When the toe extensors become short or tight.

Here is a really great video.

One of us was treating physicians for the Chicago Joffrey Ballet for a time in the early 2000’s. Feet like these were nothing new. For the most part there was amazing flexibility, amazing strength and occasionally some nasty bunions but not as often as one might think. What was clear however was that the majority of the population of feet seen were freakishly strong, amazingly flexible and with skill levels that most of us only dream of.

In this video we can see two things which we just highlighted. Full uninhibited ranges of motion and apparent strength. In order to have full ranges we usually see wonderful strength. When we see a loss of range of motion, frequently but not always, we see weakness of the muscles necessary to drive that range. In other words, if we had the strength we would have the ability to engage the full range because of that strength.

You have heard it here before, that when there is weakness in a muscle around a joint (since all muscles cross a joint) we will see a neuro-protective loss of range due to a neuro-protective tightening (we are using the word TIGHTENING very carefully, note we did not use the word SHORTNESS) of some related muscles in a response to attempt to stabilize the joint. It is not a perfect remedy, but what other strategy do we have ? Sadly, it is usually the strategy of the owner of the broken part to try to stretch that tightened (again, note we did not use the word shortened) muscular interval which then presents the joint again with the afferent detection that the joint is unstable and unprotected. So, more tightness develops and the vicious cycle continues. It is our hope that those that find they need to stretch daily will someday have a light bulb moment and see that they are doing nothing to remedy the vicious cycle. That searching for the weakness that drives the neuro-protective tightness (as opposed to true “Shortness”, which is truly physiologic loss of the length-tension relationship) is where the answer lies to remedy the joint imbalance.

Here this client has generous ranges of motion and highly suspected appropriate strength. The two often go hand in hand unless the client has the phenomenon commonly referred to as “double jointed” which is truly just a collagen abundance in the passive restraints (lets leave this as a merely generalized term for now, it is a topic of another blog post).

What we wanted to talk about here today was the plethora of tightness AND shortness we see daily in the extensors of the toes. How many of your clients have the flexion (toe curl, at all joints) range of the toes that this client has ? Not many correct ? But most have near full extension ranges of the toes correct ? This can only come down to one theory that must be proved or disproved. That being that the toe extensors are either tight because the flexors and plantar intrinsics are weak OR that the toe extensors are short because they have been in this environment of flexor-plantar weakness for so long that the tightness eventually morphed into a more permanent reduced length-tension relationship.

Go ahead, see if you can flex your toes or those of your spouse or clients as far at this dancer can. See if you have full range at the metatarsophalangeal joints like this dancer does. Very likely you will notice a nasty painful tension and stretch across the top (dorsum) of your foot. This is reduced length of the long and/or short toe extensors and likely fascial connective tissue as well. Heck, what else runs across the top of your feet ? Nothing else really. So, what is one to assume ?

Digit extensor tightness is rampant in our society. We have been in shoes and orthotics and stable shoes for so long that our flexors and foot intrinsic muscles have become pathologically weak. As the opposing pull of the flexors and extensors across the end of the foot at the metatarsalphalangeal joints becomes so imbalanced our foot has no other choice but to express this imbalance.

Is this why we see bunions, hammer toes, even gentle flexion of our toes even at rest ?

Yup, the mass population of feet we see are slowly going into a coma. The pattern we see most commonly is even a bit more complex however, it is not quite as simple as tight-short extensors and weak flexors and intrinsics. Looking at the functional neuro-pathology of the hammer toe proves the complexity of our compensations. Here is the most typical pattern (and hence the hammer toes that are taking over the earth):

  • weak long toe extensors
  • strong short toe extensors
  • weak short toe flexors
  • strong long toe flexors

This combination ends up in a functional/flexible hammer toe, and if left alone to fester, a rigid hammer toe in time.

From this combination you should now as the question, “So, when I attempt to put my foot and toes in the flexion positioning of this dancer in the video above what is the tightness i feel across the top of my foot ?”

