By Bonnie Stein, M.Ed.
This is one area of fitness in which you must be the expert, or least a very educated consumer. You shouldn't count on help from most shoe store clerks. Many are not knowledgeable about walking shoes. A clerk in a well known athletic shoe store in the mall picked up a beautiful running shoe, with about three inches of cushioning in the heel (Just what racewalkers don't want due to instability at heel plant), and told me, "Of course you can racewalk in these running shoes. Racewalkers can wear running shoes because you're as fast as some of the runners."
My hope is that you will become the expert. Be an informed consumer and you won't need to count on the clerks. On the other hand, if you find a salesperson who is knowledgeable about walking shoes, you're in luck. Most likely you'd find these salespeople in smaller, family owned shops and not the sport store chains in the malls.
1. It's best to look for walking shoes at the end of the day (at least in the afternoon) when your feet more closely approximate the size they'll be after you've been walking for a while.
2. Ask the clerk to measure your feet to find your current size. Feet change size with age, pregnancy, weight gain or loss, and even as a result of athletic activity.
3. Just because you've always been a size eight means very little. A size eight shoe will vary considerably with style and features, especially among different brands.
4. If you buy a walking shoe that's too tight, you'll be compromising your comfort. A walking shoe must have sufficient room in the toe box area (front of the shoe) to allow adequate space as your foot flexes. Shoes that are too small will restrict the muscles and tendons in the foot, causing pain and cramping. One indication that a shoe is too tight is if a student tells me that his feet fall asleep while walking. If you get a shoe that doesn't have adequate room, it may feel OK in the store, before you start walking. However, shortly thereafter when your feet begin to sweat and swell a bit, the result will be numb feet in a constricting shoe. That's the reason for the thumb's width rule.
5. Non-cotton socks are a good investment along with properly fitted shoes. Take the socks that you will wear for walking with you when you go shopping for shoes. Don't wear cotton socks for fitness walking or racewalking. Cotton socks are a primary cause of blisters because they hold the moisture close to your skin. If that's a surprise to those of you who always were taught that cotton is desirable, think about cotton's properties. Cotton is highly absorbant. That's exactly what we don't want on our feet- - - wet socks. Combine that with the friction of rubbing against wet skin and you've got the leading cause of blisters.
My favorite socks are made by THOR-LO. They are made from a synthetic material that wicks the moisture away from your skin. When I take my socks off, they may feel a little moist, but my feet are quite dry, and I never get blisters as I used to with cotton socks.
6. Tight shoes will not stretch to fit better. Don't think walking shoes need to be "broken in." A proper fitting shoe should fit well from the first day. If you still get blisters (and you're wearing non-cotton socks) chances are the shoe is too tight.
7. For those with especially narrow or wide feet, try a different brand rather than a smaller size. Some brands naturally run wider (Saucony) and some brands narrower (Nike). Some brands even have styles in different widths (New Balance).
8. Always fit the larger foot. If you have to, you can add a half insole in the front of the shoe of the smaller foot. Would you believe that a half-size larger is only a twelfth to a sixteenth of an inch difference? Most of us can use at least that much extra space in front of our toes.
9. If you have bunions, corns, or hammertoes, look for a shoe with a wider and higher toe box. That will guarantee more comfort for you. I've seen people press on the front of the shoe to prove that it fits, and the big toe is pressing right up against the inside front of the shoe. That's not enough room. Walkers need extra room in the toe box even more than they might in other sports, to allow for the flexing that takes place with the walking motion.
10. Spend plenty of time walking around the store in the shoes to make sure they're right before you purchase them. Never go shopping for walking shoes when you're in a hurry such as on your lunch hour. Brad Zuber, the owner of all of a shoe store in Atlanta, encourages walkers to walk the mall in the shoes before they decide. I know he got a little nervous only once when a walker didn't return until an hour later. At the time he didn't know that Macy's was having a One-Day Sale and the walker got a little sidetracked as she was trying out her shoes.
11. I always want a shoe that is flexible. Either the mid-sole material should be flexible, or flex grooves could be cut into the sole. If the shoe is not flexible, your feet will surely have to absorb more stress as you try to roll through the walking motion.
12. A shoe that is lightweight and breathable is very important. I find leather shoes to be the heaviest, but also the most durable. They are not appropriate for racewalking because of their weight. Mesh/leather combination shoes are the most breathable. The least breathable materials are made of suede.
13. A good walking shoe should cost in the range of $65-$85. Any less than that and the components of a good walking shoe are left out. Any more than that and I believe we're paying for expensive bells and whistles that we don't need. (Those $100 running shoes have a lot of extra shock absorption that offer no benefit to the walker.)
14. Due to the lack of actual racewalking shoes, some racewalkers have chosen racing flats made for runners. Most of them are flexible, lightweight, and adequate for the racewalker who wishes to race. The down side is that these shoes wear out even faster than most walking shoes and they are not very supportive. If you pronate (roll in) excessively, you will do so right through these shoes. I never recommend them for anyone except advanced racewalkers.
15. Don't get too attached to a single brand. Try on different styles and makes. Be your own expert. One shoe store owner in South Florida tells me that all of his salesmen go hide in the back when they see a customer come in who starts flexing and examining the walking shoes. He jokingly tells me it's because they know that person is a graduate of the Beginning Racewalking class and may know more than the salespeople.
That's my hope - - - that you all become knowledgeable walking consumers who can't be fooled into purchasing a shoe that's not right for you. It all comes down to FIT and COMFORT. Walk away with that!