Walking shoes: Features and fit that keep you moving

Walking shoes have some features other shoes don't. Here's what to look for and how to get the best fit.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Wearing walking shoes that are comfortable and fit your feet can help prevent injuries such as blisters and calluses. A walking shoe should also be fairly lightweight and provide good shock absorption. But not all walking shoes are created equal. Find the fit and features that are right for you.

Look for helpful features

How a shoe is built makes a difference in its fit and function. Knowing the basic parts of a walking shoe can help you sort through the many available styles and brands.

Note: Not all walking shoes have roll bars or gel pads, though many have features that provide stability and cushioning.

  • Achilles tendon protector. Reduces stress on the Achilles tendon by locking the shoe around the heel.
  • Heel collar. Cushions the ankle and ensures proper fit.
  • Upper. Holds the shoe on your foot and is usually made of leather, mesh or synthetic material. Mesh allows better ventilation and is lighter weight.
  • Insole. Cushions and supports your foot and arch. Removable insoles can be laundered or taken out to dry between walking sessions.
  • Gel, foam or air midsole. All of these materials cushion and reduce impact when your foot strikes the ground.
  • Outsole. Makes contact with the ground. Grooves and treads can help maintain traction.
  • Toe box. Provides space for the toes. A roomy and round toe box helps prevent calluses.

Consider the shape of your feet

Feet come in many shapes and sizes. To avoid painful problems, consider the shape and size of your feet when buying a pair of walking shoes. Remember, your shoes should conform to the shape of your feet. Your feet should never be forced to conform to the shape of a pair of shoes.

Width and length

Shoes that are too narrow or too wide can lead to painful blisters and calluses. In addition, a toe box that's not high enough — and doesn't provide enough room for your toes — can aggravate foot disorders such as bunions and hammertoes.

Arch type

The intricate alignment of bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons in your feet forms side-to-side (metatarsal) and lengthwise (longitudinal) arches. As you walk, these springy, flexible arches help distribute your body weight evenly across your feet. Your arches play an important role in how you adapt to various surfaces as you walk.

Choose walking shoes that accommodate your arch type. Generally speaking, your feet fall into one of three categories:

  • Neutral-arched feet. Your feet aren't overly arched nor are they overly flat. Look for shoes with firm midsoles, straight to semicurved lasts — last refers to the shape of the sole and the footprint around which the shoe is built — and moderate rear-foot stability.
  • Low-arched or flat feet. Low arches or flat feet may contribute to muscle stress and joint problems in some individuals, though there is not a direct correlation. If you have significantly flat feet, you may benefit from a walking shoe with a straight last and motion control to help stabilize your feet.
  • High-arched feet. High arches may contribute to excessive strain on joints and muscles, as your feet may not absorb shock as well, especially if you perform a lot of impact or jumping activities. Look for cushioning to compensate for your lack of natural shock absorption. A curved last also may help in some cases.

Not sure about your foot type? Dip your foot in water and step on a piece of cardboard. Examine your footprint. If you can see most of your footprint, you probably have low arches. If you see very little of your footprint, you likely have high arches. Most important of all, however, is comfort. Multiple studies have shown that there is no one "best shoe" for a particular foot type, and comfort and proper fit should be the main criteria you use.

Get the best fit

The best-designed shoes in the world will not do their job if they do not fit properly. Here are some tips for finding the best fit in a pair of walking shoes:

  • Wear the same socks you'll wear when walking, or take the socks with you to the store.
  • Shop for shoes after you've been walking for a while, and later in the day, when your feet are at their largest.
  • Buy shoes at an athletic shoe store with professional fitters or at a store where you have lots of options.
  • Ask the salesperson to measure both feet, measure them yourself, or have a friend or family member help you. Measure your feet each time you buy shoes, because your foot size can change gradually over years. Stand while your foot is measured to get the most accurate measurement.
  • If one foot is larger than the other, try on a pair that fits your larger foot.
  • Try on both shoes and check the fit. Wiggle your toes. If you don't have at least a half-inch (1.3 centimeters) between your longest toe and the end of the shoe — approximately the width of your finger — try a larger size.
  • Be sure the shoe is wide enough. The side-to-side fit of the shoe should be snug, not tight. If you're a woman with wide feet, consider men's or boys' shoes, which are cut a bit larger through the heel and the ball of the foot.
  • Walk in the shoes before buying them. They should feel comfortable right away. Make sure your heel fits snugly in each shoe and doesn't slip as you walk.

Replace worn-out shoes to prevent injury

All walking shoes eventually show signs of wear. And even if they still feel comfortable and don't show much outer wear, they might not be providing enough support or shock absorption.

Change your shoes when:

  • The outsole is worn
  • When you've reached 300 to 400 miles of running or walking in your current pair

Even if a shoe looks good, most lose their impact protection after around 300 to 400 miles. Put a mark on the calendar when you've reached your shoes' maximum mileage to remind yourself to replace them, and to track how long it typically takes you to put in 300 to 400 miles.

Make an informed decision

Improperly fitting shoes are the source of many problems. Now that you know what features to look for, you can shop with confidence. Wear walking shoes that are comfortable and properly fitted for a walk that's worry-free.

Feb. 04, 2017 See more In-depth

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