As I write this article, summer is right around the corner. This means shedding our shoes, in favor of sandals and flip flops. Many people say they “live in flip flops” during the Spring, Summer and Fall, because they love the freedom it gives their feet, and there’s no heel, so they must be better than regular shoes, right?As it turns out, your flip flops, or specifically the amount of walking you do in your flip flops, may be exacerbating your back pain, neck pain, or pain associated with particular joints. Let me say, that I do not have a “thing” against flip flops—I actually have a couple of pairs, myself! They are great for going short distances to the pool, the beach or the boat—anywhere that you don’t need to walk far. It’s only when flip flops become your footwear of choice when doing activities such as, running errands, sight-seeing, and walking the dog (among other things) that they become a problem.
It’s true—flip flops are considered a “minimal” shoe, in the literal sense; there’s not much to them, and most don’t have a positive heel (the foot bed configuration which causes the heel to be higher off the ground than the toes.) The trouble lies in what you have to do with your foot in order to walk in them; you have to grip with your toes.
Gripping with the toes means you create tension along the bottom of the foot, also known as the plantar fascia. (I recommend if you suffer from plantar fasciitis, ditch the flops all together. And if it persists in spite of not wearing flip flops, consult a foot specialist or physical therapist.) That plantar fascia transitions into the back of your calf via your Achilles tendon. Meaning, if you thought your calves were tight before, flip flops will make them tighter. The fascial connection continues up the calves and into the hamstrings which, (yep, you guessed it) also tighten by walking in those pesky flip flops. That same fascial line continues to run up your back on both sides, and ultimately connects into the back of your neck.
Now imagine a long semi-elastic band which runs from the bottoms of your feet, up your back, along the back of your neck, and attaches onto your head. If you were to pull on that band—say at the bottom of the feet, you can see how it tightens the entire system all the way up to the head.
The repetitive action of walking in flip flops over time can also lead to a habit of toe gripping when walking in “normal shoes”, resulting in a condition known as hammer toes—permanently shortened toe-flexors that can become very painful over time.
But don’t despair! You can still enjoy foot freedom in a sandal that is more anchored to your foot. River sandals could be a nice alternative for more active pursuits, and fortunately, there is a variety of dressier versions available as well.
Not ready to give up your flip flops yet? Or maybe you are, but realize your feet/ calves/ hamstrings, etc have become increasingly tight. Try these exercises to help restore flexibility to the plantar fascia and the calves and hamstrings:
Spiky ball on foot: Stand holding onto a wall or counter. Roll the spiky ball along your arch, as well as left and right across your foot. Work on the entire bottom of your foot in multiple directions and angles for 1-2 minutes per foot, throughout the day.
Calf Stretch (on rolled yoga mat): Stand tall and put the foot of the stretching leg on your rolled yoga mat so that the heel is on the floor. The foot should point straight ahead. Your other foot is behind you, and you can hold onto a wall or counter top for balance. Step onto the stretching leg, pushing off the other foot, so that your body stays vertical (hip and knee straight) and moves over the foot of the stretching leg. The heel stays down, making the ankle bend more. Only push onto the stretching leg to feel stretch, not strain, then back off– you should have no pain or strain in the calf or ankle. Practice 10-12 times per side.
If you want more information like this on how to make your feet happier and healthier, pick up a copy of Whole Body Barefoot by Katy Bowman—it could be a great beach read!