5 shoe-buying guidelines to avoid foot pain

My feet in my favorite Mary Janes (Jambu brand)

With all the brands and style options for shoes on the market, it can be a bewildering and frustrating task to find comfortable, attractive shoes that support that natural movement of your feet.

Your feet are designed to bend and flex as you walk, but many shoes have stiff or immobile soles, and subsequently cause stiffness and tension in the feet, ankles, hamstrings, knees, and even all the way up to the hips and low back. When you take a step, the heel is supposed to touch the ground first, then the mid-foot, and then the toes. Many styles of shoes prevent this; (think of a high heel that suspends and arches the mid-foot, while placing greater pressure on the toes, especially the big toe) to the detriment of the feet, as well as the rest of the body. The toe-spring, or lifted toe-box of the shoe, maintains an extended position of the toes while you walk, thus placing undue stress on the balls of the feet. This is also where most shoes are overly narrow, which adds compression to an area that is receiving excess weight-bearing. It’s the perfect recipe for foot pain, deformation of toes and joints, and chronic foot problems.

Let’s take a look at five simple guidelines to remember while looking for that perfect pair (and some may surprise you):

1. Make sure the shoes stay on your feet. Seems simple enough, but this means opting out of backless shoes and flip-flops, which force your toes to grip the front of the shoe in order for it to stay on.

2. Ditch the heels. This not only means high heels, wedge sandals, and many styles of boot, but any shoe that has more than a half-inch heel will not support the natural movement of the feet, even something like a sneaker/trainer/athletic shoe has a somewhat elevated heel and a higher toe-spring.

3. The flex test. Take the shoes you are considering to purchase and try to bend the sole with moderate pressure. If it doesn’t, your foot will be held stiffly throughout your gait, creating stiff, locked joints, and chronically tight muscles.

4. A wide toe-box. Your toes help you balance and are important in the third stage of walking – toeing off before your foot lifts off the ground. Many shoes that taper even somewhat towards the toes are cramping your style more than you think. Your foot is naturally widest at the balls of your feet (the “foot-knuckle joints”).

5. Keep toes close to the ground. Your toes should be able to flex and extend in shoes as they do when you are barefoot, so as not to create foot tension or pain down the road.

There are many brands that I typically recommend, however there are many more out there that you may find comfortable and attractive, but I have found these to be a good starting point when shopping for shoes: Keen, Born, Taos, and Tevas. For more of a “barefoot” feel try Lems, Atra, Feelmax, Luna sandals, Soft Star Shoes, Tread Light Gear, and Xero Shoes. Even companies like Merril are starting to make a “barefoot shoe.”

Shoes that are a better fit for the way your feet naturally move are similarly priced as regular “comfort” shoe brands, and have the added benefit of not causing the kinds of discomfort and pain that many people experience with conventional brands.

Happy Shoe Shopping! Remember to walk barefoot as often as possible to stretch out and strengthen your feet. If you are new to walking barefoot, I suggest you read Barefoot Walking by Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee.