If you’re looking for improvements that extend beyond your athletic performance, throwing on a pair of toe spacers can help. From posture and balance to strength and stability, the benefits of realigning your toes don’t end.
Barefoot shoes, minimalist footwear, and the recently popular toe spreaders or spacers seem to be the big buzz in the performance world. While CrossFit athletes, NBA stars, and big-league runners are getting on the barefoot craze, what’s the logic behind wearing them?
The big toe is everything where your performance and functionality are concerned. Conventional footwear that we’ve been led to believe is “good” for our feet is actually anything but. Excessive heel cushions, narrow toe boxes, and toe springs were designed to enhance performance, but they can actually be incredibly debilitating for feet and lead to major dysfunction.
Athletes’ feet take a beating and if you’re struggling with any sort of performance issues, looking at your feet could be a good place to start!
Here, we’re covering the ins and outs of why throwing on a pair of toe spacers could be a major game-changer for your performance—in and out of the gym.
If you’re dealing with compromised or misaligned feet and toes, toe spacers or spreaders can be one of the best things for winning that war.
Toe Spacers (also called spreaders, stretchers, or separators) are any type of “device” that temporarily forces the toes back into their proper alignment. Toe spacers are, quite literally, designed to space out your toes. While it may not push them to their ideal position, it can help to direct the foot and toes into a more natural position, and when worn long-term, may help to permanently realign the toes.
Although products differ between brands, the Toe Spacers are made with flexible silicone to allow stretch across feet of all shapes and sizes. They’re based on foot width, not length, which allows all adult foot sizes to wear them.
Essentially, toe spacers function as a natural alternative to commonly prescribed correctional foot products like arch orthotics or motion control footwear, as well as surgery. It can accomplish many of the same benefits as these products or procedures do, at a fraction of the cost—and they’re generally far more effective.
The simplest way we can state the importance of toe spacers is the position of your big toe matters.
Picture it this way—if your feet were constantly wrapped up and your toes were unable to move, you wouldn’t able to walk properly or do much of anything. When your feet are crammed into tight-fitting shoes with narrow toe boxes or they fail to be stretched before or after training, they can’t work like they’re intended to work.
The alignment of your toes (all five of them) and the strength of your feet have a direct influence on everything above them, especially the knees, hips, and back. If your big toe is out of its proper alignment, it can affect your gait, balance, and propulsion/performance.
But when you throw on a pair of Toe Spacers, you can provide relief from foot pain, stretch the intrinsic muscles of the foot, realign your toes, and treat/prevent common foot injuries.
But what actually causes the big toe to move out of position?
1. Shoe choice: Conventional running shoes and high heels are some of the worst footwear you can choose for foot health. Wearing shoes with features that restrict motion of the foot (arch supports, toe boxes) has been linked to weaker foot muscles and reduced foot stiffness. Flat foot, a condition whereby there is reduced stiffness of the longitudinal arch, can greatly impair gait. Studies show that flat feet are uncommon in people who are habitually barefoot or wear minimal shoes compared to those who wear conventional modern footwear. The design of conventional footwear also squishes the toes together (pushes the big toe inwards towards the other toes) and distributes the weight towards the toes rather than evenly distributed over the foot.
2. Genetics: Congenital deformations of the foot generally happen during the early years of life. Congenital pathologies of the foot are divided into two categories : malformations, which arise during the embryonic period and cause anatomical defects, and deformations, which arise during the fetal period on a foot that is of normal configuration. Fetal deformities are more easily cured than malformations.
3. Injury: Damage to the tendons or tissue surrounding the toe joints can lead to gradual deformation of the toes.
4. Chronic diseases: Diabetes, stroke, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis can all interfere with the proper function of muscles and nerves in the feet and lower leg, which can result in tightening of the ligaments or tendons and resulting in deformities.
Toe Spacers are great for addressing and preventing a wide range of toe ailments and deformities, whether they’re painful or not. You may not know it, but many chronic foot problems have a common denominator as the cause, which means there’s often a universal solution to alleviating the problem.
By restoring the proper position of the big toe and developing a normal toe splay (yes, all the toes should be spaced out, not squished together), you can help to address foot problems like bunions, hammertoes, and ingrown toenails.
