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Are Flip Flops Bad For Your Feet? Here’s How They Affect Your Gait

Your feet's thongs may be changing how you walk - for the worse.

When it comes to footwear, comfort and style often dominate our choices. Some would argue that flip-flops fall short in both of these categories. Some would argue the opposite.

Nevertheless, some people will swear by those easy-to-slip-on shoes that are synonymous with summer and relaxation and, in fact, will wear them all year round. Similar to how some runners, myself included, wear shorts in the depths of winter.

However, what many people don’t realize is that the choice of footwear can have a significant impact on your overall foot health.

In this article, we will explore the question: Are flip flops bad for your feet? Let’s examine the pros and cons of flip flops and delve into the unique challenges they pose for our feet and gait style.

We will cover the following:

  • How Do Flip Flops Affect Your Gait?
  • Advantages And Disadvantages Of Flip Flops
  • Can You Run In Flip Flops?
  • Are Flip Flops Bad For Your Feet?

Let’s get into it!

A variety of colorful flip flops.

How do flip flops affect your gait?

Before we delve into the impact of flip flops on our feet, let’s take a closer look at what flip flops are made of and their design.

Flip flops typically consist of a rubber or foam sole with a Y-shaped strap that fits between the toes. The soles can vary in thickness and can be made from a variety of materials, such as foam, rubber, or even leather.

The design of flip flops is simple and minimalist, intended for easy on-and-off use. They look great on the beach, are open-toed, and offer minimal support. Some companies offer running-specific flip flops, although the design alterations often turn them into sandals.

There are a couple of notable characteristics of flip flops that will affect your gait:

#1: Lack Of Impact Absorption

One fundamental aspect of running shoe designs is the ability to cushion and absorb the impact generated with each step.

Supportive footwear excels in this regard by significantly reducing the impact on your joints, serving as a safeguard against overuse injuries.

Conversely, flip-flops exhibit minimal impact absorption capabilities. As a result, your body bears the brunt of the impact during activities such as walking, running, and even standing.

This heightened burden on the muscles, joints, and ligaments can increase the risk of injury, particularly in the short term. That said, if you wear flip flops at the same time as wearing other shoes and introduce them slowly, any risk of injury will be largely mitigated.

A person wearing flip flops.

#2: Excessive Pronation

A distinctive characteristic of flip-flops lies in their propensity to encourage pronation.

Pronation entails a weight distribution pattern where the majority of the body’s weight rests on the inner edges of the feet.

This stands in stark contrast to the natural foot posture, or the foot posture that we assume when we wear “regular” cushioned shoes, where the arch of the foot assumes the role of shock absorber, effectively staving off discomfort in the feet and ankles.

Excessive wearing of flip-flops could lead to a multitude of complications, including conditions like bunions, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, Achilles tendon pain, and even foot arthritis over an extended duration.

So, are flip flops bad for your feet?

When compared to supportive shoes, flip-flops have the potential to significantly alter your gait.

Typically, individuals sporting flip-flops do not raise their toes to the same extent when the leg advances, fail to lift their feet in a manner consistent with the natural stride, and exhibit shorter strides.

The collective result is a heightened susceptibility to overuse injuries for those who opt for flip-flops as their primary choice of footwear, as opposed to individuals equipped with supportive shoes.

A person with flip flops in the sand.

Advantages and disadvantages of flip flops

Flip flops have their pros, but they also come with significant drawbacks.

Here are several pros and cons:

Pros of Flip Flops

#1: Convenience

Flip flops are renowned for their convenience. They are the go-to footwear for slipping on quickly, whether you’re heading to the beach, running errands, or just lounging at home.

#2: Breathability

The open design of flip flops allows your feet to breathe, reducing the risk of sweaty feet or unpleasant odors.

#3: Comfort

Many people find flip flops comfortable due to their loose fit and lack of restrictive elements. They are perfect for giving your feet a break from closed-toe shoes.

People sitting in the grass wearing flip flops.

Cons of Flip Flops

#1: Lack of Support

One of the most significant drawbacks of flip flops is their lack of arch support, cushioning, and shock absorption. They provide minimal protection against the hard impact of walking or standing.

#2: Toe Strain

The Y-shaped strap that fits between the toes can lead to discomfort and even injury for some people. Prolonged use of flip flops may cause blisters, calluses, or strain on the toes.

