Bottom Line Up Front: I have been a big believer in putting effort to pick shoes that were healthy for the body since 2010. For the next seven years, I focused exclusively on finding flat shoes (zero drop) with as little between my body and the ground as possible. Recently, however, I realized I was neglecting a major factor that was impacting my foot health: toe splay. So like any normal person, I boxed up all my existing shoes and got brand new ones. Here is the explanation and why you should care.
When I was growing up, I always got shoes that looked good, even for performance. They had to look good and then also feel/perform well. When I entered the Army in the early 2000s, I was doing a lot more running than I had previously, so I got expensive running shoes that really didn’t look good. After wearing them for a while, they didn’t really feel good either. But since they were expensive they had to be good. I tried to make sense out of the neutral, pronator, over-pronator, under-pronator styles, but I couldn’t really get what I thought I was to match up to the shoes that felt good. I resigned myself to buying high quality ones, at least from a brand/price standpoint. I was either running or lifting weights (powerlifting/bodybuilding), not doing much else in athletic shoes, so there wasn’t much I needed from my shoes except to make my feet feel OK when running.
I Make An Effort to Improve My Foot Health
Then I got into CrossFit in 2008. I found my running shoes weren’t what everyone was wearing. They were all wearing Converse’s Chuck Taylors since they were flat and offered a good base from which to do box jumps, snatches, sprinting, kettlebell swings, etc. After a few years I started to see a movement towards getting away from big puffy running shoes and towards minimalist footwear. They would talk about the heel to toe drop (how much higher the heel than the toe) and also the thickness of the sole. The goal was as little between your feet and the ground as possible with zero drop (like your bare feet would have). I moved in this direction hard with all athletic shoes. I wore only Chucks, Inov-8s, and then Reebok Nanos when they came out. I slowly moved towards all my footwear being this way, wearing mostly Van’s or Chucks when in regular clothes. I also tried to go barefoot as much as possible, around the house and also when exercising. I was sure I had the footwear thing down. My feet were strong and this was good for my overall health.
Flat, minimalist, and zero drop footwear is good for the following reasons:
- Mimics the natural movement of the foot. Feet weren’t meant to be put into shoes that change their natural movement patterns. This has compounding effects on the rest of the body. The base is off, everything is off.
- Strengthens the feet. Putting a big piece of foam around your feet at all times makes them weak, like they are in a cast. The feet have 25% of all the bones in the body (for real) and hundreds of ligaments, muscles, and joints. Big puffy shoes or stylish fashionable shoes just kill their health.
- Reduces head/neck/back pain from shifting the center of balance. When your feet are in shoes with a heel, it puts your body into a slight forward lean as if you were tip-toeing. Your body has to then shift your head back to prevent you from falling forward. Your neck and hips may have to contort to get you back to a stable position. This is abnormal and unhealthy. This could have lasting effects on your postural muscles as they constantly deal with an altered center of balance due to your elevated footwear. This applies to any heel but obviously this effect is much greater in the high heels that women (typically) wear. Refer to the following graphic:
What I Was Missing: Toe Splay
In 2017, I started to see an increase in the amount of people posting/writing about toe health, specifically toe splay. Their general point was that footwear shouldn’t bind the toes causing them to function improperly as they form to the shape of the shoe not their natural shape. The most startling photos are these old ones which illustrate it perfectly:
This is the foot forming to the shape of the shoes
This is the foot forming normally without being cased into a restrictive shoe
I had seen this before I am sure, but for some reason it started to bother me a lot, mostly because my feet looked much more like the top messed up ones and I thought I had healthy feet! I had always looked at people’s shoes since I started to care about foot health, but now I started looking at their toes. I noticed a lot of people with really screwed up toes. Older women had it the worst. Decades of jamming their feet into stylish uncomfortable footwear did a number on them. I didn’t want to be 75 with foot pain/hip pain/back pain because of bunions or some other malady due to cramming my toes into shoes, even flat, minimalist ones.
I did a survey of my shoes and every single one of them restricted my toes except, of course, my Vibram Fivefingers. My Van’s low tops, in fact, had a blowout where my little toe was because it was pushing so hard against the side. Every pair of shoes (…minus the VFF) had a pointed toe, when, in fact, feet aren’t supposed to be formed this way.
Now I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I had more than ten pairs of shoes that I now HATED and was sure they were ruining my life. Here they are:
Quick math = $1000+ to replace them. Did a little sole searching and decided it was worth it. Put them all in a box and went to find my new shoes. I fully understand this is nearing the apex of first-world problems. I am self-aware.
What I Did About It
I started by going to places where they cared a lot about toe splay and minimalist footwear to see which brands they recommended. I got to a good all-around recommended list of shoes from Correct Toes to start with as a baseline. I mostly wanted to see if there were new brand I hadn’t heard of and then find specific styles. I wasn’t trying to replace every pair I had, some of which were redundant (multiple running shoes and multiple casual shoes). I decided I needed a few different pairs right off the bat to get started: athletic, casual, and sandals. It was almost summer.
Here is what I ended up with. I will list the size I bought so you can get an idea of sizing variations. I wear men’s 11 in Van’s, 11 in Inov-8, 10.5 in Reebok Nanos.
* Note there are zero affiliate links in this post, so I make zero dollars and zero cents from anything you buy (if you were questioning my motives at all). I do this for free for all of you!
