What is The Windlass Mechanism of The Foot?

In this article, with the help of the video above, I want to explore one of the most important functions of the foot, the windlass mechanism.

The anatomy of the human foot is fascinating in so much as that a foot can be both flexible and mobile, and strong and rigid at different times.

In fact, even during a single walking or running stride, we need our feet to display both of these sets of properties…

At the point when your foot strikes the ground, it becomes the first part of a chain-reaction of shock-absorption. Through the load-absorbing movement of pronation, our feet display flexibility and mobility and can adapt to the terrain underfoot.

In stark contrast, from mid-to-late stance phase of your walking and running gait, your foot needs to become a rigid, more stable base, from which to push-off as you propel yourself forwards.

I recap the different stages of your running gait cycle in this previous article:

The Running Gait Cycle Made Simple – Learn the terminology!

The windlass mechanism plays a big part in enabling this dynamic change in the structure of your foot as you walk or run from stride to stride.

What is the Windlass Mechanism?

The term ‘windlass mechanism’ relates to the dynamic bow-stringing effect created by a number of important structures of the plantar aspect (underside) of the foot. This dynamic action involves the plantar fascia, sesamoid bones, plantar pads and their various attachments under the metatarsophalangeal joints.

As described in the video above; weight-bearing extension of the toes, particularly the big toe, and creates increased tension through the plantar fascia, which in turn pulls the heel bone closer to the metatarsal heads, almost like a pulley-system… hence use of the nautical term “windlass”!

If you’d like to see what happens to a runner’s form when the big toe is limited in its range of motion, check out this previous article:

How Important is Big Toe Extension in Running Gait? – It’s a great video!

The action of the windlass mechanism increases the height of the medial arch of the foot and causes the bones of the midfoot into a position where they provide a more rigid base from which we can push-off.

If you’d like to read more about the windlass mechanism and learn about the various different dysfunctions that can occur, check out this in-depth article from Craig Payne.

Last updated on June 13th, 2019.
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5 Comments

  1. Hi James, I’ve noticed that as I run more, and especially when doing cross country in spikes with a thin sole, that I get tendon problems with my third and fourth toes (if big toe is first toe). I have very flexible feet 😉 but wonder if I am maybe running with my toes pointing a little inwards, esp in my spikes, which may be overflexing my 3rd/4th toes as you mention towards the end of the video. Any suggestions, hints, tips?
    Thanks, Tina.

  2. Hi interesting video
    I have completely flat feet would that mean my mechanism isu not as efficient
    As someone with a normal arch

  3. Hi James,
    That was a great video on the feet.
    A couple of years ago, I was having severe pain in my right heel. I altered my gait so I was running more on the lateral sides of my feet. I saw a couple of doctors to try to figure it out. My regular doctor tried a round of oral steroids to see if it would help. (It didn’t). I consulted a Chiropractor who was working a triathlon. He was also certified in ART. He figured out my first ray was stuck. He did some mobilization and recommended a lower drop shoe. I continued seeing my chiropractor for foot adjustments.

    All that leads to my question – What can I do to prevent the first ray from becoming immobile again? I started having calf cramps at night or when I have a stretch reflex. Dorsiflection is limited.

    Massage helped and I have been rolling my caves per you video. I also took a week off after a failed 100 attempt. What more can I do?

  4. Hi James,
    my husband describes himself as an ex-runner (having run several half marathons and the London Marathon twice in the past) as he now suffers from plantar faciitis. Does this really mean that he has to hang up his running shoes or are there exercises that he can do to remedy this (as I know that he misses running)?
    Many thanks.

  5. James,

    Great demos of how the windlass mechanisms works and good to use actual feet in WBing and non WBing. Your topic was windlass mechanism….but you did not explain that. You said basically think about it like it was a pulley. It is not a pulley, it is a windlass. Review your simple machines and possibly re-make your video. A windlass is basically a wheel and axle, there is a mechanical advantage. The best example is a hand crank on an axle to pull a bucket out of a well. The wheel or crank is your 1st phalange and the axle is your MTP joint. The rope is your plantar fascia and the bucket is your calcaneus. Turn the wheel and it pulls up the bucket. Go into 1st MTP extension (is the correct term, not dorsiflexion), that pulls on the plantar fascia and draws the calcaneus anteriorly as we push off and supinate and this helps form the medial longitudinal arch of the foot so it becomes a rigid lever to get effective force transfer during the toe/off/push off phase.

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