As a walker or runner, you don’t need much equipment—some moisture-wicking clothes, sunglasses for sunny days, maybe a water bottle that attaches to your waist. But there is one necessity to getting in your steps: good running and walking shoes.
The problem is, walkers and runners face a bewildering array of choices. You can find shoes with thin soles and extra thick soles, shoes with built-up heels and shoes that are entirely flat, shoes with bouncy midsoles and shoes with motion-control—you get the picture. All of these shoes claim to help you move better and easier, so how are you supposed to know which model will be easier on your joints and help prevent injury? Trust your gut. Canadian researchers found that when people choose shoes or insoles that feel most comfortable to them, they run more efficiently and suffer fewer injuries than they do in less comfortable shoes or in shoes selected to control their foot motion.
Why? Your body has a preferred movement path—the way it wants to move most efficiently and effectively, says study author Benno Nigg, DSc, professor emeritus of kinesiology at the University of Calgary. Your central nervous system finds and monitors this movement path and lets you know you’re in it by producing a feeling of comfort—a sweet spot where everything feels like it has fallen into place. “If you put people in a shoe, they have a preferred moving path—the path of least resistance—where energy demands are lowest,” says Nigg. If you have a shoe that doesn’t work for your stride, it throws you out of your preferred movement path. “Your muscles work against it, costing you more energy, which isn’t desirable,” he adds. “Ideally you have a situation where energy demand is minimal and comfort is highest.”
Note, however, that by “comfort,” Nigg doesn’t mean just the initial plush, luxurious step-in feel. “There’s a difference between short-term comfort and long-term comfort,” he explains. “You shouldn’t just slip into the shoe and say, ‘That’s nice.’ You should take them out and run around a little bit, and feel the long-term comfort.” Before you buy your next pair, run down our checklist for smart shoe shopping.
1. Take Your New Kicks For A Spin
The most important rule in assessing comfort is to test the shoes in the same way you’re going to be using them. Do you usually walk on concrete? Hit the sidewalk or mall. Are you a runner? Go for a quick lap and get up to the same speeds you normally achieve during a run. Many running stores even allow you to give shoes a test run (though always check individual stores’ return policies first). If you’re going to be using them when you’re fatigued, go for a test run when you’re similarly worn out. Mimicking real-life situations will help you decide whether that new pair of sneakers will work for you.
2. Seek Out Your Preferred Stride
Pay attention to the way the shoe affects your stride. Your foot should touch down where and when you expect it to; make sure it bends, rolls, and pushes as prefered. Your feet should feel supported throughout the stride, but not controlled. The sole should cushion but not rob you of your balance or propulsion.
3. Find Your Fit
The shoe should hold, but not bind, your foot with no slippage at the heel or at the instep behind the ball of your foot. As your feet flex during your stride, the ball of your foot should have room to splay and your toes should have room to lengthen.
4. Try On Multiple Pairs
Many athletes haven’t honed this assessment of comfort, and even Nigg admits that it is subjective and variable. It’s easier to compare comfort than to simply assess it, so make sure to try on several pairs. You may find that one feels great, but then the next feels better. When you get down to two pairs, both of which feel comfortable, put one on your right foot and the other on your left and take them for a test drive.
5. Lean On The Pros
Even when you’re relying on comfort for the final choice, Nigg says a good shoe fitter can help narrow the choice. A knowledgeable sales assistant will measure your foot size and shape and ask about your training, weaknesses, and injury history. From this, they can suggest shoes that often work for walkers, runners, and athletes like you.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.