I received an email today with a question about how important the big toe is during running gait.
The short answer: Massively important!
The slightly longer answer however is nicely presented in the video above from Physical Therapist Steven Gonser.
Running Technique Quick Guide >>
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Essentially, both running and walking gait required a certain amount of big toe extension to get through late-stance phase of gait without compensation.
When the available range of motion at the ball of the foot (first metatarsophalangeal joint) is limited, either due to joint pathology, tight plantar fascia, or another of various possible reasons, we lose the capacity to push-off using the first two toes of the foot.
Without this ability to load properly through the first and second toes, we lose the capacity to use the all-important windlass mechanism of the foot.
Learn more about the Windlass Mechanism and why it’s SO important, in this previous article
It’s the strong push-off through the first two toes we want to see during walking and running gait. But what we often see when big toe extension is lacking is a tendency to compensate by altering the movement pattern and rolling off the outside of the foot, as just one example.
But the biomechanical compensations don’t end there…
When big toe extension is lacking during late-stance phase of running and walking gait, the quality of the triple extension we want to see decreases. When the foot and ankle ceases to act as an effective rocker mechanism, the knee and hip both usually sacrifice extension at terminal stance in running and walking gait.
You can test your big toe extension using the video I posted previously here: Running Foot Health: Self Assessment.
An interesting article – as always.
I was wondering, should the big toe extension be active or passive – in other words, should we make an effort to push off through our big toe, or just let it bend in response to the movement of the leg?
Thanks for the comment. The sequence of events that weight bearing extension of the big toe initiates (the Windlass Mechanism) should be passively facilitated by simply rolling forwards through the big toe as we walk and run.
I’d say the only conscious element should be to ask yourself whether you’re ‘pushing through the ball of the foot’ or not… Ideally the answer would be yes!
I hope this helps.
Thanks James – that’s great. We look at the gait of runners like Mo Farah as exemplars, but we can’t see the forces being exerted inside the limb, so this is really helpful.
I can see myself running along, frowning as I monitor the ball of my foot!
Many thanks, Mark
Would a bunion influence to any degree the big toe extention thus altering the running gait. I have often wondered could this contribute to bad form from the ground up leading to various issues regarding possible related injuries due to other muscles compensating for the poor toe extention?
Thanks for taking the time to comment. Sure, a bunion would certainly influence your ability to load properly through the big toe. This is something we’ll aim to write about in the near future!
I am interested in hearing how a bunion affects big toe extension. Will look for the followup write up. Thanks.
I wondered what the effect of Morton’s toe/Morton’s Foot would be on big toe extension. My thinking is that when the first metatarsal is shorter than the second metatarsal, that does inhibit proper loadbearing by the first metatarsal. So would it also have a detrimental effect on big toe extension? And would the use of a Morton’s toe pad under the first metatarsal help with restoring the big toe extension?
Thanks for that James, it has never ocurred to me that toes were so important. I am a race walker and sometimes get warnings for bent knees, I know I have very inflexible ankles which I have been working on, did the self assessment and as well as not being able to flex my ankle to position I also can barly lift my big toe and looking at the video this could impact on knee extension. I had to stop doing the single leg squats as it hurt my toes so much, I will attempt to increase the flexibilty then go back and see if it has made a difference
That’s a really interesting insight into the world of race walking – not something I know a lot about, if I’m honest. Thanks!
As a rule, with a lack of available movement through what could be termed ‘the foot and ankle rocker’, the knee and hip has to compensate… so what you’re saying makes a whole load of sense!
Take a look at these two posts to for some self massage techniques you could apply:
Foot Self Massage Guide
Self Massage For Tight Calf Muscles
Hi James! Thanks for a great article-as always! I was wondering, how is the natural biomechanics of the fot when running and walking?
Thanks for the comment. ‘Biomechanics of The Foot’ is a massive topic. A really interesting topic too!
Definitely a topic for another series of videos or articles at some point 🙂
Hi James. I did send a question about my upcoming bunion surgery and this post answered my question. Any foot exercises rhat can extend toes and plantar areas of foot.
