As every runner knows, running can lead to injuries, especially to already-vulnerable areas like feet. To combat this, some runners opt for toe separators.
But are toe separators really necessary for runners?
Read on to find out.
What are Toe Separators Primarily Used For?
Whether you’re a runner or not, your feet take a real beating every day. Factors like natural foot positioning and what kind of shoes you wear have the potential to negatively affect the health of your feet. When wearing narrow-toed shoes, for example, your toes will be pressed together, aligning them uncomfortably. This essentially changes the natural form of your feet, which can lead to a host of problems over the long term.
Facts About Modern Toe Separators for Runners
Toe separators aren’t as cumbersome as they once were, nor are they a one-size-fits-all solution anymore. You can order thinner – but still effective – toe separators in a variety of different sizes that you can wear comfortably. The sizes ranges and some are thin enough that you can wear them every day. There are even some toe separators made to look like socks.
Toe separators are now made in a variety of different ways, including gel, moleskin, cotton, and foam. The medical-grade gel separators seem to be particularly popular among runners. They’re thin but protective and durable and easily cleaned with soap and water.
There are even separator kits, so you can mix and match what separator you need at a given time. Some kits include pain relief separators, aligners, protectors, and toe straighteners.
What are the Benefits of Using Toe Separators for Runners?
Toe separators are made to release pressure and realign the toes to where they need to be. They’re often used to fight or prevent bunions, crooked toes, claw toes, hammertoes, and perhaps most importantly, plantar fasciitis. All of these are common foot ailments but are most prevalent among runners.
They also offer support–taking the pressure off your toes as you walk. While many people think of toe separators as these soft but bulky attachments – and admittedly many are – they also offer a great deal of variety to accommodate the needs of the user.
Many are slip-proof, so wearing them under your shoes during wet winter months can provide an extra layer of both comfort and protection.
While toe separators are ostensibly designed just to benefit toes, they also provide benefits to the rest of the foot as well. When the toes are improperly aligned, runners can find themselves damaging the balls of their feet (the area between the arch and the toes). If left untreated, runners can develop neuromas, sesamoiditis, and capsulitis. These are awful conditions that can cause damage and inflammation to tendons, nerves, and joints.
Neuromas, Sesamoiditis, Capsulitis, and Plantar Fasciitis
A neuroma is a fancy way of saying a pinched nerve. It has many possible causes, including pressure placed on toes by tight or high-heeled shoes. Check between your third and fourth toe. That’s where the neuroma develops. When the nerve is damaged, you’ll feel a growth in that area. Its effects depend on the person. You may feel anything from numbness to tingling, to burning pain. Relief is simple: stop walking or massage the area. Toe separators (and avoid tight shoes) can help avoid neuromas from developing.
The sesamoids are two small bones just beneath your big toe. Naturally, these tiny bones are important for proper toe functioning–think of them as the shins of your big toe. And, of course, runners easily and often damage them. When running, your big toe flexor tendons need to transfer the force from your leg muscles to the base of the big toe. When they’re healthy, they can bear your body weight while keeping maintaining your strength, mobility, flexibility, and leverage as you run. The impact they take helps reduce the stress placed on your metatarsal region–reducing the likelihood of neuroma formations. However, that does put stress on the sesamoids.
That stress can be further aggravated by the toe boxes of your shoes. Most shoes push your big toe against your second. It pushes your sesamoids out of place, damaging the bones and the surrounding cartilage, and causing sesamoiditis. It often causes inflammation in the tendons, and if left untreated, you can break the sesamoid bones completely.
Since almost all kinds of footwear force your toes towards each other, sesamoiditis is very common. It’s also easily treated. Just wearing thin toe separators that can fit around your toes while wearing your shoes can keep your toes and sesamoids in proper alignment.
While usually associated with frozen shoulders, capsulitis also affects the feet. Specifically, the toe joints. Capsulitis occurs when your toes are in an unnatural position. While this usually happens when bunions are formed, improper footwear can also form capsulitis.
For instance, when feet are placed in high heel shoes, or shoes with particularly tight toe boxes, or toe-springs, your toes are placed in an unnatural, and often uncomfortable, position. The more you wear these shoes, the more weight is placed on the balls of your feet beneath the joints. The joint near the base of the second toe will become inflamed, and the skin will likely turn red. There can be nerve damage, which will result in numbness or stinging sensations when walking or pressing on the affected joint.
Two more factors that can lead to capsulitis include unstable foot arches and tight calf muscles. In other words, you’re off-balance.
In the worst-case scenario, surgery is needed to reposition your second toe. Toe separators can provide the repositioning before surgery is required. The added support can provide the balance that your arches may lack while allowing the foot to heal.
However, the worst of these possible injuries is plantar fascia damage. The plantar fascia is a thin band of tissue connecting the heel bone and the toes. Plantar fasciitis is easily self-diagnosed with severe heel pain. While time and NSAIDs can treat the pain, certain workouts and toe separators can prevent it.
When toes are bunched up, there’s a decline in blood flow to the plantar fascia area. Separators can realign the toes with the metatarsal bones, increasing blood flow. This will help the plantar fascia damage heal and prevent it from happening again.
A Stable Surface Can Prevent Greater Injuries
Your feet are caryatids. They support your body. How your feet strike the pavement, whether you’re running or walking, affects everything from the feet themselves, up through the knees, to the hips, and your lower back. Clusters of nerves, bundles of tendons, and bones connected through joints are all affected by the structure of your feet. Toe separators provide support to ensure that your toes are positioned correctly while protecting vulnerable muscles from damage.
However, they can also help those muscles grow.
Shoes either realign the shape of the foot, possibly damaging these small but important muscles, or are too rigid to allow the muscles to be used. When not used, the muscles will atrophy. Toe separators can realign your toes to where they belong, and allow the muscles to activate when walking and running. Over time, they’ll overcome the atrophy and begin to grow stronger. That not only helps your feet keep their natural form, but also makes your feet stronger. Both contribute heavily to preventing injuries the more you run.
Toe separators are greatly customizable and are a minimal expense for the amount of protection they provide. Consider it as the cheapest insurance policy you’ve ever invested in.
So to answer the question we started out by asking: toe separators aren’t exactly necessary for runners, but they do offer a ton of benefits.
Let us know what you think in the comments below.