As a former competitive skier, I can be picky about fitting my feet. Getting ski boots to fit just right is key. When it comes to running, finding the right pair of shoes can be equally as important. “Fit is the most crucial element of comfort,” says Cori Burns, Run Category Manager at Under Armour. “A sloppy fit can make your run feel harder, and a shoe that’s too narrow can prevent your body’s natural shock absorption system from working like it should. The perfect fit lets you run without distractions.”
Properly fitting shoes can also help prevent injuries, but here’s the thing: Getting it right can be tricky — as I recently learned.
Here are six things you may not know about shoe shopping which just might boost your stride:
1. GOING INTO A STORE COULD SAVE YOUR FEET
I’d been running in the same brand and style of shoes since high school, and I’d usually try to find them on sale online. As a fitness editor and writer, I have been fortunate to try different running shoes, so I could know which might feel too wide, for example. And I’d always go back to my old standbys.
But when you go into an actual store, you can have your feet (and even your gait and the way you pick up your foot) analyzed — in detail. Then you can find a shoe style that can account for your instep, forefoot width, flexibility, the size of your heels and more.
I went into Fleet Feet Sports for a Fit ID 3D foot scan. The process was quick and easy: I simply stood on the machine’s platform and in less than five seconds had an image and comprehensive measurement of my feet. The results were surprising and clear to see. For example, my left foot is flat while my right foot has a normal arch. I tore major ligaments and tendons in my ankle years ago, which caused my arch to collapse. And there it was, in 3D.
But that wasn’t the biggest surprise …
2. YOU MAY NEED A DIFFERENT SHOE SIZE
My feet are smaller than I thought. They are two different sizes, which I’d known, but each a half size smaller than I’d believed them to be. And even so, I’d been running in too-small shoes since high school! That was a surprise.
Nashville-based Fleet Feet fit specialist (and marathoner) Hunter Hall advises going up a full size from your measured length, which typically creates about a half inch of space in front of your big toe and can help improve your form. “You want them to feel snug from the mid-foot all the way back through the heels, but then be nice and roomy up front,” he says. “When your forefoot and toes can spread out, it helps create stability and improves your push-off through the end of the gait.”
If your shoes are too tight, your movement will be restricted, which can affect not just your stride, but also the health of your knees and hips. “Your feet also tend to swell the longer you run, so by giving your toes extra length you ensure that your toes won’t be rubbing against the front of the shoes, giving you blisters,” Hall says.
3. YOUR FEET CAN CHANGE WITH TIME
You may have heard that your feet can change, but there’s more that can alter them than simply well-known issues like bunions caused from improperly fitting footwear. Perhaps you had an injury like mine, which could damage your foot shape and function. “Your foot can also change with weight gain or loss or pregnancy,” says Dr. Marybeth Crane, a runner and sports podiatrist in Dallas, Texas. “And we get less elastic as we age, so our foot often becomes longer and wider. Certain neurological problems like neuropathy can cause our foot to atrophy and actually get higher arched and thinner,” she adds.
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4. CUSTOMIZATION CAN BE EASY
Footbeds aren’t a way for the store to earn more of your money — they can actually help support your foot and align your joints. “Running shoes, contrary to popular opinion, don’t have arch support in them,” Hall says. “Inserts provide that last bit of customization under the foot.”
You can get customized orthotics from a pedorthist or buy pre-made versions in a store. Some are more flexible than others, too, and they now come in several shapes, widths and thicknesses, contrary to the stiff, plastic footbeds of yore. A fit specialist can help determine if you’re a candidate for inserts and help select the proper type.
Hall chose a thin set for me to support my feet while allowing for flexibility. (Too much stiffness ironically ends up causing me pain.) I ended up not buying them. “When I fit someone, I have them try on a few pairs of inserts that I think fit their foot shape side by side with the regular sock liner that the shoe comes with,” Hall says. “I always encourage people to go with the option that feels most comfortable.”
In my case, the cushy new liners felt more comfortable, but after a test spin in my new shoes, I’m sure I’ll go back for the inserts.
5. THE SIX-MONTH REPLACEMENT RULE STILL HOLDS TRUE
When I stepped into the store, Hall correctly dated my running shoes just by glancing at them. I was impressed — and overdue for a new pair. Running shoes aren’t necessarily made to last, and that’s so you can stay comfortable. “The midsole foam-platforms are made with either injected or compressed air, in order to make the shoes feel light and comfortable,” Burns explains. “But the impact of running or walking will compress that foam over time, making it feel harder under foot.”
Crane advises that you “get a new pair every 400–500 miles or after six months of daily use.”
6. YOU’LL LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR BODY
Most running specialty stores will have someone watch you run and walk, to help determine if you pronate or supinate, for example, or if you’re a heel striker. Knowing this info can not only inform your shoe-buying decisions, but can also help prevent injuries down the road. But you’ll learn more than that, too.
In my case, Hall noticed I pick my right heel up faster. (It’s the non-torn-up side, so it makes sense.) I’m not a highly competitive runner, so movement discrepancies aren’t a huge issue. But now I am aware of it, and if I do want to improve my running style, I have some training targets.