And if you deal with foot and low leg problems—you probably don’t associate these with toe misalignment— toe spacers can also be of some benefits. Plantar fasciitis, for example, is one of the most common foot conditions that can be improved by wearing toe spacers. Spreading the toes and realigning the toes with their corresponding metatarsal bones can have a massive impact on improving blood flow to the plantar fascia, which ultimately helps to eliminate the pain and discomfort associated with plantar fasciitis.
Other foot problems that can be helped with toe spacers are shin splints and runner’s knee by enhancing the stability of the ankle.
The arch is the foundation of your foot and proper arch health is critical for normal biomechanics of the foot and everything above it. The three arches of the foot—the medial longitudinal arch, the lateral longitudinal arch, and the transverse arch—can support themselves when the foot can function the way it was intended to; that is, without any external support from orthotics and other foot devices that alter the position of the arm.
But in order for your arches to properly and naturally support your foot, you need the following:
Meeting those requirements, the best support for your arches is either completely losing the shoes and going barefoot or wearing minimal shoes that allow the toes to splay. When the toes can be in their intended natural position, it provides very stable support for the arches.
But because people spend years and years wearing shoes that crunch their toes, the toes often need help to splay back to their natural position.
If you’re an athlete dealing with performance issues, it could be your gait that’s causing it. Toe spacers are an effective and cheap way to prevent excess foot and ankle pronation, and the injuries that can result from them. Subtalar eversion, ankle dorsiflexion, and forefoot abduction are normal patterns that the foot takes when it strikes the ground; they are essential to all weight-bearing activities including walking and running. However, when you overpronate, it can lead to your arches collapsing and partial dislocation of your first metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint.
Conventional footwear is a huge contributor to overpronation because they elevate the heel, spring the toes upward, and squish your toes together. As a result, your heel and toes elevate, your toes squish together, and your foot and ankle don’t have a choice but to roll inwards, causing overpronation.
Once you remove the shoes and let your feet relax on a level surface (minimal shoes or the ground) and the toes to splay, you can keep pronation in check.
On top of that, Toe Spacers can also provide a good amount of protection against ankle sprains by stabilizing the foot and ankle. And when combined with minimal shoes, it can reduce the risk of rolls.
Plantar fasciitis is one of the most common foot conditions and happens as a result of inflammation of the thick band of fascia that runs along the bottom of the foot, connecting the toes to the heel (plantar fascia); it is the most common cause of foot pain.
Wearing toe spacers and allowing your toes to splay to their natural position can help to encourage better circulation through the foot, including to the plantar fascia. When you improve blood flow, you also improve waste removal of metabolic byproducts. How? By reducing tension on the flexor retinaculum—a fibrous band of tissue near the ankle where several important structures bass, including the posterior tibial artery and vein. Chronic deviation of the big toe can increase tension on this tissue, which impedes blood flow. By realigning your toes to their correction position, you take away the tension and allow better oxygen flow to the plantar fascia.
While Toe Spacers aren’t likely to resolve the problem, it can be a great preventative strategy or help to reduce the discomfort associated with PF. You can learn more about how to treat plantar fasciitis here.
This one is huge and it’s one of the main reasons why we love toe spacers. The reality is that most people don’t use their feet in the way nature intended us to. They’re cramped in shoes and unable to feel the sensations of the earth. As a result, we end up with foot problems that extend far beyond just the feet.
The intrinsic foot muscles are a group of four muscles that originate at the heel bone and attach to all of the toes; these muscles only exist in the foot and do not cross the ankle. The intrinsic foot muscles (i.e. plantar arch muscles) are incredibly important because they provide dynamic support for your medial longitudinal arch (the arch most people are familiar with). Wearing conventional footwear or heels doesn't allow these foot muscles to develop strength, which results in the muscles becoming atrophied or dysfunctional because they’re not recruited and activated. Essentially, the shoes you’ve been told are great for your performance are actually compromising it by immobilizing these muscles and reducing their resiliency.
When you put the toes back into the ideal position, you allow the intrinsic foot muscles to fire more frequently, strengthen, and improve the integrity of the arch. And when you combine toe spacers with foot strengthening exercises, you’ll feel just how little and underdeveloped these muscles are. But you’ll also feel them start to develop and strengthen with a little time.
While a lot of benefits of toe spacers are based on subjective experience, there is some scientific backing to wearing them. If you’re interested in diving into the research, here are some studies to check out!
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