Many start the New Year with bold resolutions, but for any fitness resolution to succeed it starts with the feet. We defy old-school thinking of narrow-shaped, ill-fitting conventional shoes. Improper shoe sizing and shape are the primary cause of ingrown toenails, bunions, corns and hammer toes. Shoes that don't fit your feet correctly can also lead to muscular imbalances in the body, leading to foot, knee and hip injuries.
A proper fit accounts for the natural expansion of the foot upon ground contact. Excess waste is eliminated, along with everything that inhibits your foot's natural motion. So your foot is free to move and work the way nature intended it to; the way of its own barefoot motion. Toe wiggle freedom.
On sizing...most get it wrong.
First, abandon the notion that you have a shoe size. Instead you have a foot size. Shoes are made all over the world and apply different shapes and standards. If you measure your foot seated with a traditional measuring device like a Brannock Device and base your size on that you will likely be off by 1-2 sizes when applied to a running or hiking shoe. One shoe size is only 1/3 an inch.
Also critically important is that the Bannock device measures the widest part of the shoe at the ball. Infant feet and the feet of unshod societies are widest at the ends of the toes, not the ball of the foot. The natural alignment of the human foot is where the metatarsals directly align with phalanges (toes) and get wider than the ball of the foot.
When I look at what is an ideal shoe, I base it on what is ideal to complement natural foot function. Let's start with the hypothesis that the foot is designed to work on its own without the need of modern bracing, cushioning and motion control technology. One may deviate some from this to compensate for a specific structure or strength issue. The goal is progressive rehabilitation toward the ideal and getting the walker or runner in the least amount of shoe that is safe for them while they work on the functional corrections.
So what are the four simple features of an ideal shoe:
1. Level Heel to Toe (zero-drop) and close to the ground. Our arches are designed to be supported at the ends, and that means heel, ball and toes in level and balanced contact. This facilitates stability and balance in midstance. Level shoes also complement a proper posture.
2. Flexible Last. Your foot naturally bends in all directions as should your shoe. Most shoes are stiff in the middle and stiff where your toes bend at the ball of the foot.
3. Wide Toe Box. When the big toe is compressed to be out of alignment, the front end of the arch does not work. The big toe is not allowed to aid in balance, stability and propulsion.
4. Not too soft or too thick. The thinner and firmer the shoe the more ground feel (proprioception) you have. A firm message to the nervous system: our body does not know which muscles to use, how hard to turn them on and how long to keep them on for. To get a clear message in thick/soft shoes we are forced to strike the ground harder and drive the foot onto a firm surface to give us the feedback we require.
Now on to sizing and here is why most size too small:
When a load is applied to a foot the foot will spread in length by up to half an inch and splay 15% in width if allowed in the shoe.
You need at least an 1/8 inch or more space on heel and toe for any sock.
You want 1/3 to 1/2 an inch in front of your big toe to allow room for loading and splay.
Your foot is widest at the toes and unfortunately most shoes are not shaped this way.
Tips on sizing:
Do not assume you are the same size as a previous shoe.
Take your time and try several shoes on, preferably at the end of the day. Go run and walk in them. Do not try them on sitting.
Always try both shoes on. If feet are slightly different size, fit the larger foot.
Take the shoe removable insole out and see how your foot fits against the insole as a template. Is there room at the toes or does you foot spill over the insole? If no room to spare or if your foot spills over, this shoe will not fit comfortably.
Keep going a half size up until the shoes are obviously too big.
Try on with the type of sock you will wear for activity.
For women, you may fit better in a men's shoe for width at the forefoot.
Do not lace the shoes up tight. Allow spread in the midfoot and forefoot.
Consider not using the soft insole. This takes up space in the shoe and interferes with ground feel. Walk on a firm surface, not a carpeted one.
If you are a runner you MUST run in the shoe. What feels nice and soft when walking is the opposite of what you need when running, which is a more firm base to give the message up your kinetic chain to stabilize/balance.
When trying on shoes, wear the socks you would normally wear in them. Socks are not necessary but are mainly for added comfort, especially in avoiding blisters. Like shoes, socks can be too tight, contributing to foot irritation and restriction. For most situations, socks should be thin and not tight. Make sure your socks do not bunch. Thicker winter socks may require a half-size larger shoe.
Which style of socks you wear (low-cut or above the ankle) and what they're made of (natural fibers such as wool or cotton, or a blend of synthetics) is up to you. But like shoes, make sure they fit well; and be careful to avoid the sock interfering with shoe fit. My preference is merino wool or light synthetic blend.
You can find details on shoe properties in the Natural Running Center Shoe Review area (naturalrunningcenter.com) and at Two Rivers Treads in Shepherdstown.
Let your feet come out and splay!