Answer: functional tightness (and possibly shortness if it has been there long enough, which is likely for most folks) of BOTH the long and short digit extensors (EDB, EDL). Think about it, in the hammer toe position both are short, but for different reasons. The EDB because of the resting extension position at the metatarsal phalangeal joint and the EDL becuase it is wrapped around two distal chronically flexed interphalangeal joints in the presence of an ALREADY extended metatarsophalangeal joint ( which takes up EDL length).

This phenomenon occurs rampantly in the upper limb as well across the elbow, carpals and finger joints. It is a big component of TOS and carpal tunnel and of the multitude of functional problems that the elbow such as medial and lateral epicondylitis.

Why do you care ? After all we are The Gait Guys. Well, because most of us swing our arms during gait and what is pathologic in the upper limb can affect the lower limbs and gait. It is all connected after all, according to the song ……

Chronic disruption of the length-tension relationships of the toe extensors.

It is a bigger problem than you think.

Shawn and Ivo. Discussing the distal sister disease of polio……… affecting just the toes of course. Ever hear of Tolio ? (pronounced……Toe-Lee-oh). Just kidding.

The Importance of the foot function and posturing at terminal swing in a great and talented runner. Part 2 of the Toe Extensor Dialogue.

* This is a follow up from yesterday’s video blog post. Lets review once again and then dive in, layering some deeper principles onto yesterday’s dialogue.

Stand up. Both feet on the floor. Close your eyes and raise your toes up off the floor, just the toes, and then let them fall. Pay great attention to what happens to your arch height as you raise and lower the toes. Yes, do this now. Then come sit down again and read some more. Go !

Ok, now you are back.

Do you think that toe extension ability (range, skill, endurance AND STRENGTH) will play a significant part in achieving adequate successful arch height and thus treating plantar foot pain syndromes (plantar fascitis to name the most obvious and simple nemesis)? You better believe it, we showed it in yesterday’s blog post ! * For a great little video sample of a young boy with flat feet using our queue’s to restore tripod positioning and arch height along with a more normal foot progression angle, see yesterday’s blog post or click here.

So, if toe extension is critical for arch height, both in preparation for foot strike/contact and in arch height and control should you ever try to consciously limit this natural phenomenon ?

In the video above the author and runner (Jordan McGowan) at 1:07 discusses his concern that the left foot is coming across in too much toe extension (ie. ankle dorsiflexion as well) in preparation for contact phase and that his right foot is coming across less extended/dorsiflexed, something we sometimes call shallow dorsiflexion. He indicates that he likes the appearance of the right foot pre-contact approach but he feels that he wants to relax the toe up/dorsiflexion exaggeration on the left. We do not necessarily agree based on the principles discussed above and yesterday because arch height preparation will be reduced (again, see yesterday’s blog post and video). However, Jordan is not wrong either. Read on !

Now, although Jordan himself does not discuss any deeper concerns we could imagine that some less skilled runners in this scenario might worry that if the toe extension is too excessive that it will pre-position the foot for a heel strike phenomenon. This does seem very reasonable thinking, but it is not necessarily so. Heel strike is a conscious choice. If this is your concern, it can easily be overcome; you will just have to do one of two things to avoid heel strike (ie. get to mid foot strike, which Jordan does very well on both sides, even the left, despite its increased toe extension/ankle dorsiflexion).

To overcome the concerns of heel striking with high toe extension pre-contact:

1. One will have to lean forward more to offset the possible early heel strike. Leaning forward more (as is done in natural/chi running form) will make it harder to heel strike because the foot will land even further under the body. Whenever the foot reaches out in front, the opportunity for heel strike increases. Make no mistake however, there is a difference between heel strike and heel contact. A skilled walker or runner can heel contact and quickly transition to midfoot load and get the same effect as a more pure midfoot strike. The difference is whether you LOAD the heel contact or quickly transition to the midfoot. Any skilled runner can do this and feel this. When done skillfully, a mere kissing of the heel, a mere light brushing with the ground, before the midfoot loading occurs is completely fine just do not load the heel otherwise a deceleration event is going to occur and that is a definite “no no”. This is a problem with amateur gait analysts and runners, and proves once again that what you see is not always what you get. We demo this illusion all the time with our runners and without a skilled eye they cannot see the difference, but they can feel the difference when asked to focus on the skill difference. To reiterate, for MOST runners there should be little if any rearfoot loading response, it is a mere zone of transition. This topic is absolutely no comment here on Jordan, he has superb midfoot contact.

