Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Benefits of Wide Toe Boxes for Hiking


Dr. Robyn and I were reminded on a recent hike of the importance of wide toe box shoes and natural toe splay for foot comfort and injury prevention. The combination of Correct Toes toe spacers and men's and women's wide toe box shoes is extremely helpful in preventing the foot and knee pain that plagues so many trekkers, especially on long descents, and it saved us from considerable agony during our own 8-hour hike in the mountains above Chamonix, France.
Conventional hiking boots, which possess tapering toe boxes (along with other problematic design features), force your toes into a wedge position and encourage the repetitive jamming of your toes into the end of the toe box, which can lead to sore feet and toes and excessive strain on the muscles, tendons, and ligaments acting on or supporting your knees (not to mention toe deformities, over time). Before we began wearing minimalist shoes that accommodate toe spacers, both Dr. Robyn and I suffered from terrible lateral knee pain during long hikes, especially during the descents. Once we switched to proper footwear and repositioned our toes to the way nature intended, we experienced no further pain or discomfort while hiking or running. Ever.
Four distinct benefits come from using wide toe box shoes for hiking:
1. Improved Comfort: Your feet and toes will feel significantly more comfortable in wide toe box footwear during a long day of hiking. Your feet will most likely still feel tired at the end of the day, but it's unlikely that you'll experience any discomfort during your hike. You can boost your foot comfort even further by using other helpful natural foot health products, such Correct ToesInjinji toe socks and Pedag metatarsal pads or Strutz Pro. This is an excellent combination of products for experiencing maximum foot comfort while hiking.

2. Improved Toe Alignment: Wide toe box shoes allow your toes to splay. When you wear wide toe box shoes and participate in weight-bearing activity, such as hiking, you're encouraging a realignment of your toes to the position that natural intended; that is, in line with their corresponding metatarsal bones. Wearing wide toe box shoes while hiking is an active way to rehabilitate your feet and toes and restore your toes to their true anatomical shape and alignment.

3. Reduced Likelihood of Injuries: Most hikers have experienced at least one foot or lower body musculoskeletal problem during the course of a hike. Many hikers believe that the problem lies in their conditioning, or that the pain they're experiencing is a result of a past, unresolved musculoskeletal problem. This may be true in some instances, but it's also true that conventional hiking boots themselves are the source of significant pain and discomfort. Wearing wide toe box shoes while hiking will help you avoid debilitating musculoskeletal problems such as knee pain, ingrown toenailsneuromas, and shin splints.

4. Enhanced Balance: When you wear wide toe box shoes while hiking, it's likely that you'll experience an improved sense of balance. This is due to the wider support platform associated with the splayed toe configuration. Conventional hiking boots force your toes together into a wedge configuration, effectively reducing the surface area of the forefoot contacting the ground with each footfall. This, along with other features of conventional hiking boots that destabilize your main foot arch (such as heel elevation and toe spring), has a direct effect on the frequency of traumatic ankle injuries, especially ankle sprains. For more information about this topic, please read our article on how minimalist shoes can help prevent ankle sprains.
Consider using wide toe box shoes (i.e., shoes that are widest at the ends of your toes, not the ball of your foot) for your next day-hike or multi-day trek. But first, please do check out our article on how to safely transition from conventional shoes to minimalist or minimalist-like footwear.
UPDATE (1/1/2015)
We receive a lot of questions about the healthiest footwear options for hiking. In the comments section below this article, I've described several great options (all of which we carry on the Natural Footgear site), and I'm repeating that list here, for your convenience:
Frequent visitors to Natural Footgear can probably surmise that we don’t support the use of conventional hiking boots, as most hiking boots incorporate a number of problematic design elements and (in our opinion) injure the foot more often than assist it. We do, however, have a few suggestions for alternative hiking footwear that allow your feet and ankles to support themselves. The options listed here are all minimalist in one way or another. I’ll briefly describe each of them here:
1. Luna Mono: This is a minimalist running and walking sandal similar to the huaraches used by the Tarahumara of the Copper Canyons in Mexico (and similar to the style of shoes I saw many mountain porters wearing in Nepal). These “hiking boots” have a semi-lugged Vibram sole, and they work well on a variety of terrain. They are primarily warmer weather footwear, unless you want to use them with a thick toe sock or other foot covering during the cooler months (which a lot of people do). Exercise caution and avoid using footwear that exposes your skin to the elements in cold weather conditions.
2. Be Real Shoes: Be Real shoes possess the most generous toe box of any shoe offering on the Natural Footgear site. These minimalist shoes possess a unique tread pattern that works great on many different types of terrain. They're also extremely lightweight, and they work really well in combination with Correct Toes and other natural footgear (including Injinji toe socks and Pedag metatarsal pads or Strutz Pro). Be Real shoes not only keep your feet healthy out on the trail, but they also help to rehabilitate your feet and toes.
3. Altra Superior 2.0: The Altra Superior 2.0 is touted as a trail running shoe, but it also works great as a hiking shoe. It’s got a grippy sole and is quite comfortable to wear for long periods. It has a toe box wide enough to accommodate natural toe splay and Correct Toes and a completely flat sole from heel to toe. I use this as one of my main winter hiking shoes. Note: I remove the included footbed/liner from all my Altra shoes to give my foot a little additional room inside the shoe and to make the shoe a little more minimalist, but this is simply a matter of personal preference.
4. Lems Boulder Boot: The Lems Boulder Boot is the only above-the-ankle option mentioned here. It’s a minimalist boot, which means that it covers your foot and ankle but stays out of the way of your foot, allowing your foot to look and function as nature intended. This boot has a sufficiently grippy sole, and many people use the Boulder Boot as their principle trail running shoe or hiking boot. The black option is vegan. In early 2014, Dr. Robyn and I hiked the entire Annapurna Circuit in Nepal (a 3-week trek over all types of terrain and through all types of weather conditions) in our Lems Boulder Boots.
If you have other favorites, we'd love to hear about them! Please leave a comment below or send us a message via our contact form. We're always looking for great new foot-healthy hiking footwear.

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