The Best Shoes for Walking . . . Are Not Walking Shoes
By Bonnie Stein, M.Ed.
In July of 1992 I wrote an article for Running Journal that I hope no readers remember. I suggested that racewalkers choose walking shoes instead of running shoes. I even argued my point with Jeff Galloway who suggested that walkers would be better served with running shoes. (Sorry about that Jeff, you were right.) I was idealistic enough to believe that if we would wear walking shoes, the shoe companies would listen to our cries for more appropriate racewalking shoes, and they would be forthcoming. We’re still waiting.
If I was honest in 1992 I would have admitted that even though I wore walking shoes (mostly just to teach class) my favorite racewalk training shoes were found in the lightweight trainer category of running shoes. Today that’s still true. The best shoes for racewalking are not walking shoes.
SHOES THAT DON'T WALK WELL
Most serious walkers know better than to wear tennis shoes, aerobic shoes, basketball shoes, or racquetball shoes. These shoes are made for lateral (side to side) motion sports. They are never as lightweight as a racewalker would want, since they have extra support built in for lateral motion. They are also not very flexible at the place where we need flexibility to initiate the rolling motion of racewalking. If you do much walking in a shoe made for lateral motion sports, you’re asking for arch problems or Achilles problems according to Dr. Perry Julien, a sports podiatrist who was Medical Director for the 1996 Olympic Racewalk events.
HOW ABOUT RUNNING SHOES?
Running shoes are made for forward motion just as walking shoes are. Some running shoes are fine for walking, especially if they are flexible, lightweight trainers (Asics Gel Lyte Verdict, Brooks Burn, New Balance 830.)
If you’re looking at running shoes, remember that most running shoes are not appropriate for racewalking. One reason is that running shoes are often quite built up in the heel to allow for sufficient shock absorption. The extreme cushioning is necessary to absorb the impact forces of 3-4 times the body's weight every time the runner's foot hits the ground.
Since walkers touch the ground with a force that is only 1 and 1/4 to 1 and 1/2 times the body weight, we do not need that much shock absorption. In fact, a very built up heel can lead to instability as the racewalker makes heel contact. This could cause wavering and the result could be a sprained ankle in our virtually injury-free sport. Even shin pain may even be partially caused by racewalking in some running shoes
HOW ABOUT RACING FLATS
RRCA calls racing flats “shoes on a very strict, low calorie diet.” These shoes have much of the midsole and support stripped away. It’s a lean, mean walking machine of a shoe. I don’t recommend them for your everyday racewalking. Many racewalkers are enamored with these shoes. They’re so light, so flexible, so breathable - like walking in slippers. If you use them too often, you’re asking for injuries. Save your racing flats for races and track workouts and use more supportive shoes for your everyday training walks.
TIPS FOR FINDING THE RIGHT WALKING SHOE
Look for a shoe that is flexible at the forefoot so that it bends where your foot bends. Racing flats typically bend in the middle of the shoe which is why they provide little support. Since your foot doesn’t bend in the middle, this shoe is not adequate for long periods of racewalking.
The toe box (front of the shoe) should be wide enough so that your toes can wiggle around. Because of the push off, racewalkers need a more roomy toe box than most other sports. If the shoe fits “just right” when you try them on in the store, most likely they’ll be too tight when you start walking and your feet swell a bit. Feet that fall asleep 20 minutes into a walk are a sign that your shoes are too tight. Often, proper fitting is as simple as getting a shoe one full size larger than your current shoes. Make sure you have one full inch or a thumb's width of space from your longest toe (not necessarily your big toe) to the end of the shoe.
WHERE TO FIND YOUR SHOES
The place where you’ll find the most help with shoe selection is at a running specialty store. Even though the sales associates in these stores may know little about racewalking, they certainly are knowledgeable about their shoes. Many of them also understand biomechanics enough that with your explanation of racewalking needs as well as your knowledge about your own feet, they can help you find an appropriate running shoe that would work for racewalking.
Once you’ve found the right shoe for you, don’t get too attached to it. Most walkers will need to replace their shoes every 3-5 months. Don't be proud if your shoes are lasting longer than that. You're probably not doing enough walking. Long before your shoes look worn on the top or the “tire treads” are flattened on the bottom - the mid-sole shock absorption (the part you can’t see) is long gone. (Runners, this applies to you, too. My experience is that runners and walkers would experience far fewer injuries if they would replace their shoes every 3 months, whether you think you need to or not. No, I don’t own a shoe company.) When you think about it, three or four pairs of shoes a year still makes walking and running relatively inexpensive sports.