2. Back to overcoming heel loading……. one will also have to better eccentrically control the descent of the forefoot to the ground. This is a normal biomechanical event. Yes, you can reduce this need if you bring the foot through shallowly as Jordan explained regarding his right foot, but at the possible consequences of entering the pronation phase with a partially unprepared arch and subtalar joint configuration (if the subtalar joint is starting its loading at the mid or anterior facet joint pronatory unlocking of the midfoot will occur too soon). A runner with a highly competent and strong foot can get away with cheating this mechanical event, and it is quite (very) possible that Jordan has such a foot with all his running experience. On the other hand, a more amateur runner could be loading a bullet into the pronation gun. Now, back to the eccentric loading of the anterior compartment muscles. Too slow an ankle dorsiflexion posture release and the heel will strike first, too fast and the forefoot could slap on the ground. One will thus need to get the proverbial porridge just right (not too hot, not too cold…..rather just right). Most skilled runners will be able to get this skill down within just one workout and then master it over the next 12 weeks (the time we find necessary to engrain a new motor pattern in the cerebellum and parabrachial nucleus, the primary pattern generators). And with more skill and foot strength a more risky shallow posturing can be taken with success. And, this may very well be the case with Jordan. He may be there and be correct in his evaluation. We just wanted to share both sides.

Understanding the end-phase swing foot and toe function is important. Understanding what your foot is doing is paramount. We wanted to share both sides of the coin because we would hate for amateur runners to see this and try to reduce their proper and necessary toe extension/ankle dorsiflexion and mimic a shallow late swing phase foot posture. This is where running moves from science to an art. Guys like Jordan can play with this stuff safely, but not everyone else can or should. For many, better preparation of the foot for the contact phase in a solid tripod will reduce excessive and possibly deformative pronatory forces. Presenting the foot to the ground with a less than optimal arch, via a conscious reduction in toe extension, will increase risk for the deformative pronatory forces to have a better chance of creating tissue pathology (ie. plantar fascitis etc).

Here is one of the reasons we recommend even our elite runners from time to time to exaggerate the toe extension-ankle dorsiflexion range off and on during runs. If you never use the FULL range Tib Anterior and extensor digitorum longus muscles (as in the shallow end swing foot posturing), you will begin to lose their strength at the end ranges. We often lose end range strength first. And in time that can trickle down those weaknesses into the ranges where more of the strength is truly needed. This is the “gosh, my pain just started out of the blue phenomenon !” Truth is, it did not, you just finally found yourself without that necessary extra little bit necessary to adequately protect a joint for the load at hand. And perhaps this is the take home point here. We all need to be sure that we still have what is necessary for optimal joint complex protection from time to time. It is why many athletes come to see us a few weeks before big events, for assessment to be sure that they are not trickling down into that risk zone as they peak their training and then taper.

In another post, we will discuss Jordan’s frontal view issues. He wisely has detected his foot pronation issues and we couldn’t agree more about his mention of the gluteal control and an important factor. So we will once again review our Cross over gait pathologic movement pattern which is somewhat evident here and part of the foot posturing, but we will also discuss the abductory twist phenomenon of his left foot, which is truly what is going on at the foot level (don’t get us wrong, the glute is part of the deal, but it is not the entire deal).

From the start our mission has never been to strike at the moral fiber of someones good intent. Rather, our mission has always been to dispel the myths and state the facts. This was a great assessment by Jordan, we just wanted to point out a few possible misconceptions and explain some of the differences between a skilled runner and what they are working on and what an amateur runner should be aware of mainly so that the masses of runners who will see this great video will get the honest facts and not start to, or too early, consciously change normal behaviors and start to generate compensations.

We spoke to Jordan about this blog post before we ran it and he was a champion about it. It opened some productive dialogue on both ends, that’s the way it should always work. Jordan was all for stating the truth and facts from all angles.

We are Jordan and Newton fans. We thank Jordan for his input, his feedback and for sharing his nearly flawless running form in his Newton’s. This is a form everyone should take note of and try to strive for.

The Gait Guys

Shawn and Ivo