Take a peek at your feet. Are your big toe and second toe longer than the others? It might be a sign that you’re destined for running greatness. According to a study out of Ritsumeikan University in Japan, runners with distinctively longer forefoot bones may have an advantage over other distance runners.
The study, which compared the feet of 45 male distance runners to 45 untrained males, found the former displayed consistently longer big and second toes across all shoe sizes. What’s more, runners who had longer big toes than second toes clocked faster 5K times than their fellow runners with same-length or longer second toes. The same Japanese team that published the study on endurance runners also found the long-toe advantage in 400-meter sprinters.
But does this mean stubby-toed runners are doomed? Probably not. It’s hard to say whether the foot structure is a result of genetics (that is, they’re born with it) or an adaptation from running—after all, many runners claim their feet “grew” a size or two after they started running.
However, it does underscore the role foot biomechanics play in running. This isn’t the first time foot size has been the subject of scientific investigation. In 2012, a team at Pennsylvania State University also noted this toe-length pattern in runners while studying their foot mechanics. What they found was that a longer forefoot allows the plantar flexors of the foot to do more work at certain velocities; that is, the long toes allow for better running economy at higher speeds.
This also may be why short and slight runners do better than tall ones. Because foot size doesn’t always correspond with height, taller runners may carry more weight and force on their feet, making them less efficient as they run.
But it’s important to note that correlation does not causation prove: height and toe size don’t necessarily predict running success (or lack thereof).
Another element of foot shape—arch height—has less to do with running ability or shoe selection than often believed. The “wet foot” test has been used for decades to show if you have a high arch or flat feet, and prescribe shoes accordingly. But research shows little correlation between arch height and pronation or the need for support. One paper concluded, “The findings of this study suggest that our current approach of prescribing in-shoe pronation control systems on the basis of foot type is overly simplistic and potentially injurious.”
“If you have flat feet you don’t need high arched shoes,” says Simon Bartold, podiatrist, biomechanics researcher and consultant for Salomon. “And the reverse is also true: If you have high arches, you don’t need cushioning. You might, you might not.”
“The reality is that arch height really is very insignificant in the big picture of performance. I see low arched individuals that dynamically function very well,” says Rob Conenello, sports podiatrist and former president of the American Association of Podiatric Sports Medicine. “The wet test is telling us what? Does low arch mean bad and high good? That’s ludicrous. Your arch height has nothing to do with your destiny. What does is your mobility, strength, form, training patterns, age, weight, core and attitude.”
What matters is foot strength—and any runner can build that. According to research by Ithaca College researchers, training the core muscles of the foot creates a stronger, more stable foundation, allowing for consistent, injury-free training and better performance. But unlike traditional core strengthening, which requires dedicated exercise moves to target muscle groups, working the foot core could be as simple as taking off your shoes. Barefoot activities, including walking, yoga, and Pilates, can be used as a training tool to strengthen the foot core.
The bottom line? Take off those shoes and build a strong foundation. In the end, your toe size or your arch shape doesn’t matter all that much—unless you’re in a photo finish, in which case we recommend leaning forward.