Who remembers the movie Stripes?
If you’re older like me, it is an 80’s classic. For the rest of you, it’s a great download in the sea of movie mediocrity.
Their first night in the barracks, there was a get-to-know-your-fellow-soldiers which ended with John Winger (played by Bill Murray) setting off Sgt. Hulka. Winger sarcastically says an army without leaders is like a foot without a big toe, then proceeds to call Hulka their big toe. Even though it was meant as a jab at Sgt. Hulka, it is really a very accurate assessment.
Our big toe is the leader of the foot, as it guides and produces power in gait. Poor big toe function can reduce power output by as much as 34 percent. Unfortunately, most athletes and everyday people do not get the full benefit of their big toe, which can lead to decreased power production, poor running form and injury.
Let’s start with the function of the foot.
The foot’s purpose is to provide a safe and stable platform to balance your body weight on and propel you forward. This is why we have a reflexive foot and a propulsive foot. The reflexive portion of your foot senses the ground and sends a message to the brain to give impulses on where to put pressure to provide stability. From that stable position, energy should roll through the foot to the ball of the big toe, which will propel the body forward. This is of course an oversimplification, but I think you get the idea.
In the below photo, the reflexive foot is outlined in blue, while the propulsive foot is outlined in red:
While seemingly straightforward, there are many problems that can arise from what should be something very simple.
Problem 1: Can’t Find a Stable Foot
Most people cannot find a stable foot.
What is one of the most stable structures? A tripod. Our foot is designed to be a tripod with its arches connecting to one another.
The legs of the tripod are the heel, the ball of pinky toe and the ball of big toe.
But for a variety of reasons ranging from poor shoe choices, injuries or poor training, we can’t find our tripod.
Let’s see if you can find yours. Stand up and pull your toes back so only your feet are on the ground. No toes please.
Do you have a third of your weight on each tripod leg? Great!
But the problem is we are only on one foot when we move. So, same position but stand on one leg. Are you still balanced, or are you falling to the outside of your foot?
If you are falling to the outside you can see where your foot wants to take you. It takes a lot more energy and time to get your weight going forward if you are falling to the outside.
So where does the big toe come in?
How far did your big toe extend off the ground when you pulled your toes up? If he came up to about 60-90 degrees, you are in good shape.
This means as your foot rolls through the gait cycle, you can get up onto the ball of your big toe and you can use all of the elastic energy stored in the limb to propel your body forward. Your big toe can even hook like a velociraptor claw which shortens the foot so energy can be even more explosive. It is an amazing structure, unlike anything on the planet.
And if you can’t raise your big toe at all or can only move it a little? That leads us to our second problem.
Problem 2: Dysfunctional Big Toe
The primary focus of your brain is to protect the body. If it feels like something is not functional, it will find a new way to move.
In a magnified setting, think about the last time you stubbed your toe. Remember how immediate your gait changed?
You probably stumbled around cursing, but your brain found a new way to move to protect the toe that just got smashed.
To a smaller extent, the brain will find a new way to move if that big toe joint is limited.
Let’s look at the function of your big toe a little closer.
Back to standing on two feet. Now go into a calf raise. Your foot can go two ways.
Most of you will push up and your foot will fold over your little toes, protecting that big toe. This is a simplification of what happens when you go to push in your gait with a dysfunctional big toe. You’re actually pushing diagonally.
How are you still able to run in a straight line when you’re pushing diagonally through your foot? Your brain is able to reroute systems to make you go forward. Your eyes and ears pick a target, and your brain finds other ways to help you get there.
For example, an extended arm swing can throw weight forward, or you can lean forward so your mass will displace the misdirected push.
Either way, if my upper body is concerned with guidance, it will make playing sport more difficult because gait will override sport skill. This is why some athletes have difficulty catching, throwing or executing other upper body skills while they are moving. They can’t separate upper and lower body.
What does it look like if I have changed my gait to protect my big toe? The foot/leg position on the left would be typical of a normal gait, while the foot/leg position on the right is an approximation of someone who’s subconsciously protecting their big toe:
If your brain is doing all it can to protect the big toe, it will change your gait to do so.
First, it will drift your foot into a position that is more under your center of mass. It will look like an athlete is running a tightrope. In this position, the foot will stay on its outside edge, which means that the reflexive part of the foot will be asked to be the propulsive foot, which results in reduced power.
If an athlete is on the edge of their foot when they move, their brain is still looking for a tripod. If the athlete steps funny or is bumped in an unexpected direction, it could look for the third leg of the tripod on the outside of the foot, which could result in an ankle or knee injury.
How to Get Your Big Toe Back
1. Start with getting range of motion in the joint. Perform Single-Leg Calf Raises with an emphasis on pushing through the big toe. Follow with Toe Waves.
2. Toe Curls. Sit with a towel under your midtarsal joint. With weight on the joint, pull the towel towards your heel with your toes.
These three movements (Single-Leg Calf Raises, Toe Waves and Toe Curls) should all be done to fatigue multiple times throughout the day.
3. Resisted Accelerations. Whether pushing or pulling a sled, foot placement should be wide (under the shoulder) and the emphasis should be on staying on the ball of the big toe.
4. No Arm Runs. Any time you fold your arms tightly across your chest and sprint, you have taken away the arms as a primary guidance system and the foot has to do a lot more work. This also works when having to run in big circles, as well. The key here is not to “rock the baby” with the elbows.
5. No Arm Hops. We can apply the same principle with a Single-Leg Hop down a line.
6. Captain Morgans. Same principle as No Arm Hops, but the swing leg is now externally rotated to really challenge the big toe, and the arm of the plant foot is permitted some movement.
7. Bosch Single-Leg Cleans. Really, any clean motion landing on a wall or box with a finished position where the swing leg knee is high and you’re finishing on the ball of the opposite foot.
When your shoes start to feel different, you will know that the exercises are changing your gait for the better.
For the entire program, check out the Triphasic Spring-Ankle Model. Feet and their impact on athletic performance are always a topic at TrackFootballConsortium.com. Check us out at our upcoming events in Chicago, Dallas or St. Louis.
Photo Credit: Diy13/iStock