James Michelson the UVM Medical Center

Jim Michelson, MD is an orthopedic surgeon in the Foot and Ankle Division of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the UVM Medical Center and a Professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.

The arrival of warm weather in Vermont triggers an explosion of outdoor activities, from hiking and running to relaxing on or around the water. One pleasant side effect: we get to put our boots in the closet!  But what to wear – sandals, minimalist running shoes, or go barefoot?

Let’s take them in order: Does wearing sandals, which offer less support, cause damage to your feet if you wear them too long? This one is simple – nope! Our feet are remarkably strong, and in the vast majority of cases don’t need a supportive shoe to maintain their shape. That isn’t to say that you should go on a five-mile run in sandals, because that requires an entirely different level of stability, which we’ll talk about in a moment. If you have flat feet, you don’t have to worry about using sandals either. In general, “a flat foot is a happy foot”, and they actually get fewer injuries than feet with high arches. As to which sandal to wear – whatever is comfortable!

So what about the minimalist running shoes (like those with the separate toes)? They are like sandals for running, in that they don’t give your foot much support and are designed to “strengthen” your foot by forcing all the muscles in it to work to support your foot. While the idea is based on the concept that man originally developed walking and running barefoot – so we shouldn’t need shoes to support our feet – not everyone is comfortable in these running shoes. Without getting into a major philosophical discussion about these shoes, the bottom line is that you should feel free to try them out.  However, use common sense – if you find that your feet are hurting during or after running, they may not be right for you.

Finally, is walking barefoot as bad as some of our parents told us? At the risk of challenging anyone’s parents, the answer is no.  I will qualify that by saying again that you should use common sense –  if you intend to walk barefoot in the middle of Burlington, you’re likely to end up getting glass, or other sharp objects, stuck in your feet. So, walking barefoot is fine – as long as you walk in a safe environment .

There is one BIG exception to the barefoot rule! If you have diabetes or any condition where the sensation in your feet is decreased, you should NEVER walk barefoot, even in the sand. I have seen folks get serious burns to the bottom of their feet because they walked across hot sand and didn’t feel it.

So there it is – answers to the most common footwear questions for the summer. In  general, the rule of thumb is that as long as your feet feel  okay, wear what you like!

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