscles originate
Hands on mobilisation: grasping the big toe and forcibly bending forwards and backwards
Calf raises with added big toe extension: perform a calf raise with something underneath the toes (Fasciitis Fighter in this video)
In the plank position on the toes and rocking back and forth