Let’s face it - our feet and toes get a bad deal. Culturally and socially, they’re often outcast - viewed as areas of restricted access. Even the phrases ‘toe-rag’ and ‘le gros orteil’ have an air of ridicule about them. So, let’s make it clear from the outset. As advocates of natural movement, we love feet (especially the big toes), and we are passionate about keeping them fit and healthy through natural barefoot movement.
In a modern age where fashion and aesthetics prevail over function and purpose, the foot is one of the most neglected parts of the human anatomy. We cover them up, we restrict their movement, and very few of us even consider exercising them. Yet they still remain the only parts of our body in contact with the ground for most of our daily lives. A mobile, elastic foot is essential to all movement, and strength and flexibility in the big toe specifically, is key to both stabilising and steering your movement.
Are you as fit as a 4-year old?
Have you ever noticed a 4-year old child standing in bare feet? If you have children, take a few moments to notice how they use their feet. If they have spent much of their early years moving around in bare feet, they will invariably engage their big toes by pushing them into the ground as they stand. You may also notice the impressive flexibility and mobility of their toes; you may even notice how the big toe stands apart from the others. All of these observations are consistent with a natural foot – one that is learning to load under gravity and developing as a stable base of support for movement.
In contrast, when we observe adults standing, we see the opposite: lack of engagement in the big toe, poor mobility, and an inward deviation of the bog toe. This may not seem that relevant to you, however, this is not a question of ability, but rather efficiency. The big toe is 4 times thicker than the other toes for a reason – because it’s designed bear weight (up to 40% during walking) and provide the propulsive force with each step.
In his seminal book published in 1935, The Human Foot: Its Evolution, Physiology and Functional Disorders, Dudley J. Morton discusses the propulsive role of the big toe:
“Dorsal movement of the toes has the effect of increasing the tension of their muscles, and to such a degree that when the leverage effort of the foot against body weight has been completed, the subsequent toe flexion is strong enough to add a final elastic impetus to body movement which gives it smoothness and grace. At this point the stresses have been swung toward the first metatarsal bone so completely that the most important digital effort is performed by the great toe. The phase of bipedal locomotion undoubtedly accounts for the conspicuous size of that digit in man.”
While an anatomical filter provides vital evidence for big toe function, peering through an evolutionary lens highlights an equally interesting story. Our basic anatomy is similar to that of our immediate relations, chimpanzees. Except the big toe. Humans do not have a prehensile big toe – instead we have one that has uniquely evolved for upright locomotive activities such as walking and running. And in order to fulfil that function, it needs to be strong and elastic, with unrestricted movement. Even Professor Richard Owen, an opponent of the theory of evolution by natural selection, was quoted by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man (1871) as saying, “The great toe, which forms the fulcrum when standing or walking, is perhaps the most characteristic peculiarity of the human structure.” Source: Hoffman P (1905). Comparative Study of Barefooted and Shoe-Wearing Peoples.
Much of the decline in the strength and mobility of our toes is thought to be attributed to modern footwear habits, including overuse of padded, rigid and restrictive shoes. Firstly, the apparent ‘protective’ function of padded soles not only significantly reduces our ability to feel the ground, it also prevents the big toe from contacting the ground via toe spring at the end of the shoe. This can lead to reduced strength and mobility in the big toes, effectively decreasing the ability to engage the big toe during standing, walking and running. Secondly, modern footwear tends to be in inflexible, particularly at the forefoot, which can inhibit natural flexion of the toes during the toe-off phase in walking. The result? We are no longer able to tap into the elastic and load-bearing potential that the big toe naturally provides. Finally, many shoes do not offer free, unrestricted movement of the toes. Each time you take a step and load the foot with your body weight, your toes will not only splay, they will also lengthen. Next time you walk bare foot, notice this action in your toes – this is what your shoes should allow.
Shoes that are anatomically designed are the best choice for your feet. They should have an ultra-thin sole for maximum feedback from the ground, flexibility that encourages foot/ankle mobility, and a wide toe box for maximising elastic recoil and natural toe movement.
The big toe is undeniably a distinctive part of the human anatomy, and one that is perfectly adapted to walking and running. Restoring strength and mobility in the big toes through barefoot living (and wearing anatomically intelligent footwear) may not only improve efficiency of movement but also play a key role in injury prevention.
So join us in celebrating the big toe…..recognising its humble yet monumental effort in providing us with the strength and elasticity to move with skill, purpose and poise.