Natural feet are widest at the toes– though you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has this natural foot shape in the modern world.
Conventional running shoes–and most other types of shoes, too–feature a narrow toe box (the front of the shoe, where your toes sit). The feet are highly adaptable, and are able to conform to the shape of the container they are put in. This has led us as a society to having ‘shoe-shaped’ feet.
The rise of unhealthy footwear is at least partly responsible for the dramatic rise in foot-related pains and ailments in recent decades. Luckily, there are ways we can reverse this damage and prevent foot pain to improve our running performance. One of the easiest and most effective ways to regain healthy foot function is through the use of active wear toe spacers for running combined with wide toe box running shoes or running sandals.
What Is the Purpose of Toe Spreaders or Toe Spacers for Running?
Toe spacers, also referred to as toe separators or toe spreaders, are a simple yet powerful foot health tool that spread the toes to facilitate healthy shape and function. This can help increase circulation to the toes, reduce abrasion and irritation between the toes, restore proper toe splay, and promote balance. Toe separators can provide relief from chronic foot conditions that plague runners and non-runners alike, such as hammertoe, bunions, impacted feet, Morton's neuroma, and metatarsalgia.
Toe spreaders that are best for runners are designed to stay secure to the foot during activity while making moderate alterations to one's biomechanics. They will allow you all the benefits of toe spacers while running, as well as something to wear to prepare your feet both before a run and rehab your feet after your runs. For example, going barefoot as a warm-up while wearing toe spacers strengthens the intrinsic muscles of the foot, enhances stability, creates a more powerful toe-off, and allows the foot to naturally stabilize extra pronation.
What Are the Benefits of Toe Spreaders for Runners?
Runners know that their hobby comes with a chance of injury, especially to the feet. Properly conditioning the feet before running (and rehabbing them after) are important for health and longevity. And what better tool to have in a runner’s arsenal than toe spacers for running? Let’s take a look at why that is– here are some of the benefits of toe spacers for runners:
- Faster Recovery: Excessive inflammation and lactic acid in the feet can become trouble without ample movement and blood flow to the many muscles that make up our feet– like when squished into narrow shoes. Toe spacers spread the toes which allows ample blood flow to circulate throughout the feet.
- Stronger Feet: Toe separators can realign your toes to their natural positioning, which allows for greater muscle recruitment when walking and running. With time, your feet and toes actually become stronger!
- Reduced Foot Pain: Toe spacers for running realign toes and gently stretch the muscles in the feet, helping relieve pain and tension.
- Increased Stability: Toe spreaders 'spread' the toes, creating a wider and more stable base. Our toes distribute the force of body weight more evenly over the surface of the foot which improves balance and stability, benefiting athletic performance and preventing falls.
- Expanded Range of Motion: Toe separators stretch the small muscles around the toes as well as the toes themselves. The toes bear our full body weight with every step, so toe flexibility is critical. In particular, the benefit of toe spacers for big toe flexibility can help prevent injury, as the flexion of the big toe determines how we land on each step, which affects a whole chain of reactions upstream.
- Better Shock-Absorption: Increased toe flexibility and range of motion also helps stretch and activate the plantar fascia, which increases our ability to absorb shock with each step.
What Conditions Can Toe Separators Help Prevent or Improve?
Wearing toe spacers gives you a more solid and adaptable foundation, which can reduce injury and decrease the risk of developing painful conditions, such as metatarsalgia or Morton’s neuroma– or help reverse them if they are already present.
Metatarsalgia is pain and inflammation in the ball of the foot. Symptoms include sharp, aching, or burning pain in the ball of the foot, numb or tingling toes, and the feeling of having a pebble in your shoe. This condition is fairly common in runners, as it can be aggravated by overuse and wearing tight-fitting shoes– which includes most conventional running shoes.
Toe spacers for active wear can help rehab feet suffering from metatarsalgia by relieving compressed toes and promoting circulation throughout the feet and toes.
Morton’s neuroma is another painful condition affecting the ball of the foot and is also common in runners. It may manifest as a burning and tingling sensation, numbness, shooting pains, or it may feel like you are walking on a marble. Morton’s neuroma often develops as a result of wearing shoes that are too tight as they compress the nerves running between the bones. This causes irritation, inflammation, and the formation of a benign tumor in the form of thick tissue surrounding the digital nerve leading to the toes.
