Without taking off your shoes, try to remember: Is your
big toe longer or shorter than your second toe? The answer, according to
foot experts who study sports performance, can give a telling clue to athletic
On most people's feet the second toe is longer. But, if
your big--or first--toe extends further, you possess a natural advantage
in skiing, sprinting, and certain other sports. Having a longer big toe,
you can more readily lean your full body weight onto it. In skiing, planting
the big toe is a must for cutting an edge. Sprinters also need a firmly
grounded big toe to accelerate quickly. Your big toe can exert about twice
as much force as your second toe.
When you consider the elemental role of feet in human motion, it's not surprising
that even such small variations in their structure affect sports performance.
After all, footwork forms the foundation of most sports. In football, track,
soccer, and other running sports, your feet are the springs and levers that
cushion and propel you. In basketball and volleyball, they're launching
pads for leaps. In tennis and aerobics, they act as brakes and pivots for
side-to-side motions. They're formidable weapons in martial arts, dainty
pillars in ballet, and grippers and levers for climbing.
By their unique structure, your feet simultaneously support
your weight, balance and propel you, and safely absorb the shocks of your
motion. Central to their success is the arch, which is actually a complex
of three bony arches: the familiar, tall one along the inner edge of the
foot; a less lofty one that runs along the foot's outer edge; and a third
one that curves the sole across its width from ball to heel.
Together, the three form a supporting vault that distributes
your weight much as the walls of a medieval church redirect the mass of
its enormous roof onto giant buttresses. The buttresses in this case are
the heel and two shaft-like bones, called the first and fifth metatarsals,
that connect to the first and fifth toes.
Unlike an architectural vault, however, your foot's structure must respond
to constant changes in the strength and direction of downward force as you
move. Each arch consists of numerous bones bound together by tough but somewhat
elastic ligaments and tendons. Because of these elastic connections, arches