The Big Small: How to Stop Tight Toes from Ruining Your Runs


The more I run, the less I seem to know about it. When I first started hitting the pavement, everything just seemed so simple: one foot in front of the other. If something hurts, stop. Don’t have a heart attack. Make sure your shoes are actually made for running.

The more miles I put behind me, though, the more the little things seem to matter. Arm movement. Nurturing my IT bands. Heart rates. Ice baths. Recovery days. Neon-reflective night running clothing. But I never really gave much time to my big toe. At least not until a toe injury put me out of commission for a few weeks.

I hadn’t even hit mile one when the dull ache I felt in my toes at the start of the run graduated into full-blown suffering. Instead of going away in a few days, the pain got worse. My toe seized up; by day three, it felt like someone had filled the joint cavity with concrete.

How pathetic, I thought. People I ran with were coming back from blown knees and broken ankles, and here I was, practically bed-bound from a toe.

My doctor tried to console me. “Think about your teeth,” he said. “Tiny little guys. But when something’s not right they can make you miserable.”

His diagnosis:  hallux rigidus – hallux a reference to the big toe, rigidus meaning – you guessed it – rigid. He told me it typically flares up between the ages of 30 and 60. In its worst incarnation, hallux rigidus reduces your big toe to an inflamed, stiffened sculpture, sort of like carpal tunnel syndrome for your big toe.

If that horror story isn’t enough to convince you to take care of your big toe, think about this. The foot is a complex structure comprised of 28 bones, over 100 ligaments, along with over 30 muscles and tendons. Once your heel clears the ground, your foot rolls, making the big toe the last part of your extremities to carry your body’s weight.  And your big toe supports twice the load of the other digits on your foot.

The big toe: the unloved, under-appreciated, absolutely essential component of any serious runner’s long-term game. Even if hallux rigidus isn’t in your future, lesser conditions like toe tightness and hammer toe could be in your future. Prevention is the best cure, so try these four tactics to keep your big toe strong, flexible, and injury-free.

  1. Towel curls: Stand on a towel and curl your toes around it for one repetition. Aim for five per side.
  1. Marble Pick Up: Spread a handful of marbles on the ground. Pick them up one at a time with your big toe and its adjacent digit, transferring them to a bowl.
  1. Toe Stretches: Stretch your big toe toward your body using your fingers. Hold for a count of fifteen before switching.
  1. Squash Ball Massage: Break apart any tightness in your tissue by rolling your foot over a squash ball. Vary the direction and location of the massage.

While injuries to the big toe don’t have the media profile of ACL tears or sprained ankles, they are the most common cause of missed playing time among all NCAA athletes. Runners, take note: sometimes the smallest joints, when injured, can scream the loudest.