- Vibram Fivefingers V-Alpha. Size: 43 EURO. I actually kept the pair of VFFs that I had, but they were very worn out and smelled horrible, so I replaced them. I love this model. I wear them for trail running mostly. I would buy more VFFs, but they are still kind of socially awkward. For certain environments, they shine.
- Vivobarefoot Stealth II. Size: 44 EURO. These are also great shoes. Very easy to feel the ground with each step. Running on pavement wouldn’t be ideal without excellent POSE form, but anything else athletic or casual, these are rock rolid. Vivo has a lot of casual shoes too that I will consider when the need arises. This shoe without socks is the closest to not wearing shoes of all the ones I own.
- Xero Prio. Size: 11.5 US (they run large per Xero). I had never heard of this brand, but Instagram’s ad algorithm was sure I would like them. After 157,000 ads, I got them and they were right. I do like them! These are what I wanted the Reebok Nanos to be but never were. They are very stable to the ground, like oly lifting shoes without the heel and much more flexible. Their durability has not been tested, but I am sure it is excellent based on the quality construction. They offer other styles as well that I will consider down the road.
- Altra Escalante 1.5. Size: 11 US. I just got these and haven’t tested them hardcore yet but the preliminary verdict is they are a good road running shoe. I was turned off initially to them as too puffy, but after feeling the pain from running in the Prios and Stealths on pavement, I decided I needed some more cushion. Very comfortable and about as good as you get for putting in a lot of road miles. Altra has a lot of models as well. These were higher end and had good reviews. I tried on two other Altra models and stuck with these as far superior.
- Lem’s Mariner. Size: 44 EURO. For my casual summer shoe, I opted for Lem’s. Very happy with this choice. They are comfortable right out of the box, look good, and are in line with all the new shoe requirements. I will look to Lem’s first for any casual shoes in the future. Probably will need one for the winter. I almost got the Lem’s Primal 2 athletic shoe but opted to try some other brands.
- Luna Sandals Mono 2.0. Size: 9.5 US. This is one that surprised me. I wasn’t sure I’d like these, but everyone was recommending these since this sandal style is as primal as it gets: piece of flat material strapped to your foot for protection from the ground. It is sort of a pain to get these to fit right and you have to put in some effort, but it’s worth it. I actually ran in these (they are, in fact, running sandals) and loved them. I got them for casual wear, but they are good for just about anything. I wore these almost every time I left the house for a few months. You can dress them up or down nicely in the summer.
- I contacted Luna about what I thought was unacceptable sole wear on the front part of my sole and after leaving a luke-warm review, the CEO personally emailed me and sent me another pair of a more durable model, the Origen 2.0, which are more stiff and better for hiking/casual wear than running. They have an upcycled tire outsole. They are very well made. It is easy to see how the lighter, more flexible sole is better on the Mono for running. Believe it or not, they are somewhat different to wear despite looking identical. I rotate them routinely now. Both are recommended but for different purposes.
- I got the performance laces for both. The sizing is tricky too because the goal is to get them to be as long as your foot, no longer. They have a printable sizing chart that lets you know what to get because if you get your normal size they’d be way too large.
Here is a photo of the new shoes lined up:
Final Thoughts & Words of Advice
There were some shoes I got that I returned because they were either redundant or uncomfortable. I don’t want to list them because you may find they are good for you.
As part of my toe splay improvement program, I got a pair of these silicone toe spreaders to assist me. You can find something similar many places. Can’t tell if they work but it appears to make sense that they would help.
You may wonder if I am unhappy about spending another $700 on shoes when I had…enough shoes already. The answer is no, I am not unhappy about it. I know the dangers of the sunk cost fallacy and had no problem putting my former shoes away. I may throw them in a garage sale or do an Ebay auction one of these days.
I didn’t put on restrictive footwear for a few months and the first time I wore a pair of my former shoes, it shocked me how tight the toe box felt. It reinforced that I had made the right choice.
If you are wondering, I wear the Belleville Tactical Research Mini-Mil minimalist boots all day at work. Got them in wide so they are not restrictive on the toes and have only a 2mm drop. This is as good as you can find for Army regulation boots. Have worn these since 2015.
I would say unequivocally for everyone that if you aren’t caring about your footwear, you are ignoring a major health factor. If you read this far, you probably don’t need convincing. But take the lessons learned here and get good shoes from now on. You don’t need to abandon your old ones unless you have the cash and believe that it matters enough.
Am I saying you should never wear unhealthy fashionable shoes again? No. I am saying they should be treated like birthday cake and pizza. Wear them sometimes for special events, but not every day, all day. Wear no shoes or good shoes the majority of the time so you can afford to wear bad ones for a night on the town.
Take a look at these brands for some styles that interest you and go from there. Internet shoe shopping can be tough, so just be prepared to do some returning.
References & Further Reading
The Foot Collective – tons of great free info and a shop with excellent ZAP-approved shoes.
Correct Toes Shop – another good shopping destination for foot health
Katy Bowman’s Nutrition Movement: Feet and Shoes – biomechanist and guru offers the best advice on these topics. Most of my initial exposure to proper footwear importance is due to Katy.
High Heeled Shoes: A Real Pain – literature review of scientific publications on foot health
High heel hell and footwear deformities…and it’s not just for women. – Similar blog post by another author
Post questions/thoughts/comments/shoes review below for discussion.