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Ode to the big toe


SOLID ANCHOR The bone of the first metatarsal is four times the density of the others.

Andrew O'Brien

Before we get too far down a rabbit hole here, I need to make one thing very clear. I am not a foot fetishist – not for all the tea in China. 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 isn’t all that much fun either, 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 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. If you have a toddler, 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 try something yourself. Take your shoes off and try to sense where the heaviest pressure is under your own foot. For most 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 in a Mexican wave. Pretty hard, right?
The main muscle you are working is called the flexor hallucis longus – the big-toe flexor – and keeping it strong or at least working may well protect you from various foot problems including bunions, plantar fasciitis, Morton’s neuroma and ‘flat feet’. It’s worth thinking of the muscles of your feet in a similar way to the core muscles of the trunk; they act as stabilisers, allowing everything them around to work from a better base.
Strengthening your feet needn’t be as difficult as it might sound. Practising the exercise mentioned above while you brush your teeth is a good start. So too, is standing or walking in bare feet. Given that when you are walking you spend 40 percent of the time with your weight on one foot, and when running you only ever have one foot on the ground, standing on one foot is another useful. For an extra challenge, try it with your eyes closed; all of a sudden you really will have to concentrate on your foot. Most people who have poor balance in a single leg stance position find that it improves if they actively push the big toe into the ground. There’s our anchor, hard at work again.
For those who do calf raises on the bottom step, placing a rolled towel under the big toe, so that it is raised higher than the other toes will increase the emphasis on inside of the foot and help to reduce your risk of plantar fasciitis.
Of course, not everything has to be about hard work. Rolling a tennis ball underneath your foot, and especially along the inside of your arch can work to soothe any sore tissue and relax the whole foot. Some people advocate using a sliotar or golf ball to increase the pressure and get a ‘nice pain’. I say stick to the tennis ball. We’re not foot fetishists and we’re not into pain for pleasure either, thanks very much.

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


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