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.

Confessions of a Barefoot Runner

I’ve been a proselytizer for Vibram barefoot shoes for the last five years.

My barefoot story began in 2010: after more than a decade of not being able to run thanks to an old nagging knee injury, I put on a pair of barefoot shoes and I was able to run again. It was magic.

Since then, I’ve told anyone and everyone who would listen about my new shoe orthodoxy: how heel striking is the root of all injury, how our natural gait is disrupted by cushy shoes, how we were born to run.

I still believe all this.

Nevertheless, a month ago, thanks to a new, nasty case of tendonitis (aka tennis elbow) in my right arm, I had to stop playing squash and tennis. So, in search of aerobic exercise, I’ve started running more. Three weeks ago, the pound of the pavement in my increased mileage in my Vibrams started to aggravate my right Achilles tendon – a potential injury that’s even trickier to heal than the nagging pain in my right arm.

So, reluctantly and feeling like a traitor to the cause, I bought a pair of 2014 Nike Free Flyknit 4.0s and started running with them. Yes, it’s felt awkward to have an actual shoe on my foot. Yes it’s messed with my stride a bit. But the honest truth is that my right heel feels better, my knee is also still fine, and I no longer feel on the verge of injury.

While I do feel like a traitor to the cause, the reality is that running barefoot has taught me a lot: about how my foot hits the ground; about body positioning; about cadence (goal is 180 strides per minute). Barefoot running taught me to run in a way that works for my body, and the new shoes wouldn’t have worked for my knee had it not been for the six years of running barefoot. No, I haven’t given up on the Vibrams, but they are no longer the only answer for me.

So often this is the cycle we go through: a period of orthodoxy, vehemence, and learning. And then, sometimes, we choose to – or are forced to – reflect and adapt again, letting go of that very orthodoxy that has been our truth and our conviction for so long.

And I’ll admit that at times I hope that someday I’ll just arrive: I’ll find my truths and be done with the hard work of continuing to have to change and grow. I can hope, but I’ll be let down.

It’s our passion, commitment, and evolution that puts us in a different place, preparing us for the next cycle of loss and letting go that, ultimately, will allow us to get to the next level.