Watching the TV coverage of the latest adventure race was both fun and informative. It was fun because someday I want to do an adventure race-even if it is only one of the shorter ones. And informative because of what I saw and others commented to me-that many of the racers and their teams were in trouble because of their feet. The same problems will play themselves out in a month all around the country as summer begins and we enter a new batch of 50- and 100-mile trail runs, and thousands of weekend hikers venture outdoors. This article is dedicated to getting a good fit and a head start on preventing foot problems.
Whether we are walkers, runners of short to marathon length events, ultramarathoners, adventure racers of one-day to multi-day events, casual hikers or thru-hikers of the long trails, soccer players-whatever your sport-it is our feet that get us there-and back. Our feet are our primary means of transportation. Too many of us know how the pain of blistered feet or a turned ankle, or the trauma of toenails blackened from downhill in ill-fitting shoes, can destroy our motivation to continue on in an event in which our mind says, “Go” but our feet say “Stop.”
It is commonly expected that as you prepare for an event you will acquire the necessary gear and the ability to use it as it was intended to be used. I have seen athletes spend months planning for their event, spending countless dollars on the latest and greatest equipment, all in the hopes of a better or more successful time. Many times however, athletes fail to do all they should to keep their feet happy.
Fit is key. Again, repeat after me, “Fit is key.” It is not everything, but it is key. Without the properly fitting shoes or boots, your feet will slide around inside your footwear, create friction as the foot moves inside the shoe, create pressure from being too tight in certain areas, change the biomechanics of your foot strike which in turn affects your gait and throws off your whole stride and balance, stress your tendons and ligaments as they are forced to accommodate your foot inside a badly fitting shoe or changed gait, compromise circulation when the foot and toes are pinched in too tight shoes with socks that make the fit even tighter, and then to top it off, you endure aches and / or pain or are more tired as you deal with all of the above. Sounds like fun…. Right? Unfortunately many athletes have resigned themselves to this type of process. They go out strong, as long as their feet last-which in many cases is not as long as they had hoped-and often is way before finish line or the end of their journey. Does it have to happen this way? You decide.
Fit can be achieved with simply a little common sense and a bit of luck. The luck part is easiest to explain. Out of all shoes and boot to chose from, there is more than one brand and style that will fit your well. The luck part is finding the one or two or three that fit you best. When you find them, buy several pair. Rotate then but save the best pair for the race or event you are training for.
The common sense comes in when you try the shoes or boots on your feet to start with. Consider the following components of fit:
- The shoes should feel comfortable-it’s amazing sometimes the difference between several pairs of shoes-don’t save a buck at the expense of your feet
- There should be no discomfort in any part of the shoe’s fit
- Your feet need some room to breathe
- Your toes should have plenty of room to move and wiggle and the toe box should not be too short in height or length
- Try on and fully lace both shoes.
- The tops of your feet should not be pinched when the shoes are laced properly
- Your heels should be snug in the heel counter of the shoe and should have little up and down movement
- The arch of each foot should be supported without being too high for your foot type
- The shoes’ shape (last) should be comfortable and not overly curved or straight for your foot type
- The shoes should fit well with the same type of socks you will be wearing in your training and / or race event
- The shoes should flex well for the type of terrain you will encounter, and at the right point of your foot, which will help provide support to your ankles, and prevent uncomfortable heel to toe transition or pinching of the toes
- The shoes should provide protection to the bottom of your feet from rocks and uneven terrain
- The fit of the shoe should come from the shoes themselves, not from tying the laces
- The laces should stay tied the way you like them without coming undone
- The shoes should have outersoles for the type of event or race you will be doing, which will help keep your feet in place inside the shoes
- If you will be using orthotics or special insoles, be sure they fit in the shoe without pushing your foot too high in the shoe’s upper or too far forward
- If the insoles that come in the shoe are weak and flimsy, replace them when you are buying the shoes-get a pair that provides support and cushioning
- Feel around the inside of the shoe for rough spots where the parts of the uppers are stitched together
- Be sure the shoe’s counter, the part that wraps around your ankle and heel, does not rub your foot wrong
Additionally, a few more tips may also help you find shoes or boots that fit well:
- First, know your own feet: corns, bunions, susceptibility to blisters, toe length, Morton’s foot, hammer toes, and thick and high toenails, are just a few of the factors that affect our fit into shoes
- Secondly, if possible, know your foot type: normal arch, high arch, or flat arched and whether you tend to pronate (inward) or supinate (outward)
- Use shoe buyer guides as just that-a guide-do not eliminate a shoe from your consideration until you have tried it on
- Try on shoes later in the day when your feet have had a chance to spread out from being on them all day
- When going to try on or buy shoes, take a pair of your socks along rather than rely on the basket of store socks that have been on who knows how many feet
- Aim for a least 1/2 to 1 inch of space between your longest toe and the front inside of the shoe
- In most cases today’s shoes and boots require no breaking in period-do not buy a pair assuming they will fit better later unless they are leather boots
- Today’s running shoes and lightweight hiking shoes are very well made and will in most cases wear as well or better than many of the heavier weight boots
Finally, when you are wearing your shoes in training, be alert to subtle changes in how they fit. A long multi-day race will cause your feet to swell and you need to be aware of this and plan accordingly. Occasionally check the outersoles for uneven wear patterns that indicate the shoes are overdue to be retired.
When you purchase footwear, consider the whole picture, not just the shoes or boots you hold in your hand. Your footwear must work with your choice of socks, insoles, orthotics (if your wear them), and with the activity you will be using them for. Never buy a pair of shoes without trying them on first. Walk or run a bit in the store (or outside if possible), or use an incline board if the store has one, to get a feel for the upward and downward movement of your feet within the shoes.
I have seen too many athletes not finish a race for which they have planned on all possible problems-except they prepared too little for problems with their feet. This one factor has dropped more racers than any other-except maybe for those who start an event under-trained. Be good to your feet. Get the best fit possible. And then, because the unexpected can occur, be sure you know how to fix any foot problems that you might encounter. Remember, fit, fit, and fit. Don’t settle for second best.