Free Feet, Especially for Wide Feet

As summer winds down, consider this: part of what makes summer so great is the freedom of your feet.

I’m serious. Flip flops, going barefoot in the grass, the feel of wet sand under your feet. These are some of the defining feelings of summer.

We can replicate this feeling year-round with different, better shoes: shoes that give our feet space to breathe and that let our feet hit the ground naturally.

When you’re walking barefoot on the beach, or in the grass, your foot is open, it spreads out, and you use the muscles in your feet. This has a long list of benefits from decreasing migraines to reducing anxiety.  Plus, our feet determine how our legs hits the ground, which in turns impacts the well-being of our knees, hips and lower back. Think of it this way: humans evolved over millions of years to have feet that can do their job barefoot, so having our feet hit the ground as they would without shoes makes a lot of evolutionary sense.

I started noticing this ten years ago. I discovered that my nagging knee pain that had forced me to quit running for 9 years, went away when I switched to “barefoot” shoes: I put on a pair of Vibram 5-fingers and ran four miles with no knee pain at all.

As I did more research, I discovered that, for many people, a traditional running shoe, with its highly cushioned heel, causes the foot to tilt down, disrupting our gait. Running shoes today can have up to 35mm of heel cushion, and the drop from heel to toe can be 11% or more—like running down an 11 degree incline when we are on flat ground.

The other big issue with traditional shoes happens up front–for aesthetic, not functional, reasons, they get narrower. This makes no sense, and, at the extreme, can transform our feet:

Our toes’ job is to help us balance, and this is only possible if they have space to spread out. Just like an athletic stance—when we stand with knees bent and legs shoulder width, we have good balance—open, spread toes let our feet do the job they were designed to do and improve our balance.

Lately I’ve begun wearing more low/no-drop, foot-shaped shoes, both for work and exercise, and I’m getting addicted to it. I kind of want to throw out the rest of my shoes.

My current collection of foot-shaped shoes is:

  • Atoms: I described these as my “cloud walking” shoes a while back, they’re now available to the public and you might want to get a pair. Not cheap, but I bet once you get them you’ll wear them four days a week.
  • (2020 addition) Vivo Barefoot: I couldn’t find a good, flat, wide toebox dress shoe, and then I found the Vivo Gobi II. I constantly get compliments about how they look, they are comfortable and feel like walking barefoot.
  • Lems: I have the Primal 2 and they are a great everyday shoe from a small Colorado-based company. I’m thinking of getting some of their dress shoes.
  • Olukai: I’ve had a pair of their flip flops for years and they are sturdy, amazingly comfortable and look unchanged from the day I got them. Three weeks ago, I got a pair of their Nohea Moku shoes and they really do position your foot like it’s standing in wet sand. I just bought my son, who wears a size 13 wide, a pair and he is loving them.
  • Altra running shoes: zero drop shoes but with cushion, they are the best of both worlds—they are shaped like feet, don’t distort your stride, but they give you great impact protection. I’ve been wearing Altras for five years and they keep getting better. I love the Torins.
  • Harrow squash shoes: it just so happens that squash shoes are flat, and Harrow is one of the few brands that have a wide toe box. I’ve been wearing the Vortex for the past two years. They’d be great for volleyball, racquetball, table tennis and badminton.
My current collection of no-drop shoes from Altra, Lems, Olukai, and Atoms

Note that I have a wide foot so your mileage and fit may vary, but even if you don’t, you don’t need to subject yourself to squished toes any longer

A final note: shifting to zero-drop, open toebox shoes is a bit of an adjustment. Our feet, ankles and calves are weak because of the shoes we wear. So definitely start slowly, walking before you run, to avoid soreness and injury.

Atoms Shoes – Cloud Walking

My most astute, long-time readers will recall that I’ve shared in the past the amazing story of Waqas Ali and Sidra Qasim, the Pakistani co-founders of Markhor (originally Hometown) and now co-founders of Atoms. Waqas and Sidra are living the long, hard road to overnight success.

They’ve already pulled off a number of firsts: the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever run out of Pakistan, the first social enterprise to get into Y-Combinator.

And now, after having put on my first pair of Atoms, I think they just might have created a whole new category of shoes.

To be clear, I don’t have a particularly well-developed shoe or fashion vocabulary, nor am I young or hip enough to do a proper unboxing, so you’ll have to cut me a little slack here.

The short version of the story is: I put the Atoms on this morning, and I don’t want to take them off. Not tonight, not tomorrow. I just want to keep wearing them because they feel so darn good. And I’m already getting compliments on them.

They are a wild combination of just firm enough to feel like real shoes, just flexible enough to give me feel of the ground, and they have what I can only describe as a “squishy” feel under my feet that makes me feel like I’m being pampered. I have wide feet and most shoes are uncomfortable, but these are luxurious. I also love the mesh top, the same that my beloved, travel-essential and worn-down Nike Free 4.0 Flyknits have.

And, as an unexpected bonus, the shoes come in quarter sizes. Plus, when you buy them, you can mix and match each individual shoe to get a perfect fit–they send you multiple pairs and you keep the two (one left, one right) that fit best. If you’re one of the many people whose feet aren’t the same size, or if you’re fit-challenged for any other reason, this makes a big difference. Plus, since Allbirds only come in whole sizes, this could convert a lot of people.

And don’t take my word for it, here’s what TechCrunch has to say:

Step aside, Allbirds. Atoms come in quarter-sizes you can mix-and-match. Emerging from stealth today in a TechCrunch exclusive, this shoe startup’s obsession with satisfaction allowed it to replace my Nikes. I’ve spent the last two months wearing Atoms every day. They’re the first sneaker classy-looking enough for semi-formal occasions, but that I can comfortably walk or even hike in for hours.

I guess this all explains why more than 4,000 people have signed up to be on the Atoms waitlist before the public launch. You might want to sign up too.

Atoms Shoes