Features April 2019 Issue

How to Find the Best Walking Shoes

You'll reap the most benefits from walking if you wear the right shoes.

Walking is a heart-healthy exercise that almost anyone can enjoy. It's accessible, free, can be performed year around and does not require a major investment.

The right shoes, however, can make a big difference in how much you enjoy walking and are likely to do it. The right shoes can also protect you from injury.

"For a walker, shoes are the main equipment. They give the foot stability and protect against ground reaction forces," says Michele Dierkes, PT, DPT, ATC. "Street shoes are not meant for athletic activity."

What Is a Walking Shoe?

Enter a sporting goods store or shoe store, and you'll see walls of running shoes. Where are the walking shoes?

"In most stores, they are mixed in with the running shoes," says Dierkes.

Pick up a shoe. A walking shoe should feel light and flexible.

"A typical walking shoe is meant for comfort. It must absorb 1.5 times your body weight when you walk, so it is designed to cushion the foot,"she says.

Walkers are heel strikers, so the shoe needs to flex from heel to toe. You can take a walking shoe and bend it in half.

The midsole is the part of a shoe sandwiched between the outsole, which touches the ground, and the insole, which is located on the inside of the shoe underneath the liner. Oftentimes, the midsole of a walking shoe is thin and pliable and is made from ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA), which is light, compressible and pliable.

The outsole should have flex grooves. Trail shoes, which are meant for walking on more rugged terrain, may have a thicker, stiffer sole for more traction. But that's about it.

They Are Not for Everyone

If the arch of your foot is average or high, a cushioned walking shoe might be just right for you.

If your arch is low or your foot appears flat, you may need a running shoe to provide stability. This helps prevent over-pronation (inward rolling of the foot and flattening of the arch when the foot hits the ground), which can result in injury.

"A flexible walking shoe may put you at risk for injury to your muscles and tendons, especially if you have flat feet," says Dierkes.

How Does a Running Shoe Differ?

"There is a lot of technology behind running shoes, so there are many options to choose from," says Dierkes.

Some running shoes are designed primarily to cushion the foot. Others emphasize stability or motion control.

In general, running shoes are more durable and stiffer than walking shoes. Their midsoles tend to be denser, heavier and more durable than those made of EVA.

6 Shoes

The midsole of a walking shoe is often made of a thin, light, flexible product called EVA, which cushions the foot. The sole of a walking shoe should be flexible and have grooves.

Midsoles made of polyurethane or air units remain firmer in hot temperatures than EVA or gel products, so they provide more support to the foot in hot weather.

The stiffer and firmer the midsole, the more control the shoe will give your foot.

The good news is that there are no drawbacks to walking in running shoes.

"I encourage fitness walkers to get running shoes, because they provide more support," says Dierkes.

How to Find the Right Shoe

No two feet are alike, so there are no hard-and-fast rules about what type of shoe is best. "We can generalize, but there are many variations in foot and ankle mechanics that determine the type of shoe that will be best for you," says Dierkes.

That's why she advises passing up the local sporting goods store and going to a store that specializes in fitting runners. These stores have specially trained help who will measure the length and width of your foot, examine your arch, recommend a shoe and watch you walk in it.

"They can tell by your gait whether it's the right shoe for you," she says.

Preventing Injuries

If you have a history of foot or orthopedic issues, Dierkes recommends seeing a physical therapist (PT) first. "We can help you get stronger to prevent injury," she says. "For example, weakness in the hip muscles may contribute to knee, hip or foot pain, so you may need strengthening exercises before you start walking."

A PT-particularly one involved in sports rehabilitation-can also recommend the best shoe for you. This is particularly important if you've had foot problems such as plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendinitis.

"We can take measurements and help you understand your foot mechanics, so you know what type of shoe will help prevent future injuries," she says.

Advice for Buying Walking Shoes

- Shoes with leather uppers are heavy and water resistant, but do not breathe. If you live in a hot climate or tend to sweat, buy shoes with mesh uppers.

- Elasticity decreases over time. Therefore, the shock-absorption capability of a midsole drops the longer a shoe sits on the shelf. Buy the latest model of shoes. If you buy last year's model, the midsole may have become stiff and will not cushion your foot well. This increases ground reaction forces on your body.

- The shoe should feel good immediately. "You should not feel the need to break it in,'' says Dierkes.

- Replace your shoes when you have walked 400 miles, the bottom of the shoes are worn or the shoes have begun to lose their shape.

How to Care for your walking Shoes

- Do not walk in wet shoes. A wet midsole has only half its normal shock-absorption capability.

- If you plan to wear your shoes every day, buy two pairs of the same shoes and alternate them. A shoe breaks down as you walk, and it takes 24 hours before it will absorb shock normally. "A shoe needs R&R," says Dierkes.

- Do not remove your shoes by yanking on the heel or kicking them off without untying them. These actions will destroy the heel.

Comments (1)

Great article! Much of it fits my own experience as a walker and former runner, but it also included some helpful new information on the selection and care of walking shoes. It was also a gentle reminder that I need to go back to a well-made pair of shoes rather than cheap ones from a large department store that I've bought in recent years thinking them a bargain. You get what you pay for as they say.

Posted by: Charles Miess | April 18, 2019 8:29 AM    Report this comment

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