Toe spreaders/spacers are quite the fashion statement. Runners are used to doing bizarre things for our sport, so as long as it helps us stay healthy and keeps us running, we don’t care how weird it looks. A question I get often is, “What do toe spreaders do? Do I need them?”
There are a number of different brands and styles of toe spreaders out there, and at various price points. The first pair I bought personally were from CVS, and while they worked and did the trick, they are quite bulky and less comfortable than the other brands I’ve discovered since. Currently I’ve been seeing a lot of Correct Toes on Instagram and being promoted by professional runners, and you may even be able to find them at your local running store. They are on the more costly side, but are more durable and comfortable than most.
Website for reference: https://correcttoes.com/shop.html
My personal favorite is made by The Foot Collective, and are called “Wild Toes”. They are just the right size and are comparable in price to a lot of the knock-off brands you can find on Amazon.
Okay, so why would we consider toe spreaders in the first place?
Our feet are amazing because they are anatomically designed to adapt to the environment. In the stone ages, before shoes, (I’m not a stone age expert, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t have shoes back then) the foot had to adapt to the terrain to allow for mobility. It had to be flexible enough to take on different surfaces, yet rigid enough to produce force and forward motion. The skin had to be able to withstand different textures and temperatures, and calluses formed accordingly.
The argument that the manufacturers of toe spreaders make is that modern shoes impede normal foot posture and toe motion, leaving us with a weaker and less adaptable foot. Most shoes are designed with a toe box that is too narrow to allow for normal toe splaying, and over time the toes lose their dexterity and become “squished” (clearly a medical term).
Considering that many of the movements of the foot and toes work through pulley mechanisms, it is intuitive that squished toes would be a problem. Without proper alignment, a pulley can’t work as well or as efficiently. So, if we are doing all of our prescribed foot exercises with inefficient pulleys, we aren’t allowing our feet to reach their full potential. We’re not saying that you have to be able to hand write the next top selling novel with your feet, but we are looking for some control over the foot muscles so that you have a solid foundation to stand (run) on.
Toe spacers or spreaders are especially important in runners with bunions. This is where changes in the big toe joint causes the toe to point inward, and can be due to previous injury, footwear, or genetics. Bunions are problematic, not only because they can be painful, but they change the force vector of the toe-off phase of gait. Sometimes the joint can get stiff as well, and this causes the foot to borrow movement elsewhere, such as the midfoot into pronation. As runners we get a lot of power from pushing off the great toe, so if we lack the ability to “roll” over the great toe, we not only overload the lateral part of the calf but also lose some speed.
The use of toe spreaders or a single spacer can help with orientation of the joint and limit any further changes over time. The toe spacer is great because it doesn’t take up as much space in the shoe and can be worn in shoes with a slightly wider toe box.
Which leads us to an important question, what does it look like practically to use toe spreaders?
Since most shoes aren’t accommodating to the foot+toe spreaders, I recommend that people wear them as often as they can outside of shoes, i.e. walking around the house. You can also wear them while weight training, given that you’re in an environment where you’re comfortable not wearing shoes. I do not recommend that people attempt to run with either toe spreaders or a spacer, because of the risk of chafing, discomfort, and potentially altered mechanics of the foot. Toe spacers can be worn daily in some footwear, it just might take some trial and error to find what’s comfortable.
I hope this helps to explain the use of toe spreaders and demystifies this strange runner fashion statement!
Keep going, you got this!
Dr. Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT