How to Choose Walking Shoes

In walking you don’t dress from head to toe, you dress from toe to head. Think of it this  way: The  snazziest, most finely tuned sports car  on the  road won’t perform as  it should without a solid  set of appropriate, high-performance tires. Your body, too,  won’t be able  to reach its full walking potential without a great pair of high-performance shoes. You see, walking isn’t just slow running. Biomechanically, the body  moves differently when  it walks than when  it runs, placing stresses in different places, in different ways,  and  at various degrees. Your body  even moves slightly differently when you walk quickly compared to when  you walk slowly.  Simply put,  walkers require a walking  shoe. Brisk and athletic walkers require an athletic walking shoe.

How to Choose Walking ShoesLook for the  following  qualities in a walking-specific shoe:

  • Good heel  cushioning. Walkers strike the  ground hardest on  the  heel rather than on the  middle or front  part of the  foot, as most runners do. This heel strike leaves you for a nanosecond in a slightly precarious tippy position balanced on your  heel,  therefore demanding more heel  stability in a shoe.
  • Flexible forefoot. A walker’s forefoot flexes at nearly twice  the  angle  of a runner’s at toe  push-off, which requires more flexibility  in the  front  of the shoe.
  • Roomy toe box. The powerful push-off causes the toes to spread significantly, and the heel plant may cause the toes to lift more into the angle. These actions require a roomy, tall, and  wide toe box, or front  of the  shoe.
  • Supportive heel construction and a low profile. The higher, sometimes slightly flared heel typical of running shoes makes a walker less stable and acts as a fulcrum, causing the  foot  to slap  down  harder. That  overworks the  shin muscles, which can produce shin  and  ankle pain.  A shoe with a lower  profile, or lower  heel,  is more appropriate for walking.
  • Minimal underfoot cushioning and lateral support.  When walking,  the impact on landing is about a third (or less) that of running. Walkers also  only move  in a linear, forward motion, so the emphasis on lateral support in shoes for racket sports, aerobics, or trail  running is not  useful.

Faster  walkers, as  well  as  those living  in hotter climates or simply pre- disposed to hot  feet, benefit from breathable mesh uppers so that a hot  foot can cool quickly  and  sweat can evaporate during and  after  a walk.

You can easily drop as much as $120 on a high-end pair of walking shoes, but you can also get a good pair for $50 or $60. Any cheaper than that (unless it’s a great closeout deal) and the  shoe probably only looks  the  part and will break down  or  cause injury.  Some  fitness and  general interest magazines publish annual surveys of walking shoes, but don’t take a rating as gospel because you never know if the  advertising department influenced the  outcome. You might get recommendations from  a friend  or colleague too, but your movement,

support, and cushioning needs may be different. Over the last several decades, the  number of and  variety in walking  shoes have  increased greatly, but  that also  means you may become utterly baffled  by the  choices.

Start your  search for the  perfect walking shoe on the  Internet. Go to major shoe manufacturers’ Web sites and read about their shoes. This will help  you pare your long list to a few based on those descriptions. If you stumble across a shoe review on an unknown site, question it and the source. It might be legit, but you don’t know that (anybody can slap something up on the Web and call himself  or herself an expert).

Next, go to a specialty athletic footwear store and try on all the name brands, even  those you  may  have  picked out  on  the  Web  sites you  visited. A good store will let you take a quick jaunt down  the sidewalk or hall, and its staff will even  watch you move  to see if the  shoe is right  for you. I am not against large sporting goods stores, but  in some cases you receive less  help,  less-informed help,  and  sometimes even  old models. Be warned, if you  have  made it clear you’re  a walker, do not listen to or buy from a sales person who tells  you that you should buy a running shoe. Go to a different store. The sales clerk is either uninformed or a running snob. (Exception: If you plan to walk and run, you are better off with a flexible, low-profile running shoe so that you also get enough cushioning for that higher-impact activity of running.)