#3: Risk of Tripping

Due to their minimalist design and the fact that they are not securely strapped to the foot, flip flops can lead to an increased risk of tripping or stumbling. This can be especially hazardous when walking on uneven terrain and particularly when running!

#4: Gait Alteration

Overpronation is often linked with knee pain, and as such, the gait alteration frequently experienced in flip flops can potentially cause knee, hip, and lower back pain.

This is primarily because they require more effort to keep them on your feet, leading to an altered stride and gait.

#5: Inadequate Protection

Flip flops leave your feet vulnerable to various hazards, such as stubbed toes and sharp objects. They offer little protection in comparison to enclosed shoes.

A person wearing flip flops.

Can You Run In Flip Flops?

You can essentially run in everything, even high heels. So, the question should be focused on if you should run in flip flops.

The concept of running in flip flops may generally be quite counterintuitive due to their Y-shaped minimalist design, which typically lacks the running-specific detail, support, and cushioning associated with running shoes.

Traditional running shoes are engineered to enhance stability and control through features like arch support, cushioning, and structured midsoles, whereas flip flops provide limited stability and control, increasing the likelihood of altered gait and reduced running efficiency.

The inherent flexibility of flip flops can compromise lateral stability, potentially affecting the runner’s ability to maintain balance and control during each stride. Most notably, the flexibility of the front of flip flops catching on something as you run is a real concern.

But are flip flops not the same as minimalist footwear?

In the last decade, minimalist shoes have rocketed in popularity.

A person in flip flops.

Minimalist shoes offer a wealth of benefits to some people. I myself have run in ‘zero drop’ shoes for the last 12 years. However, transitioning to minimalist shoes requires planning and isn’t for everyone.

Minimalist footwear can potentially promote foot strengthening by encouraging natural movement and the engagement of foot muscles.

Minimalist footwear also usually allows for a heightened sense of proprioception, which is the body’s awareness of its position and movement in space.

With less cushioning comes an increase in proprioceptive feedback, potentially leading to improved balance and body awareness, which can be beneficial for some runners.

Although minimalist running shoes share a couple of similarities to flip flops, they are very different.

Minimalist shoes typically have a lower arch drop, ranging from 4 to 8 millimeters, and some even offer “zero drop” designs, reducing padding at the heels and forefoot. But they are expertly designed for running and come with a lot of other features that flip flops do not.

If you are determined to run in flip flops then make sure you know this.

A pair of flip flops in the grass.

Running generates substantial impact forces with each step, and the absence of adequate cushioning in flip flops may expose the runner to a heightened risk of stress-related injuries, particularly when transitioning to this footwear for running.

Therefore, there are some important points that you need to bear in mind:

Give It Time:

When transitioning to running in flip flops, especially if you’ve been accustomed to traditional running shoes, it’s vital to start slowly. Begin with short runs, like a 10-minute light jog, two or three times a week.

Gradually extend your running time by adding 5 minutes at a time. Pay close attention to the feedback from your feet, legs, and overall body to gauge your comfort and adaptability.

Biomechanical Changes:

The shift to a barefoot running style brings about significant changes in your biomechanics, impacting the muscle groups engaged during your runs. This transition encourages a midfoot-to-toe strike pattern, which strengthens your calf and foot muscles.

Be prepared for some muscle soreness as your body adapts to the new running form. Avoid overexertion and consider consulting a healthcare professional if needed.

A person on the beach in flip flops.

Gentle Landings:

With flip flops offering less cushioning and protection than conventional running shoes, it’s crucial to refine your landing technique.

Prioritize gentle landings with each stride to avoid harsh impacts on the ball of your foot. Focus on moving your legs quickly and initiating the push-off with the next foot as soon as you land on the first one.

This faster cadence reduces the weight that lands on a single foot and minimizes the risk of injury. You can also try reducing your stride length and increasing your cadence. Start with small, quick steps and gradually extend both your running distance and speed.

Are flip flops bad for your feet?

Flip flops are not inherently bad for your feet. Don’t overthink it too much unless you’re planning on wearing them full-time.

If you wear them to the beach every now and then, you will be fine. The body has an incredible capacity to adapt to different gait styles. However, if you are experiencing negative effects when wearing them, stop.

I generally wouldn’t recommend going for a run in them. However, if you do, careful consideration, gradual transitions, and individualized assessments are imperative when contemplating running in flip flops

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Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

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