We give our core a lot of attention, and rightfully so. It stabilizes our spine, which in turn stabilizes our entire torso, and to a large extent our entire body.
But as renowned biomechanist Jay Dicharry sees it, every part of the body essentially has a core—joints, muscles and tendons that build a stable foundation for that area.
For the foot? That “core” is the big toe. And for runners, the big toe is a big deal.
“The big toe is responsible for approximately 80-85 percent of the stability in your foot,” says Dicharry, who wrote the book Anatomy for Runners. “Your lesser toes curl and lift off the ground, but the big toe’s job is to ground down and build a ‘tripod’ between the end of the toe, the inside ball of the foot and the outside ball of the foot.”
For several reasons, be it injuries or even minor running form issues, problems with the big toe can cause a chain reaction of problems on up the leg—from plantar fasciitis to Achilles problems to calf strains and more.
“When muscles inside the foot don’t work correctly, they pass a ton of strain up into the lower leg, to tissues that aren’t designed to bear the load,” Dicharry said. “Things break down.”
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What can cause an “underperforming” big toe? Dicharry notes sub-clinical problems with the feet can lead to an under-utilization of the big toe, which puts additional stress elsewhere. If you don’t take full advantage of your big toe’s designed use, you could have problems on up your legs.
Additionally, there are several toe injuries of note that can force problems on other parts of the foot and lower leg:
- Hallux rigidus, which causes a stiff toe joint.
- Hallux valgus, or a bunion, which is essentially a deviated joint.
- Turf toe, a strain of the big toe joint.
Even lesser problems, like an ingrown toenail, can cause a pain-avoiding form tweak that could stress other parts of your leg.
If your big toe is causing you pain while you run, proceed with caution before you choose to train through it—or it could lead to injuries elsewhere.
If you do have persistent big toe pain, consider these ideas:
- Rest. Always listen to your body.
- It’s possible you have an imperfect shoe fit. Visit your local running store and talk to a specialist. Depending on the source of the pain, a shoe with a wider toe box may help ease the stress on your big toe.
- If the problem persists, seek medical advice!
Running is a simple task on the surface, but it involves all sorts of moving parts to allow for leg movement, balance, push-off and more. The big toe plays a big part in you being a fine-tuned running machine—so take care of it.
“Fix the toe, fix the problem, fix the symptom,” Dicharry says.