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Welcome to summer. It’s time for backyard barbecues, camping trips, walks on the beach and…flip flops.

Today I hope to shine a light on why flip flops are a poor choice for your feet, and offer some excellent alternatives for summer footwear.

Flip-flops are a flop

I never really liked flip-flops and I didn’t understand why. But after following the likes of Katy Bowman and learning more about how our everyday choices and behaviors have a huge impact on the shape and function of our bodies, I’ve become much more aware of how my footwear controls how my body feels. Several years ago I did a huge closet purge and threw out all the shoes that didn’t feel good on my feet (even the SUPER cute ones). Now that I’ve pared down my shoe selection, I only have good-for-me shoes on my shoe rack. I couldn’t even find a pair of flip-flops to photograph for this article so I had to turn to Phil Roeder‘s Flickr album for help (see image below)!

Copyright Phil Roeder

I’ve already written at length about shoes here. Your choice of shoe has a huge impact on the health and happiness of your feet. And the health of your feet has a huge impact on all the other parts of your body. Since your feet form your base, interacting with the earth below you, keeping your feet in good shape is very important.

When the temperatures rise, we naturally gravitate towards less footwear. Sandals improve air flow to the feet, helping to cool them off. There are myriad sandals to choose from, and as you probably know, fashion and style dictate design more frequently than health and optimal foot movement do.

So what’s so bad about flip flops? They look minimal. Aren’t minimal shoes the way to go?

Flip flops have one main feature that works against them. First, flip flops aren’t designed to stay on your feet. As soon as you take a step, your flip flop would fly right off unless you crunch your toes to hold on to your shoe. That causes added strain on your toe joints and alters the way you walk. Take a look at the photo above. See how the girl’s toes are curling under? When you’re walking normally, the big toe should be able to extend so you can push off the ground. In flip-flops, your toes move the opposite way. If you want to picture that in your head, these guys demonstrate toe extension pretty nicely. So imagine crunching your toes into the ground all day long, over and over, for years, decades…what happens to your feet?

While there isn’t a ton of research on the impacts of flip-flop use on foot problems (who would fund it?) a study from 2008 suggested that the altered flip-flop gait pattern can lead to not only injuries and pain in the foot but also in the ankles, hips, back, and everything else up the chain. It seems obvious that things like hammertoe and plantar fascitis might stem from prolonged flip-flop wearing based on how your foot biomechanics change while wearing them.

Flip-flops are not evil, for sure. You can putz around the garden in them or use them to cross a hot, sandy beach. But if you’re going to take a long walk or have them on your feet all day, you may pay the price.

Better summer sandals

So, what now? There’s one key feature to look for when shopping for summer footwear: a heel strap. That simple strap helps to keep the sandal on your foot so that your toes don’t have to work so hard to keep your shoe from falling off. You’ll walk with a more normal gait with the addition of a back strap. If you’re used to wearing minimal shoes or going barefoot, you can pick up a pair of Xero or Luna sandals, which provide just enough of a footbed to protect your feet from the heat and rocks but not much more. If you’re more used to wearing shoes with a lot of support, check out TevaKeen, Merrell or any number of brands that offer fashionable and functional shoes. Here’s a list of 8 strappy sandals to get you started.

I’ve got several pairs of sandals that I can recommend. Let’s start with the Tevas:

I bought these before traveling to Hawaii, where I knew I’d be hiking on sand, mud and rocks in the heat. I wanted a pair of shoes that could hold up to the rugged terrain, ocean spray, and constantly changing conditions. After trying on every pair of sandals I could find in a 10 mile radius I settled on one of the least expensive options: the Teva Original Universal sandals. I liked that as I walked around there weren’t many hotspots. Many of the cute sandals I tried on had lots of small straps which rubbed against my feet and felt blister-prone even just walking around in the store. The simple design and velcro closure meant I could adjust the sandals to fit my feet. They took a little breaking in before I could tackle longer hikes but these sandals were rock solid adventure shoes! While the side straps do corral my little toes in a bit, I feel like my feet can naturally splay out fairly well.

When my feet are better trained for barefoot walking, I switch over to my Xero Ready-to-wear sandals:

The thin soles mean I feel a lot more of the surface than when wearing my Tevas, but there are fewer thick straps to rub against my skin. My feet feel very free to move in these sandals. While I can still see what several decades of wearing tight shoes has done to my feet, I feel like I’m moving in the right direction in training my feet to be stronger and more versatile over time. And with no constricting side straps my toes can spread out as much as they want. I do notice every little bump and rock on the trail, so it takes some getting used to before I can walk too fast or too far in these. By the end of the summer I can move with ease in my Xero sandals.

Your choice of footwear has a huge impact on how you move through the world. Take a look at your summer shoe selection and see how they match up to the shoes I’ve selected here. Do they have a backstrap? Do they allow you to extend your big toe when you walk? Are they comfortable? Do they let your toes spread wide?

Take care of your feet, take care of your body. Which summer shoes will you be sporting this year?

Read more:

How flip-flops change your feet at Nutritious Movement.

The worst sandals for your feet at (wait for it) InStyle.

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Personal trainer, student of movement, and outdoor explorer in the Pacific Northwest
    • Robin Kowal
    • June 27, 2017

    Good stuff

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