Shoes are a pivotal part of our world and can have a big influence on how comfortable we are and how well we walk and balance. There are a few important features to look for when choosing your next pair of shoes, whether they be for exercise or casual day to day wear.
Before we look at shoes, it is important to briefly review what our feet need to be able to do to keep us balanced and also efficient with walking. Firstly, our feet have a large number of bones and joints which are designed to allow for movement. This movement helps to adapt the foot to the ground, especially where it isn’t flat. The movement of the bones is also the main way that we disperse the impact forces that are created with each step.
When we take a step, our heel hits the ground and our bones spread to lower our arch and allow the force to be shared rather than concentrated, which reduces the stress on the soft tissues in the foot. After doing this, the foot bones then move together again to create a rigid lever for us to push off with. This allows us to be efficient when we walk and again makes sure that the soft tissues don’t receive too much stress.
Our feet are very rich in sensory nerves which help the muscles to react to changes in position quickly so that we can maintain our balance. Each step that we take creates a small amount of vibration that our nerves detect and use to determine how strongly the surrounding muscles need to contract to dampen this vibration. Hence it is important for the sensory nerves to be alert and reactive so that the muscles can provide the appropriate support to the foot as we walk.
Now onto shoes. First and foremost, when you are looking to buy a new pair of shoes it is a good idea to wait until the afternoon to go shopping as our feet typically increase in volume throughout the day. Many people have a slight difference in the size of their feet. Always buy for the larger foot as it is much healthier to put in additional supports for the smaller foot, than it is to cramp the larger foot.
Place the sole of the new shoe against your foot and ensure that the toe box is wide enough to accomodate the width of your toes, otherwise your foot will be cramped and your big toes can be pushed into an unfavourable position. The shoe should also be around 1cm longer than your longest toe (which is not always your big toe!).
The heel of the shoe should be fairly snug but still allow for the heel bone to move naturally. Pay attention to the height of the heel counter as well to ensure it doesn’t rub on the soft tissues as you walk as this is a recipe for blisters. The middle of the foot should bend exactly where the ball of your foot is. If this area is too stiff and not flexible enough to bend when you push the heel and toe of the shoe together, it can make it more difficult to walk. A very thick and stiff sole can also reduce the sensitivity in your foot, in the same way that wearing a pair of gloves dampens sensations in the hands.
It is very important to try and find out about the shoe “pitch”. The pitch of the shoe refers to the difference between the heel height and the height at the ball of the shoe. Ideally these areas should not be vastly different in height, with the heel of many modern shoes often being higher. Try to keep the pitch no more than 2-4mm higher or lower than the shoes that you are currently wearing, otherwise you can place vastly different stresses on the feet as you are walking. Having a higher pitch places more stress on the area at the base of the toes and changes the natural mechanics of the foot.
Draw a straight line from the heel down the sole of the shoe. Compare the distance on either side of the line in the toe box area. A neutral shoe will have an equal distance between the middle and outer portions on either side of the line. If there is more of the shoe on the middle portion of the line, this is better suited to a stiffer and higher arched foot type, where as the opposite (more of the shoe on the outer portion of the shoe) is better suited to a “pronated” foot type.
Last but not least, if you are currently using orthotics, it is best to take your orthotic with you to make sure the shoes are large enough to accomodate the orthotic and also that they feel comfortable with the orthotic inside.