Like clockwork every year, I’m itching to get into sandals as soon as summer starts to creep up. A few weeks and an at-home pedicure later, I slide into my shoes and am overwhelmed with the glee of not having to tie a lace or zip a zipper. But that feeling is cut short when I come home with sore shins, achey arches, and cramped calves. So what gives?
Diane Koshimune, DPM, a California-based podiatrist, says flip flops and sandals tend to have a looser fit and less support—and that looser fit might force you to claw your toes to keep the shoe on, and the lack of support might let your arch collapse with each step. Hence the resulting pain that you feel in your feet and lower body. “You’re wearing shoes that are allowing your foot to do whatever it wants,” she says. “And that can either be a fine thing that your body tolerates, or it could be something that leads to other problems down the line.”
Though these flat shoes may not be bad for everyone, it really comes down to your personal biomechanics. “If somebody pronates, that’s when the foot collapses in, and that’s when they start getting problems,” says Paul Greenberg, DMP, a podiatrist with NYU Langone. “That’s when they get plantar fasciitis and overuse injuries. And that’s where they can get bunions their hammer toes.”
So pronation and the fact that your toes are clawing for the shoe to stay on your foot can lead to improper foot alignment, which can lead to injuries, according to Dr. Koshimune. “Think about it like a car that’s not working in proper alignment,” she says. “You’ll end up wearing and tearing through your tires differently. But in this example, your joints are the tires, and certain tendons are going to have to work harder than others because your feet are not working in that ideal position.”
But these issues aren’t popping up after just a day at the beach in flip flops. “If you’re using them as your primary shoe and you’re not paying attention to your foot position, or if you’re overweight and your stance is different, you have a greater likelihood of tendonitis, for example, because you’re constantly collapsing your arch,” she adds.
If you still love a good flat, opened-toe shoe, Dr. Greenberg says you should look for some that have a touch of cushion to absorb shock, provide semi-rigid support under the ball of the foot, and somewhere around a one-inch heel. “The human foot functions more efficiently when the heel is lifted up off the ground,” he says. “As you lift your heel up it supinates, which is the opposite of pronate, so you get more support.” (Of course, if things get too high, that puts more pressure on the front of your foot, which isn’t the best.)
Still want those flip flops? I feel you—Dr. Koshimune recommends sandals and flip flops from the brand Vionic. “The foot bed is contoured, so there’s a pretty substantial arch that’s built into the design of the shoe,” she says. “They’re trying to provide you with feedback from the outside world.” She says the arch support serves as a reminder to “engage your muscles and tendons so that you’re functioning in a more neutral position,” and because they’re training the foot to function well in any shoe, they don’t have to be worn all the time. She’s also a huge fan of the Mayari Birkenstock ($100), as the strap around the big toe keeps her from clawing her toes to keep the shoe from falling off.
Another thing that can help keep your flip flop habit drama-free? Stretching your calves. “If you stretch out your calf, the foot will function more efficiently at the ankle, and it’ll take stress off the arch and the front of the foot,” says Dr. Greenberg. Keep in mind that everyone’s foot is different and if you’re experiencing a ton of foot pain be sure to check in with your doctor. Meanwhile, I’m glad I don’t have to kiss my flip flops goodbye. (Yet.)
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