Foot wear is a touchy subject. Some of us love fashion or are sold on a brand, and some of us just love the old tennies that are now maybe more duct tape than tennis shoe. People love their shoes. And what’s not to love, shoes do deliver some pretty awesome benefits such as providing protection from sharp, pointy things like rocks, glass, bark, etc. They also provide protection from the hot or cold ground, for which I am extremely grateful here in the cold Montana winters.
But what if your shoes are causing physical changes to your feet and the rest of your body? What if they are setting you up for pain, dysfunction, or even a disease process?
Your feet are the base of support for the rest of your body, they influence the power output of your hips and glutes, and they carry you off to every adventure you go on – it is super important that they function well. There is a lot of working parts: bones, joints, muscles, tendons, connective tissue, and nerves that all need to work together properly. When this anatomy does not get to express itself well, imbalances and dysfunction like plantar fasciitis, bunions, stress fractures, flattened arches, and morten’s neuroma can express themselves instead!
And because most of us wear shoes everyday, it is sometimes our shoes that make it difficult for our feet to function properly. When it comes to fit and function there are some super important details that can make a big difference in how our feet feel and more importantly function.
So if you are the type who just wants the low down, here are the key points to consider when evaluating your existing shoes or buying new ones:
They should fit and feel good right away. There is no "break in" period for any type of material or design. Really. Shoes too snug at any point in the shoe can harm your feet, change your walking gait, and create imbalances all the way up the kinetic chain (the rest of your body).
Wide-Toe box is a must. Stand in the shoes with full weight on your feet and fully spread your toes. Then wiggle them up and down and scrunch them. You need to be able to move your toes in your shoes so that your feet can move and function appropriately. This may mean getting a wider-width shoe. Especially make sure none of your toes are overlapping or rubbing together.
Shoes should have bend at the ball or foot pad area. Again proper foot mechanics should happen even when you are wearing shoes. No bend or bend in the wrong place can set up stress in the plantar fascia…let’s just say this is a bad idea.
Your shoe should be flat with no heel or retrograde. Flat is best because it lets your foot have full mobility. Yes, we know that rules out a bunch of cool shoes, but there are lots of cool shoes that are flat and keep your feet happy.
Make sure the shoe is strapped to your heel. Your toes will have to change their function and your gait will change if the shoe is not attached to your heel. Securing the shoe to your heel will allow you to walk and support your body for the best.
*Bonus: You should feel the ground through the sole. Okay, this one is a little more difficult depending on the activity you are planning on doing and where. A little more rugged sole is needed for hiking, but in general; still go for a shoe where you can sense the ground below you. Thin soled shoes for walking and just hanging are great!
Okay so you want to know more and understand why you might think twice about wearing the Chelsea Crew boot in your closet...
#1. Break-in Period. Shoes that are too small, crunching your toes together, rubbing hot spots as you move do not allow your feet’s anatomy to express itself. Even if you buy leather shoes that will eventually stretch out, your feet will be incapable of fully functioning during that time. And that is even if the material stretches out in the correct spots. So to find shoes that allow for your foot anatomy to work correctly, make sure you…
#2. Test for a Wide-Toe Box. Shoes should never pinch, make your toes rub together or cause your toes to overlap. You need plenty of space in the toe box because with each step you take, your foot needs to spread wider upon landing.
Narrow toe boxes can bring on ingrown toe nails, blisters, and corns. And while bunions and hammer toes are not exactly caused by tight toe boxes, these conditions can worsen by the inappropriate tightness. Plantar Fasciitis and Morten’s Neuroma are painful conditions that can be greatly irritated by a narrow toe box. In fact, some research suggests both conditions may be brought on by a tight shoe. The compression causes the fascia, arteries, and nerves that run over and between the bones to become irritated. This kind of compression can also limit nutrient intake, waste removal, and alter your gait (think geisha).
So how can you tell if the toe box is wide enough?
First, a shoes sole should be at least the same width as your foot. Once you have done the hold’em up test, put them on and stand with full weight on both feet in the shoes and spread out your toes. You should be able to fully spread them out in the shoe. The shoes should also be deep enough to lift your toes up, wiggle them around and to crunch them under a bit. Simply put, you need to be able to fully move your toes in every direction.
This may mean that you need to go into a wider width shoe. Wide-shoes are no longer regulated to the ugliest shoe ever conceived by man. Most shoes made today come in a variety of widths, though you might need to ask for them specifically or ask for a store to order your specific width. (we’ve included a width-sizing at the end of the article).
#3. The Right Bend. Your big toe is meant to flex up-to ninety degrees as you walk. If your shoes only flex to 5˚, your walking gait is lessened, you have less power to move around, and over time your toe will start to lose the ability to move fully. That means your capacity to walk, run, hike, and generally move around is less than it should be.
