The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

What Are Split Toe Shoes? Examining the Tabi Toe Trend

Posted by on Monday, October 9th, 2017

Abasi Rosborough recently released the Arc Tabi boot, a bizarre split toe basketball shoe that’s been catching on in NYC fashion circles. Over the past four years, designers Abdul Abasi and Greg Rosborough have developed a reputation for avant-garde, form-fitting, functional, and (often) socially aware clothing. What stands out most about these new shoes is the “tabi toe”—a Japanese design aesthetic first introduced in the late 80’s to “promote natural movement.” But what are split toe shoes? Can you really play basketball or run in them? And will this trend catch on in a big way? NYC podiatrists offer their two cents.

Split toe shoes
Could split toe shoes hurt our feet? Or are they, in fact, better for us? Image Source: Flickr user Arata Takami.

Why Tabi Toe Shoes?

Only in New York City would you ever see the marriage of a Japanese karate shoe, Air Jordans, and Chelsea boots. “Our foot is this thing that doesn’t really require shoes, besides protection,” Rosborough told GQ Magazine. 

“Stiff soles and the toe cap has atrophied all the muscles in our foot, which was the thinking behind the five-fingered shoes from a few years ago. We were thinking, the Japanese tabi was designed for a reason way back when. Let’s take the idea, which was about more natural foot movement, mix in some elements that’re culturally relevant, and put something new out there.”

Abasi adds that Japanese construction workers wear tabi toe boots to navigate scaffolding. He liked the idea of allowing greater mobility but wanted to add the ankle support and isolation of a basketball sneaker, with the aesthetic of a military boot. The shoes are made of sturdy fabric and natural rubber.

The Case For Split Toe Shoes

There are several possible advantages to choosing a split toe shoe:

  • Balance: Your big toe is crucial for balance and agility. The ability to move the big toe more independently will likely give you a better handle on the terrain you’re navigating.
  • Strength: Being able to move your big toe more freely will strengthen those muscles and tendons over time. Training barefoot or in a split toe shoe changes the way you move, thus strengthening different muscle sets.
  • Agility: Much like the minimalist Vibram FiveFingers running shoes, tabi toe shoes will probably be a design you either love or hate to wear. Proponents say they feel they’re moving in a more “natural” manner—lighter, faster, more nimble.
  • Proprioception: With a split toe shoe, you’re going to have greater proprioception—that is, a better ability to sense the surface of the ground. Whether or not that’s a good thing has yet to be determined by research.
  • Competitiveness: The design has actually been around far longer than imagined, as Shigeki Tanaka won the 1951 Boston Marathon wearing a pair of tabi-inspired sneakers made by Onitsuka. Perhaps there is some competitive advantage to mastering the split toe run.

The Case Against Split Toe Shoes

Possible downsides of tabi toe running shoes and athletic shoes include:

  • One style doesn’t fit all. Echoing the sentiment of Dr. James Christina, a fellow podiatrist with the American Podiatric Medical Association, we agree that tabi toe shoes are not good for everybody. Some people will do very well in a minimalist shoe, but “there are other people, depending on their foot type and the mechanics of their foot, how their foot operates when they run or walk, they really need either the support of the shoe, and then in some cases, they actually need extra support such as an insole or a custom-type orthotic device,” Dr. Christina explains.
  • You may end up with a change in gait that doesn’t suit you. The inability to heel strike and roll normally in a split toe or minimalist shoe forces runners into a mid-foot or forefoot style run. Your stride shortens and the mechanics of how you move changes. For some people, the change could be beneficial, but for others, it may be detrimental. As we see in our computerized Gait Analysis Center, even small changes in gait have a tendency to move up the kinetic chain, causing pain in the knees, hips, back, neck, and shoulders.
  • Certain injuries may be more likely. Neuromas—a thickening of nerves in the forefoot—are one of the first conditions that come to mind when we think of a heavy forefoot strike. Individuals with flat feet could end up straining their arches further, causing pain along the bottoms of the feet. Forefoot strikers may be less prone to knee pain, but they are more likely to suffer Achilles injuries and compartment syndromes caused by overexerting a new group of muscles. Less formal “research” turns up increased instances of metatarsal stress fractures, posterior tibial tendonitis, and calf strains among minimalist shoe wearers.

For now, there are compelling arguments both for and against split toe shoes. Either way, it’s certainly a fascinating trend to keep your eye on! If you have any questions about the best type of shoe for your particular feet, contact NYC podiatrists at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine.

If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.