Very interested to read the bunion problems as I too have a bunion on my right foot. I think over the years that I have adapted my running to suit the bunion. No faster but still running despite some numbness in the 2nd and 3rd toes. Nothing can be done about the bunion apart from surgery which is my last resort but are there some specific exercises I can do to keep my foot flexible and strong? Thanks. Becky
I had a heel operation 10 months ago (heel spur + Haglunds Bump) and I’ve been back running for 7 months, building up. What I’ve noticed is that I avoid toe extension in my troubled foot because it causes pain in the heel. However, as the healing continues, month by month, and there is less discomfort, I am getting to the point now where I am beginning to be able to toe extend – particularly when I want more power, i.e. in a fast session. Before the operation I didn’t give these details any thought, but now I can’t wait to be so pain-free that I can achieve full toe extension – and get full power – whenever I want. It’s good to see my experience being explained as you’ve done.
There is definitely some logic in your points, however I believe there are some inconsistencies. I agree we need some range of movement in your big toe. However, the biggest concept I think we need to pass on to runners/ walkers is that the big toe is able to transmit force. That force should be getting produced upwards in bum and posterior thigh, then transmitting through the knee/ankle , then icing on the cake should be push off through toes, (of which the big toe is biggest for a reason). Hence the big toes first goal is strength and stabilisation. Emphasis should be placed here first, as if you only talk about range of movement you might be creating a more unstable joint. More instability without strength might be causing irritation at the 1st Mt joint, which might be irritating the joint, which might lead to arthritic changes, maybe even bunion formation…. My advice for most people I see is don’t stretch this… Strengthening as always… Running itself is stretching enough by itself.
For the past 3 months I have had nerve compression in my ankle that has caused the big toe to go numb. The impingement on the medial plantar nerve is from a series of large ganglions in the plantar aspect of the tarsal tunnel. I have had an aspiration of the cysts and had some relief and increase in feeling. The surgeon and Ultrasound doctors have now stopped the aspirations due to the proximity of the cysts to the nerve. I partially rested the foot for 12 weeks (cycling/shorter runs) and this weekend I did a 50k Ultra with 2600m of climbing/decending. I had severe pain in the lateral side of my foot immediately post race which stopped after RICE and 3 days rest. I believe my gait was severly affected by my lack of feeling in the big toe and the lack of push at the end of my footstrike. Lateral side of knee was very painful and hamstring/glute cramps affected me at the very end of the race. Surgery seems to be the only option to get the feeling back. Do you know of any instances where the cysts have been removed or reduced without the requirement of surgery?
Great article. Was JUST having this conversation with a chiropractor during last night’s run. Does using the “toe push off” also assist to stabilize the adductor?
This is so helpful. I learned the importance of big toe extension the hard way. (In other words, I could have used this article a year ago!) I was experiencing a lack of big toe extension in my right foot, which caused my outer toes to bear the weight through compensation (as mentioned in the video), resulting in a fracture. Even then, I didn’t really understand the true cause(s) of the fracture, so nothing changed about my big toe extension. When I returned to running, I developed some hip imbalance, knee and IT band problems, and a host of other issues since I was still compensating for the lack of big toe extension. BUT, I’ve since found the root cause, and I’ve done a LOT in the last year to address it. Most of the work I’ve done has been related to mobility in my foot, so I’ve spent a lot of time barefoot on a wobble board, BOSU, and various other tools. So far so good!
Another great post. This really hit home – both from my own running experiences and an article I wrote highlighting the importance of the big toe and how modern shoe design inhibits foot function. I laid off too much technical things as my audience are not so technically inclined.
The article is here if you’re interested –
Things seem to start off so well for us humans, as children our bodies are great then we mess them up through modern lifestyle. If you watch young children running, they run with the fluidity and pleasure we all spend the rest of our running lives in search of…..I see fantastic running form in my children (and their big toes point the right way!).
Thanks for the comment Phil. Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂
Interesting stuff, I’ll have a read of your article later tonight. Thanks for sharing the link!
I know this is an old thread, but I am a new runner! I went to a gait analysis and was told that I had Morton’s Toe. After reading this post SO MANY things that I do biomechnaically make sense now–the short gait, the lack of rear-ward extension, the tight calves. Anything I can do to mitigate the effect of the wonky toe?