Working in a shoe store, I every so often hear someone remark that they’ve never been one to wear “bad shoes.” 10 times out of 10, I glance down and they are wearing something I would consider less than ideal. It’s not that they are lying, it’s just that our society does not do a very good job of teaching us what is actually healthy for our feet. We rely on podiatrists who are trained to treat symptoms over root causes, brands that put style and profits ahead of research, and common myths that have been passed down from parents, shoe salespeople, and other persons we trust.
Now, as I have already stated, I am one of those said shoe salespeople. I also have a certification in something health related. And I most certainly have opinions on shoes and foot health that I will gladly share with any of my customers looking for guidance. So why should you trust my opinion over that of another specialist? Well… you shouldn’t.
It’s up to you to evaluate whether the information presented makes sense to you. When I started learning about Restorative Exercise, I was drawn to it because, not only did I trust the person sharing the information, but it also just made sense to me. Tissues are adaptable, shoes are not shaped like feet, feet will adapt to the shape of the shoe, our foot structure is designed to work a certain way and changing the structure interferes with that function… yeah, that all makes sense.
So. If the following suggestions make sense to you, I highly suggest that you try implementing them.
Here are the factors I typically recommend when looking for a “healthier” shoe: flat, wide, flexible, with a well attached upper and minimal toe spring. It can be a long discussion to get into the details of all of these, so I’m just going to touch on a couple points around wide and flat at the moment. These are areas where most everyone can start to make changes without too much difficulty transitioning.
Foot Shaped Shoes
Often, when people start wearing shoes with wider, more foot-shaped toeboxes for the first time, they say it looks weird. But, when you think about it, isn’t it more weird that most of our shoes are not shaped like our feet?? The purpose of shoes is to house and protect our feet. If you bought a bread box, you would expect to be able to fit your whole loaf of bread in there without squishing one end to get it in, right? If you had to deform your loaf, you would send it back and get a different one. And you’re not even expecting that loaf of bread to carry your entire body weight in dynamic ways all day long! Somehow, we expect our feet to function perfectly, no matter what conditions we put them in. Heard of the practice of foot binding in China? I think we can all agree that it sounds pretty horrible. But tucking your toes into that size 8 flat because you’ve always been an 8 and the size 9 makes your feet look like boats – that’s totally normal, right?
I’m not trying to shame anyone for choosing the shoes they choose. And I’m not saying I’m perfect in this area, either! I’m just trying to point out how our thought process around shoes is filtered through our culture and we often don’t stop to question those thoughts very deeply.
So, how wide should your shoe be?
Now, when I talk about width, I’m mainly referring to the area around your toes. Most shoes taper in toward the end, squeezing our pinky and big toe in toward the midline of our foot. Even shoes that come in “wide” sizes are usually just wider at the ball of the foot and still taper at the toe. When you put on a pair of shoes, you should have at least half an inch of space between your longest toes and the end of the shoe (about a finger’s width, or a thumb’s width for athletic or hiking shoes). You should also have enough room to spread and wiggle your toes.
The insole test:
If you have a pair of shoes with a removable insole, go ahead and pull it out and place it on the floor. Now stand on top of the insole (barefoot if you have socks that pull your toes together) and see if your toes spill over the edge of the insole. This gives you and idea of how much your foot is having to deform to fit into that shoe.
Are you secretly wearing heels?
If you aren’t wearing a pair of pumps right now, don’t assume you can skip this section. Chances are, even if you’re not wearing “high heels” you are still wearing heels of a certain degree. Even most tennis shoes these days have a rise built into the heel. I often see women in sneakers or hiking shoes claiming they “never wear heels.” Well, I hate to break it to you, but you are wearing heels right now! Those hiking boots are subtly pitching your body forward, placing more weight on the delicate bones at the front of your foot (which are already squished from your tapered toebox), requiring your upper body to shift out of it’s vertical alignment to balance itself, shortening your calf muscles, and possibly contributing to loss of bone density in the hips, knee and back pain, and pelvic floor dysfunction. It’s sort of like you’re walking slightly downhill all day long. Of course there’s nothing wrong with walking downhill, it’s the frequency with which you do it that really makes the difference. Not to mention, you’re probably not doing an equal amount of walking uphill to balance it out.
So, what should I wear instead?
To start lengthening the muscles in the back of the leg and shifting your weight back to a more vertically aligned posture, keep your eyes peeled for shoes that don’t have any rise in the heel. Sometimes, it’s obvious just by looking, sometimes you’ll have to ask the shoe store or contact the brand to find out. The term “zero-drop” is becoming more widely used and refers to amount of drop (or height difference) between the ball of the foot and the heel. Most running shoes will list the drop height in their technical details. A 5mm drop means there’s a 5mm rise in the heel. In zero-drop shoes, the amount of arch support between the ball and heel can still vary, but there won’t be any rise in the heel.
If you have been wearing high heels for a long time (say, it’s your primary work shoe) I recommend transitioning slowly. Calf muscles in women who wear high heels can shorten by up to 13% over time, so don’t ask too much of those muscles right out of the gate. Start by wearing a lower heel for awhile and add some calf stretching exercises into your day to allow your muscles to adjust gradually to being in a longer position before jumping into flat shoes all day.
Taking the first step…
These are just some basic guidelines for how to start choosing shoes that will better serve your feet. Those feet are carrying precious cargo, so take care of them!
If you’re interested in learning more about how to restore strength and mobility to your feet, as well as more details on how to choose better footwear, check out my online course Healthy Happy Feet!
Note: As I was writing this, a woman came into the shoe store where I work and told us how years of not knowing how to choose good shoes that fit well have left her with foot issues that she’s now working to fix. When she was younger, she just bought whatever was stylish and cheap. She’s investing in healthier options now and is determined that her daughter will grow up having the knowledge that she lacked. Her daughter might still choose fashion over function, but at least she’ll be able to make an informed choice. Let’s work together to spread the knowledge and help create a future free of foot pain for ourselves and for generations to come!