The right shoes for happy feet

You might consider taking the extra time and effort to get a proper fitting.

The self-service trend that took over gas stations years ago and rapidly made its way to the retail world has resulted in a generation (or more) of young people who have never been properly fitted for shoes.

Remember going to a shoe store and standing on a cold metal sliding device while a friendly sales person measured your foot? Today, it’s the exception to get such service, with mega stores lining up stacks of boxes for shoppers to go through and self-select which size they think they need. Or maybe a harried sales clerk asks what size you would like to try on, then heads to the back to pull your choices from the stacks. (“We don’t have a 7, but we’ve got a 7 1/2 — want to try that?”)

Even some orthotic inserts have gone automated. One vendor selects your “perfect” shoe insert, based on a quick-capture image taken of your feet as you stand on a special mat. You have to wonder at the accuracy. My daughter’s “prescription” was different on two different days, on two different machines.

If you’ve ever had sore feet after a few days of wearing new shoes or new inserts, you might consider taking the extra time and effort to get a proper fitting. Doing so can help you select shoes that work best with your specific foot issues — whether one foot is slightly larger, your heels are super narrow, or middle-age spread has widened your toe box.

A proper fit can be especially important with athletic shoes, according to a recent study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & ExerciseThe study looked at those trendy barefoot-style shoes, which fans say make them feel as free as a barefoot kid without the rigors of actually going barefoot. Hello freedom, goodbye hot pavement, glass shards and other pesky nuisances that can turn going barefoot into a mine field.

Researchers took prestudy magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the feet of recreational runners who typically put in 15 to 30 miles a week. Half were given Vibram FiveFingers barefoot-style shoes, along with a Vibram-recommended conservative training plan to transition into wearing the new type of shoe for at least one short run a week. The other half continued wearing conventional running shoes for all of their daily runs. Both groups, which were statistically similar in age and other factors (such as training history and previous injuries), kept up their basic routines during the 10-week study.

At the end of the study, follow-up MRIs showed no differences in the runners’ Achilles tendons, plantar fascia and other soft tissues. However, the MRIs showed that 10 of the 19 Vibram wearers had foot bone injuries, compared to one of the 17 conventional shoe wearers. Two of the 10 injured Vibram runners developed full-blown stress fractures — one in the heel and one in the second metatarsal, the study showed.

Researchers concluded that, while running in “barely there” shoes can strengthen lower leg and foot muscles, the lack of cushioning can increase the risk of bone injury.

A similar study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine produced comparable findings based on three groups of 103 runners who wore the Vibram FiveFingers Bikila style and two styles of Nike shoes during a 12-week training program.

However, a report on that study published in Runner’s World and Running Times magazines cautioned that the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

“This study doesn’t show that running in minimalist shoes will get you injured, or that running in conventional shoes won’t get you injured,” the report noted. “There’s no way of knowing whether the rates of injury among the three groups would have changed in the ensuing weeks, months and years if the runners stuck with doing all of their running in the assigned models.”

Whether you’re an athlete or simply a carpool runner, studies like these point out a basic concern: The wrong shoe can play havoc with your feet. (If you spend a lot of the warm-weather months in zero-support flip-flops, you may already have figured this out.)

So, just as you wouldn’t select a new car simply because it’s your favorite color, perhaps it’s time to put a little more thought into your shoe choices. Your feet will thank you.


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