The choice of shoes for sport and fitness is completely overwhelming. A trip to a sportswear shop will mean that you are confronted with a bewildering display of shoes. They are on floor-to-ceiling shelves on the wall, stacked in boxes on display units and range in price from ‘not-very-much’ to ‘HOW much?’ How is anyone to make the right choice among all this hype?
The science and pseudo-science of exercise footwear has become very complex in the last few years of the fitness boom. As a result the price of some walking and running shoes has now become very high, not helped by the status of running shoes as a fashion item. Unfortunately price is no indicator of quality, so those who are intending to exercise in their shoes rather than just be seen in them have to do some homework.
The first thing to consider is the exercise that you are planning to do.
Runners need to be concerned about impact protection and encouraging a correct gait.
Hikers will want grip, water resistance and support on uneven terrain.
Dancers need to be able to turn and spin without unexpectedly ‘sticking’ to the surface.
Team sport players need impact cushioning, grip and support. Obviously some shoes will do for more than one purpose, depending on the sport.
Running shoes need to be tailored to your gait for best performance. Before going shopping, stand with wet feet on a suitable floor or a piece of paper, and examine the footprint. If you see a total foot shape, you have flat feet with a negligible arch. This indicates that you may ‘over-pronate’ – i.e. roll your foot inwards too much as you walk or run. Shoes for ‘over-pronaters’ need to have firm inner soles and solid support to prevent this rolling motion.
Those with normal or high-arched feet will see much less of their foot shape in the ‘wet foot’ test. This indicates either a normal gait or the opposite problem of under-pronation, where the foot does not roll inwards at all and thus is not good at shock absorption. Shoes for under-pronaters need to be more flexible to encourage movement and have more cushioning to help absorb shock.
Hiking shoes present different problems, and definitely need to be tested on slopes and steps. Shoes that allow your foot to slip when going downhill will cause bruised toes and possible ankle injuries. Try the shoe on, lace it tightly but comfortably and walk around the shop for a few minutes before going on to their test slope – most outdoor retailers have one of these.
No shoe should hurt when you first put it on. Regular walkers will be able to tell quickly if a shoe is right for them – remember to wear the socks that you normally use for your walking. A shoe that digs in to your foot or heel in the shop is not going to be more comfortable with wear.
Grip is also very important for walkers – most modern soles cope well with mud, but smooth rock is always a challenge for anything except specialist climbing shoes.
There is a healthy market in special shoes for ladies, but it is questionable whether the female foot is generically different. Women with small feet will certainly need the ladies footwear, but those who are UK sizes 8-10 should also look at the men’s shoes. In many cases they will fit better on bigger feet, cost less and last longer.
Dance shoes are a very specialised area. Activities such as salsa and jive need leather-soled shoes for spins, usually with a small heel. Ballet shoes should definitely be discussed with a dance teacher – these flimsy-looking objects need to be properly tied and fitted and do not last very long for regular dancers. It is also worth noting that fashion ‘ballet flats’ should not be worn regularly – they provide no support and no protection and are very bad for feet.
There are some schools of thought that shoes are not needed at all, as we have evolved to walk and run barefoot. To capitalise on this, there are also ‘barefoot running shoes’ which may sound like a contradiction in terms, but are designed to minimise interference with natural movements. Barefoot running is very controversial – read more in our article here.
Finally, remember that even the best or most expensive shoes won’t last forever. Most of us are guilty of continuing to wear a much-loved pair of shoes long after they should be consigned to the bin. This is often because they have become very soft and are moulded to the shape of the foot, so they are very comfortable. Unfortunately worn-out running shoes do not provide any support and can cause or worsen injuries. Most running shoes have a life of about 400 miles. For two running days a week, that is new shoes once a year.
For all shoes, there is a time when they have served you well and are due for retirement. Look out for signs of wear such as the sole showing the inner structure, holes appearing in the uppers or linings or if the shoe is becoming floppy. When these problems appear, it is time to go shopping again.
Don’t throw away the old pair just yet. Like the rest of us, tired shoes can find a new lease of life in the garden!
by Jessica Ward
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