Everything Shoes! A Guide to How Your Footwear Impacts Your Physical Health

Everyone has an opinion about shoes these days. “Wear orthotics!” “Get minimalist shoes!” “Just buy what’s cute!” How do you determine what to buy? What’s really relevant to the conversation? I am not an expert in shoes or orthotics, but this is my opinion based on my history of treating a variety of foot issues and my current understanding of the research.

Don’t get too hung up on your foot type

For much of the last 20 years, the general thinking has been that certain foot types belong in a specific type of shoe. Overpronators are often told they need a stiff, supportive shoe. Those with high arches are told to buy a neutral or cushioned shoe. Those with low arches are told to get a stability shoe. Yet, most research shows that customizing shoes to your feet has little benefit.

In fact, the military did the largest study ever to determine if customizing shoes to feet impacts injury rates. What they found was that custom shoes are not superior in injury mitigation, and further, the shoes with the best outcomes were the shoes that the soldier found the most comfortable. So, in the end, the best shoe is the one that your particular feet are most comfortable in.

Injury history does matter

While knowing your foot type may not be the most important component to selecting a shoe, past injury history or complaints can matter. Some believe that more minimalist footwear decreases the forces on the knee with running. It’s typically less cushioned, allows for greater flexibility of the foot, and sits lower to the ground than traditional footwear. However, if you have had or are currently having issues with areas of the ankle, such as the Achilles, a more cushioned, less minimal shoe may be ideal. So, make sure you consider any past injuries you have had. Get recommendations from your podiatrist or physical therapist for what shoes would be best for you.

Don’t obsess over brand

Even if you have had success with a particular brand in the past, shoes can change drastically from year to year. Different models of shoes within the same brand can vary significantly. When looking for a new shoe, try on at least three different pairs. Really examine how it feels for your feet.

A word about orthotics

Orthotics are a hot topic these days. They do have a purpose, especially in cases involving diagnoses like foot instability, Morton’s neuromas, and bunions. But sometimes clinicians jump to orthotics without appreciating the functional capacity of the foot to begin with. Additionally, custom orthotics versus over-the-counter brands like Dr. Scholl’s have similar outcomes in terms of decreasing pain. However, the use of orthotics, while potentially having short-term benefits, can contribute to the chronic dysfunction of your feet over the years by compensating for a lack of intrinsic foot strength and mobility. It’s best to use orthotics on a short-term basis while continuing to build strength in your feet and ankles.

Consider different factors for different shoes

  • Athletic shoes: There are four types of running shoes: stability, motion control, neutral/cushioning, and minimalist. One way to test the shoe is to walk and jog in it. You can also balance on one leg and do a one-legged squat. The shoe should feel comfortable right away and these tests should feel easier in the right shoe. For more serious runners, there are injury-mitigating benefits to switching between two different pairs of running shoes at a time and replacing them every 300-500 miles. Whichever pair you choose must fit properly from heel to toe and feel comfortable with your regular running stride.
  • For court sports, a sport-specific shoe is better than a running shoe because it will provide more side-to-side support. 
  • Minimalist shoes: Those who like minimalist shoes say that our feet are supposed to spread, move around, and accommodate different surfaces. This is true to a point, but our ancestors didn’t walk on hard pavement and they spent their lifetime building the integrity of their feet by walking on a variety of different surfaces. Minimalist shoes are generally best for trail running on soil, near a beach, or at a park. When it comes to transitioning to minimalist shoes, it’s wise to expose yourself gradually and allow your feet time to adapt to them.
  • Sandals: Flip flops are good for short-distance walking only. Choose sandals with straps that cover more of the foot and/or wrap around the ankle. 
  • Boots may fit loosely and not provide adequate foot support. Adding arch support can improve comfort.
  • Heels are often detrimental to feet, knees, and spine. Heels alter whole-body posture and can cause pain. If you wear heels, pick a lower-heeled shoe, a wider heel or wedge, and a heel that does not curve in. Wear higher heels when you have to, then switch to a lower heel if you have to walk any distance. After a long day of walking in them, spend some time rolling your foot out, doing some toe yoga, and working on some toe flexor strength.
  • House shoes: If you live in a space with hardwood floors, consider wearing house shoes. Standing on tile or wood for two hours barefoot, as you might in the kitchen, can cause a lot of soreness. Find something with enough cushioning to be comfortable.

10 Tips for Shoe Shopping:

  1. Always shop for shoes during the afternoon or evening—your foot naturally expands with use during the day.
  2. Wear the same type of socks to the store that you intend to wear with the shoes.
  3. Go to a store where a salesperson can measure both of your feet. Be sure to get measured every time you buy new shoes. Unfortunately, our feet often grow larger and wider with age. If one foot is larger than the other, be sure to buy a size that fits the larger foot.
  4. Examine the stability of the shoe. It should have a stiff back. Grasp the heel in one hand and the shoe above the heel in the other hand. You should not be able to move the shoe side-to-side around the heel. It should also have a small amount of torque. Hold the shoe at both ends. You should be able to twist it slightly. The toes of the shoe should bend where your toes bend.
  5. Make sure the shoe provides proper arch support. Don’t know what kind of arch you need? At home, dip the bottom of your foot into a shallow pool of water and step onto a piece of paper. If you can see most of your footprint, you have low arches or flat feet. If you see just one edge of your foot, you likely have high arches and will need more support. If the shoe does not have an arch support, add one. Make sure it will fit in the shoe without squeezing the toes or causing the shoes to slip off the heel. Companies like Spenco, Powerstep, and Superfeet all provide arch support.
  6. When standing in both shoes, press gently on the top of the shoe to ensure you have about a half-inch of space between your longest toe and the end of the shoe. This provides enough room for your foot to press forward as you walk. Make sure you can wiggle your toes.
  7. Walk around in the shoes. Are they comfortable? Do the balls of your feet have enough room? The heels should fit snugly but not pinch or slip off. Shoes don’t need to be “broken in.” Find shoes that fit from the start.
  8. Pay attention to width as well as length. If the ball of your foot feels compressed in a particular shoe, ask if it comes in a wider size. Buying shoes that are a half-size bigger—but not any wider—won’t necessarily solve the problem.
  9. Remember that sizes vary between manufacturers. Trust how you feel in the shoes rather than a shoe’s size or description. 
  10. If there is anything irritating your foot inside the shoe, like a seam or bunched-up material, don’t buy it. If it irritates you now, it will irritate you more later!

In conclusion, wearing a variety of shoes is your best approach. The type of shoe you wear is not a substitute for spending time barefoot, strengthening your feet, and working on mobility. This is the best course of action if you are dealing with pain because there is no silver bullet in footwear to completely solve your foot pain. In most cases, the best bet is to go with what feels the most comfortable.

Happy shoe shopping!

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