The first step in preventing or reversing both metatarsalgia and Morton’s neuroma is changing out your footwear for naturally-shaped shoes, most commonly referred to as minimalist shoes, that allow your toes ample room to splay. To better assist this process, toe separators for athletes can help facilitate healthy toe spacing which reduces excess pressure and strain on the nerves.
How to Get Started with Toe Spreaders for Running
Toe spacers for athletes can either be worn while running or as part of a post-workout rehab routine. Keep in mind: it’s important to ensure a proper fit depending on how you plan to use toe spacers for running.
If you plan to wear toe spacers while running, be sure your footwear offers a wide enough toe box to accommodate your separated toes. If your toes are under compression when wearing toe spacers in your running shoes this not only inhibits the benefits of toe separators for running– it’s also potentially detrimental.
The Best Toe Spacers for Runners and Athletes
When choosing toe spacers for athletics, we want to avoid “one-size-fits-all” spacers, which are unlikely to be a great fit. Instead, look for active wear toe spacers that offer a moderate amount of spacing, and come in multiple sizes. A lot of toe spacers on the market push the toes very far apart and should not be worn for excessive weight bearing activities such as running or long walks. This is okay when you are at home, but toe spacers for running need to allow for a more functional level of movement while you’re exercising.
Active-wear toe spacers create a medium-level of toe spay, similar to Vibram Five Fingers, which provides the benefits of toe spacers for running: better balance, increased circulation, a more stable foundation– without compromising functional movement patterns.
If you’re looking for toe spacers to wear after your run to help rehab your feet, you can consider both active-wear toe spacers and ‘sedentary’ toe spacers.
‘Sedentary’ toe spacers create more extreme toe spacing and are more often used while sitting down at home. They are typically too wide to be worn with shoes, but if you find them comfortable and are able to spend adequate time wearing them to rehab your feet after running, then these can be a great option for encouraging toe splay.
The benefit of choosing active-wear toe separators, even if they are not going to be worn during your runs, is that you can continue to wear them while you walk, stretch, and cool down. Due to their moderate size, they can also be worn with minimalist footwear. Active-wear toe spreaders are also inherently more comfortable, which enhances their potential benefit to restore natural foot function.
The Risks of Toe Spreaders for Running
Toe spacers can be helpful for recovery runs when your feet are sore. They also encourage full range of motion of tight muscles in the foot and disperse loads on your feet to assist in flushing lactic acid and the associated pain. Toe spacers are commonly used during the warmup portion of a run to help prime and activate the feet for max function and for post-run rehab. Wearing toe spacers while running is less common because most toe spreaders are very wide and spread the toes past the point of comfort and function.
If you choose very wide toe separators, these are best used to stretch the toes passively before or after your runs. You will reap the benefits of regaining natural foot shape and function, while avoiding any risks of misuse of toe spacers while running.
A well-fitting pair of active-wear toe spacers can be worn during your runs; however, it is important to ensure you have the right fit, that you are cautious, start slowly, and listen to your body. If you experience any pain, try wearing your active-wear toe spacers for warm-up and cool-down walks, rather than for the intense parts of your runs.
Which Are the Best Toe Spacers for Runners?
Features to look for in the best athletic toe spacers for runners:
- Active-Wear Design: Not so wide that they are uncomfortable and must be worn only while sedentary. An active-wear design means you spend more time wearing them as they can be worn with minimalist footwear and during daily life.
- Good Fit: size options to ensure the best fit. Look for one that is adjustable/customizable, as every foot is different.
- Material Quality: They should be able to withstand UV and water exposure.
- Recommended: Big Toe Freedom. Read more about this below.
What Makes the Earth Runners Mobility Toe Spacers Best for Runners
The Earth Runners Mobility Toe Spacers are active-wear toe spacers, inspired by Vibram Five Fingers, that were designed with the health-conscious adventurer in mind. They come in three sizes to ensure you get the best fit, are adjustable/customizable, and are made of sturdy medical-grade silicone which can withstand the elements.
One reason we decided on a 4-toe spacer active design, in comparison to a 5 toe spacer design, was to allow the big toe freedom to move independently. It is common for the big toe to extend higher than the four smaller toes throughout the gait cycle. Additionally, the big toe is responsible for the majority of our dynamic balance which is why we opted to leave it unencumbered by the toe spacer design.
Whether you’re looking to wear toe spacers while running, or toe spacers that are comfortable enough that you’ll actually want to wear them for pre- or post-workout rehab, the Earth Runners Mobility Toe Spacers offer a unique spread of features and benefits your toes will appreciate.