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  • Dr. Kristen K. Schulte, PT

Free Your Feet!

Temperatures are changing, outdoor activities are in full swing, and it is time to talk about your choice in summer footwear. Athletic shoes are lovely, and I do advise that we complete most athletic activity in said shoes. I am not, unfortunately, an advocate for barefoot running since they long ago “paved paradise and put up a parking lot” and we therefore no longer live in a barefoot world. We do in fact need the soles of our shoes to counter the artificial terrain on which we walk. *Dismount soapbox*

However, if your sweaty pigs are squealing from being cooped up, then it is time to free them until Ohio decides winter is back.

Splay, girl, splay. The problem with most of our footwear is the small toe box. I know my own closet contains all sorts of flats that are tight around the width of my toes, but this isn’t just a problem for the ladies! Men, think of your dress shoes: Do they become narrow or boxed at the toe? More than likely, the answer is yes. Even some athletic shoes are designed like this! So what’s the problem? When the front of the foot is compressed in such a way, it not only puts unnecessary pressure on the joints, it inhibits all of the small support muscles in the foot from functioning optimally at the day-to-day level and can even play a role in the long-term occurrence of bunions, plantar fasciitis, and other common foot problems. A more natural position for your foot is when the toes are able to “splay” or separate a natural distance. This allows the joints to move freely and muscles to function optimally. As an added bonus, it promotes balance and good arch position.

What are we to do? Try to spend at least part of your day in something other than enclosed shoes. In the summer, this couldn’t be easier: If you have a job that allows you to wear sandals to work, do it! Otherwise, be sure to wear your sandals on weekends. Of course, if you are just outside in the grass in the evenings, feel free to pad around in your bare feet.

Great. I’ll wear flip flops. Not so fast. While flip-flops do permit toe splaying, because they do not strap onto the feet they lead to a shuffling walking pattern. Go ahead and walk a lap right now with your flip-flops on, and you will understand what I am talking about. I could write a separate article on why shuffling in not ideal, but for now, suffice it to say that it causes increased work for the toes and promotes increased tightness in the calf muscles. Again, both of which can lead to common problems such as plantar fasciitis, hammer toe, shin splints (among others).

Three Criteria. As far as sandals go, I recommend checking for three criteria:

1. Wide footprint to promote toe splaying

2. Thicker sole to protect the feet from pounding on our man-made surfaces

3. Ample straps that keep the foot anchored onto the sole so that no one part of the foot is doing too much work

I own two particular brands of sandals that fit the bill and that you will likely see me wearing all summer long: Chacos and Birkenstocks. I will warn you that they are pricey but that I have also had both pairs for 5-6 years, and they still function very well. If you are not ready to make such a purchase, there are off-brands of both available at large retailers for as little as $15. I have no idea how long these brands will last, but again, as long as they fit the three criteria above, your feet will thank you this summer.

Disclaimer: None of these shoe companies are paying me for this endorsement. They probably don’t even know I exist. My recommendation is made purely off of my knowledge as a physical therapist and experience as a consumer.


Mitchell, Joni. “Big Yellow Taxi.” 1970.

Toe-tal Recall: What on earth are our toes really for? Bodywork and Movement Therapies. 2016; 20:418-431.

Photo obtained from: Wide Shoes vs. Wide Toe Box: What Keeps Feet Comfortable? SOM Sense Of Motion Footwear. Published 2018. Accessed June 6, 2018.

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