So where should the shoes bend?
Let’s look at where your foot naturally bends. Place your foot on the ground and bring your knee forward leaving your big toe planted. Notice where your foot bends? 99.99% bend right behind the toes and in the front of the foot pad area. This bend is where all sorts of power to propel yourself forward comes from. Because this is where you should push off from the ground as you move through your stride, it is also where your shoe should bend to somewhere in the 90° range. The more walking, running, and pushing off you want to do, the more important it is that you have full bend in the shoe to allow for full power for movement. The ball of the foot is also where we absorb energy. Shoes with little to no bend, or bend in the wrong spot, changes where and how you can absorb the stress of contact with the ground. Shoes with inappropriate bend will force you to absorb the shock in other parts of the body like your knees or lower back.
Additionally, when the bend is at the arch or when there is no bend in the shoe at all, the muscle that supports your arch, the abductor hallucis muscle (connects the heel bone to the big toe) will be held in a stretched position. When this muscle is held in a stretched position, the plantar fascia's blood supply (which runs next to the abductor hallucis muscle) is compromised. This can create pain and dysfunction and can lead to plantar fasciitis (malbone). It may seem counter-intuitive, but the bend in the right spot in a shoe the puts less stress on the feet and the rest of the body.
#4. The world may not be flat, but your shoes should be! When your heel is higher than your forefoot, your ankle, leg muscles and soft-tissue are put into a slightly shortened position that lessens your ankle mobility and tightens leg musculature. Less mobility of the ankle affects many of the normal and necessary life movements like squatting, bending, and walking. And because the musculature is tightened, the entire kinetic chain (every body part upward) will have to compensate for the tightness and decreased mobility. It is not uncommon for a patient to come in with a painful low back that originated in a foot, ankle, or lower leg. And to correct the problem for good, we have to treat the foot, ankle, or lower leg and make sure external drivers are discarded (bad shoes).
#5 Strap it to your foot! Ever put on a pair of flip flops and find that you must scrunch your toes to walk or see them fly off several feet in front of you? When a shoe is not strapped onto the whole foot, the foot must adapt its function to keep the shoe from coming off. As soon as we grip with our toes, we are no longer allowing the foot to spread out on landing; the foot no longer can bend at the right spot, and some of the bones in the feet get pushed down and some of your foot bones lift up. This shifting changes where forces are placed on the bones of the feet. Over time, this can lead to stress fractures and tissue injuries like stone bruises. Ouch!
*Bonus - Just the right amount of cushion: Shoes should be primarily about protecting your foot from sharp things and from heat and cold of the ground. So a little bit of material between you and the ground is okay. But in our modern infinite wisdom we’ve been adding more and more cushion to shoes. And while that can feel nice in the moment, it is a bit counter to a necessary relationship.
Your feet carry an enormous amount of feedback about where and how you are in the world. This is called proprioception. What is proprioception? Simply, it is the sense of the orientation of your body in your environment. And guess what a large number of the nerves that feed your brain this information are in our feet! When there is extra cushioned material between the ground and your feet, you are cutting down your ability to understand your relationship with the world.
To explain further, proprioception allows you to move rapidly and easily without needing to consciously think about where you are in your environment. In your body, this sense of orientation is on a constant feedback loop within your nervous system, telling your brain what position you are in and what forces are acting upon your body at any given point in time.
In plain English, if you are walking on the sidewalk then suddenly decide to walk on the grass, your body knows how to adjust to the change in surface because of proprioception. So kind-of a big deal when it comes to helping your whole body adapt to the changes that comes its way nearly every second.
Why does this matter? Because if you cannot sense the ground below you because your shoe is so built up, you lose out on some of that proprioception. Your balance is lessened; your reaction to a alteration in environment changes, your overall performance in life goes down.
Now this does not mean that you have to go barefoot (but you should when you can) or wear those new-fangled minimalist shoes (and that might not be a good idea for everyone), but it does mean thinking about how you feel the ground in a pair of shoes. Can you feel a pebble underfoot? Can you tell if you are walking on dirt or pavement? And yes, this is what you should notice.
The research on this is up and down. Some say that minimalist shoes are the best thing ever and some research comes back saying it does not make a difference. So what do I recommend?
Go barefoot at home. Go out into the grass barefoot sometimes too - It’s good for you
Wear flat shoes with a wide toe box, plenty of bend and without much padding or sole when you are walking around on an average day.
Wear warm boots with a wide toe box and that have flex in the snow.
Wear shoes with a wide toe box and flex with more tread to go hiking.
If you have problems that cause pain or dysfunction, let's talk about how those things can be improved.
And that’s it. Be kind to your feet. They need to last your entire life and be able to help you live vibrantly the whole way through!
To give you a better understanding of width sizing, we listed the common widths below.