If you still haven’t found what  you want  or a specific shoe you saw on the Web, ask  about special orders. Many stores will do  this  and  might  not  even require a deposit or a guarantee you’ll buy (be  sure to ask so that you aren’t surprised). You can  also  contact the  manufacturer directly if you  can’t  find the  model you  liked  or the  size  or width you  need; manufacturers can  often recommend you to retailers they  work with or to online  retailers who carry a full virtual warehouse with a broader selection. Some manufacturer Web sites include searchable directories of their retailers.

What about aesthetics? Walking shoes used to look like nursing shoes—all white,  all leather or synthetic, and  really boring and  grandmotherly looking. No more!  Today’s walking  shoes can  have  as much flash,  style,  and  color as you want.  Have fun with that.

If you plan to do many workouts on trails or hills with loose or uneven terrain or rocks, consider those needs. Look for better grip and stability and even a light hiker, or what  some companies call brown walkers or country walkers—walk- ing shoes that look  a little  like a hiking  shoe. They  are  still  lightweight, but usually come in darker colors. Features might  include a higher top  for ankle support (only  good  if you plan  to do more hiking),  deeper tread and  stickier outsole for nonslip walking  over  dirt and  rocks, better lateral stability, and  a higher heel to ease Achilles  tendon tension while you’re  walking uphill.  Some may also be made of Gore-Tex or other waterproof or water-resistant materials for rainy  or wet outings.

If you’re interested in race walking, you need special shoes designed for the sport’s high speeds that exaggerate basic walking technique. They have much flatter soles to better skim the ground and to accommodate the increased ankle flexion  upon heel  strike, plus  they  have  slipperlike forefoot flexibility.  There are a few race-walking shoes on the  market, but  many  people end  up in basic lightweight running shoes.

Your shoes  might look  great from  the outside for  years, but the insides lose  about a third of their ability to  support and  absorb shock after  500 to 600 miles.  For example, an average walker—someone putting in 3 miles three or four times a week—needs replacement shoes after  about a year. Walk more and  you need new ones more often.

Shoes should be  able  to  go from  store shelf  to  work out without a hitch. Still, a new pair  of shoes might  pinch in a different place or cause you to land differently than you’re  accustomed to. Just  the  fact that the  materials in your new pair  aren’t broken down  causes them to fit your  feet differently. Try out new shoes on short or easy workouts to make sure they  don’t cause soreness, blisters, or strain.

Be continually aware of how  your feet and  body feel.  More experienced walkers know a shoe is ready to trade in when they get a particular ache in the ankles or hips. Watch the tread to see where it’s wearing out, and compare the soles of both shoes to each other. Are they  permanently tilted one way or the other (perhaps one  more than the  other) when  you put  them on a table and look at them from behind? Does one foot have  more wear  than another? That test will give you an idea  of where your  gait may be uneven.

The  wear  pattern on the  bottom of your  worn-out shoes might  be an indication of needless pain  on the  horizon. Shoes aren’t the  place to be chintzy. Retire the old ones to shopping trips or gardening, and keep your good walking shoes just  for fitness walking so that they  last  longer.

Few people have  perfect feet. Most either supinate (roll  outward) or, more commonly, pronate (roll inward). High or low arches might also demand extra attention. If you are  plagued by injury,  a foot malfunction might  be the  problem. You may  just  need a different shoe, one  with  more support or cushioning. Drug- and  sports stores sell a range of heel  cushions, arch supports, and other inserts you can try. Podiatrists can also  analyze and  measure your  feet for personal orthotics, if needed.

A few tips  will help  your  investment last  as long as possible:

  • Don’t put shoes by a heat source to dry because that will crack and weaken the materials.
  • Remove the insoles after  each walk so  they  can  dry  more easily.  If you have  two  pairs (a good  idea,  by the  way),  alternate using  them so  that each can fully dry between wearings.
  • If your shoes get particularly wet or sweaty, stuff them with wads of news- paper or bags of cedar shavings after working  out. Both help  shoes keep their shape and  soak  up moisture and  salts from sweat that break down materials.


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