Target Muscle/s: Flexors and Extensors of Toes & Big Toe
Sets & Reps: Varied & Fun
Tempo: Practice slow, fast, to a musical beat
Frequency: Twice a week strength training program (or as advised if part of rehab plan)

Rationale

Most runners are already aware of the benefits of keeping the muscles of the upper legs (quads and hamstrings) and hips (glutes) for increasing performance & reducing risk of injury. Less of us, however, devote enough time to the muscles of the lower legs, particularly the extensors (lift up) and flexors (push down) of the big toe and other four toes. In times of injury and/or pain, exercises specifically aimed at loading such muscles can be key in restoring function and reaching full recovery, with as always a suitable progression from controlled low load to high, reactive load. Injury can often result in a loss of reaction & coordination (proprioception) and unless your rehabilitation program incorporates (at the right point) tasks to challenge your nervous system, proprioceptive ability may remain inhibited, which in itself can lead to pain. ‘Musical Toes’ is a fun (important for nervous system stimulation) and progressable way to load the muscles of the big toe & toes, whether you are recovering from injury or simply looking for novel ways to enhance performance and reduce risk of future injury.

Method

  • Single Big Toe Raise
    Whilst standing (one tends to run standing up after all), practice lifting up & down just your right big toe. How does it compare to using your left big toe?
  • Single ‘Other Four Toes’ Raise
    The muscle that lifts & lowers your big toe is different to the muscle that lifts & lowers the other four. So, now try lifting & lowering the ’other four toes’ of your right foot whilst keeping the big toe on the ground. How does it compare with the toes of the left leg?
  • Double Big Toe Raise / Other Four Toes Raise
    Try lifting & lowering both big toes at the same time. Now try lifting both sets of ‘other toes’ on the left & right foot at the same time. Which is easier?
  • Keep In Time To A Song
    To develop proprioception, especially after injury, practice lifting and lowering big toes/toes to a tune, whether the tune be in your head or actually on the radio. Make it fun, enjoy it. Rehab should not be boring!

Progressions
There are many other exercises you can use to strengthen the muscles of the big toes and toes. In a future piece we will look at pencil lifting using the toes and towel scrunching. Both of these can be great fun, something which I cannot stress enough plays a huge part in successful rehab. Until then, have a think how you could maybe make other forms of rehab more fun. Keeping in time to a song or metronome presents in itself a wonderful way to stimulate the nervous system more than just boring old repetitions.

Matt Phillips is a Running Injury Specialist & Video Gait Analyst at StrideUK & Studio57clinic in Sussex. Follow Matt on Twitter: @sportinjurymatt