TOP TOE TIP A strong big toe creates a strong foot, calf and ankle.
Before I get too far down a rabbit hole here, I need to make one thing very clear. I am not a foot fetishist. I’m just not. I spent six years at an all-boys boarding school, and I can tell you that there are smells a teenaged boy’s foot can produce that will outlast religion. Working as a physiotherapist in summertime in Australia can be unpleasant, regardless of whose hoof it is you’re looking at. Trust me, if it was something that could be more easily avoided, I would. That being said, I’ve ended up on a bit of a crusade to save our soles – big toe by precious big toe.
Which brings me to this week’s question. How much attention do you pay to your big toe? Better yet, do you pay any attention to it at all, or just cover it up as quickly as possible in the morning and hope not to have to see it again until bed-time? I’ll be careful to refer all readers to my opening statement here – I still don’t have a foot fetish – but I think we should all improve our relationships with our big toes.
Why? Put simply, your big toe is your anchor. There is a reason the first metatarsal bone is four times the density of the others and the big toe is so much bigger. When standing on a perfectly healthy foot, the peak pressure is under the base of the big toe and when walking or running the majority of the load runs along its line. Look at a small child’s foot and you will typically see a gap between the first and second toes, making the foot widest at the front to improve balance. If you have a toddler in the house, try sliding your finger under their big toe when they are standing in bare feet; it’s almost impossible. Try anywhere else on the foot and it’s reasonably easy.
Now take your own shoes off and try to sense where the heaviest pressure is under your foot. For many it will be under the heels, or possibly the outside of the foot. I would confidently suggest that many people won’t even feel their big toe on the ground. Now consciously try to force the big toe into the floor, while keeping all of the others relaxed. If you can do that, force the big toe down and wiggle the others. Pretty hard, right? The muscles you are working are called the flexor hallucis longus and brevis – the big toe flexors – and keeping them strong or at least working may well protect you from various foot problems, including plantar fasciitis, Morton’s neuroma and ‘flat feet’. A strong big toe creates a strong foot, calf and ankle. That ‘collapsing in’ of the foot that you often see when walking behind teenagers is a pretty good indicator of a weak big toe; but maybe I’m the only one who notices that kind of thing!
What then, can you do to strengthen your big toe? Put simply, make it work. Before you do anything, pick up your runners and have a look at the front of them. The toe box almost certainly narrows in and lifts away from the ground. How then, can your big toe possibly drive into the ground if you spend all day in such a position? The test I mentioned above, of trying to push down into the floor is a good exercise to start. If you can get pressure through it, try to wiggle the other four while keeping the big one rooted to the ground. Whenever possible stand and walk in bare feet, even if it’s just around the house.
In doing so, you’ll to give the toe a chance to do something and prove it’s worth. Who knows, you might even come to like the thing. Just not in a weird way.
Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.