SHOES - PART 2 (Toe Box)
Welcome to the second post about shoes in the From The Ground Up series. We're going to discuss a shoe's toe box . First, do you know what should be the widest part of a healthy foot? The toes. What part of a typical shoe is the narrowest? The toe box. See the problem?
Baby toes are the cutest! And the widest part of their feet...
And then we do this to them . . .
Or this . . .
Or even this . . .
And then you get this . . .
The foot adapts to the shape of the shoe
See the problem?
Here is an extreme example.
How do you know if your shoe has a toe box wide enough to accommodate your toes? Take The Sole Test. Take the sole out of the shoe, put it on the ground and stand on it, barefoot. If your toes are overflowing over the edge of the sole, you know that when your toes are actually in the shoe, they're getting squeezed.
At this point in the conversation, er, monologue, you may be asking two things - "Why do shoe companies disfigure our feet?" and "What's the big deal with shoe companies disfiguring our feet?"
If you're not asking those questions, you must be a shoe company executive and I urge you, it's not too late to change your ways!
First question - WHY are most shoes narrow in the toe box? The answer is Fashion.
A possible second reason could be...um...let's see...still thinking...aerodynamics? Maybe? The truth is, my friend *in best Jack Nicholson voice* "You can't handle the truth!" Actually, I'm sure you can handle it and the truth is - there is NO GOOD REASON for the toe box of a shoe to be narrow. None. It makes no sense. My work here is done. *mic drop*
Second question - What's the big deal about a narrow toe box?
Quick anatomy lesson, because I care about you (and your toes): Two primary functions of toes are balance and gripping.
Guess what your toes cannot do very well if they're all squished on top of each other and shoved into a cramped little toe box? Both balance and gripping become compromised.
Balance: Your body relies on a wide, stable base for optimal biomechanical function. In other words, you wouldn't put bicycle tires on an SUV and that's what you're doing when your toes are not allowed to spread. Not that I'm calling you an SUV...
With the toes being squished down to a narrow point, you lose surface area with which to push off every time you step and even when you're just standing. This forces your body to compensate and shifts more stress to other parts of the feet as well as to the knees, hips and lower back. Any time there is compensation and asymmetry, risk of injury increases.
For athletes, especially at the elite level, a narrow toe box will prohibit ideal performance and the athlete will not reach their full athletic potential. Imagine if track athletes or soccer players wore shoes that allowed full, healthy toe splay - they would generate more power and speed and be less prone to injury.
Usain Bolt's feet are pictured above...the bunions are probably courtesy of so many hours in restrictive track shoes. Imagine how fast he would be in proper shoes and no foot deformities!
Gripping: Take one hand and press your thumb to your pinkie. Now, rest your 3 middle fingers on top of the thumb and pinkie. Try to grab something. Nearly impossible. Now, spread your fingers out and ahhhhh, that feels better and you can use your hand and fingers as they were designed!
The same concept applies to toes. Proper toe splay , or toe spacing, not only provides a solid base of support for your whole body but it also keeps proper foot bone (metatarsal) spacing and it keeps the foot and ankle muscles strong.
When toes are allowed to spread out, they will grip the ground (built-in traction control!), thereby firing the muscles of your foot and ankle, allowing for minimal compensation and stress on the adjacent joints - the knee and hip.
This is a HUGE issue with most shoes in general - they prevent the foot muscles from firing and the muscles then become weak. Weak muscles and poor biomechanics mean injuries and a very popular "solution" to foot injuries is more supportive shoes and possibly orthotics.
<<< This is how I feel when patients are told to buy ultra-supportive shoes and orthotics for their foot problems.
This is the part of the story where I lean a little closer and look you straight in the eye and say something like "Now listen up, because I'm only gonna say this once." Your feet are the healthiest when they are bare. As I said way back at the beginning of this series - shoes should serve one purpose: protection from dangerous items on the ground. Unfortunately, people have become dependent on shoes to do the job that their feet are able to do, if given the chance.
An arch support in the shoe? Your foot has a built-in arch! An inch of foam on the heel? Your heel has a fat pad for cushion!
The more "stuff" your shoe has on it, the more dependent your foot becomes on that stuff and the less it is able to function like an actual foot! But, I digress...here is The Takeaway for Toe Box.
The Takeaway -
Problem: Your shoes have a narrow toe box that squishes your toes together and creates poor biomechanics and increased injury risk.
Action: Find shoes with a wide toe box! Similar to the previous post, I really like Lems, Altra and Vivobarefootbut there are others out there, so go searching and remember to give shoes the sole test I mentioned above to see if the shoe is restrictive.
Difficulty: Easy. Find the right shoe and embrace the space that your toes will have!
NOTE: The next post will cover both Toe Spring and Arch Support/Rigid Sole and I will also go over the most common foot conditions that can be caused by shoes with any or all of the characteristics that we are discussing.
As always, I trust that you will reach out to me with questions, constructive feedback or any topics that you would like to see covered. DrThistle@DrThistle.com