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.
  • 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.