Step 1: Understand your own feet
How shoes are like hair
The first step in learning how to choose shoes is to understand what kind of feet you have. I like to think of feet as analogous to hair and picking shoes as analogous to choosing a good hairstyle. While you might ask your friend if they think A or B haircut would look good on you, you’re less likely to ask your friend what hairdo they like with the hopes that it will work for you. There are just too many variables—things like their face shape, their lifestyle, whether their hair is straight or curly, thick or thin.
Following this example, the same should be true with shoes. Which shoe works best for your friend might not be the shoe that works for you if she has a different foot type, a different exercise preference, or different life experiences related to her feet.
To be even more specific, I like to think of hair on a continuum from stick straight to super curly and feet on a similar spectrum from flat and very flexible to high-arched and very stiff. Just as most of us fit in the somewhere-in-between category for hair, we also do in the foot department. It looks something like this:
Where YOU fit on the spectrum
As you might imagine, feet on one end of the spectrum have different needs and often different issues than feet on the other end of the spectrum. To learn how to choose shoes, it’s important to understand what kind of feet you have.
Here’s a quick test to know where you fit in:
First, step in some water. Then, walk as you normally would across some dry concrete or a large piece of cardboard. Before the water dries, go back and look at your footprint.
If your footprint includes most of your foot, you fit closer to the flat and flexible category. If your footprint shows toes and heel only, you are in the stiff and high-arched group. And if your footprint includes toes, heel, and the outer edge of your foot, then you are in the middle of the road category.
If you’re still unsure, the large majority of people are in the middle of the road category. However, it is possible to have two different foot types IF something has happened to one of your feet that hasn’t happened to the other (ex. injury, birth abnormality, etc.).
Step 2: Understand how feet work
The terms you need to know
Learning how to choose shoes shouldn’t require a degree in kinesiology, but it is helpful to understand what normal foot function looks like. To start, let’s make sure we’re clear on some key words.
Supination: In sitting, hold both legs straight out in front of you so that your shins are parallel to each other. Then, turn the soles of your feet inward to face each other. Basically, this is supination.
Pronation: In sitting, hold both legs straight out in front of you so that your shins are parallel to each other. Then, turn the soles of your feet outward away from each other. Basically, this is pronation.
Despite what you may have heard, everyone pronates and everyone supinates, and both are good and necessary for normal walking.
Dorsiflexion: Still in sitting with your legs out in front of you, pull your toes back toward your face. This is dorsiflexion. This motion is necessary in walking to be able to shift your body weight over and then past your foot to propel yourself forward.
The shortest and simplest version of gait biomechanics
To be brief, this is just about applying physics to walking. Here’s what you need to know:
- When the foot hits the ground, it is in relative supination. Translation = The outer aspect of your heel should be the first point to contact the ground in normal walking.
- The foot then pronates to allow for shock absorption. Translation = From that initial point of contact at your heel, your foot then rolls inward until the ball of your foot and all of your toes make contact with the ground.
- Lastly, the foot re-supinates to create a rigid lever to push off with. Translation = As your heel rises to leave the ground, it turns ever so slightly inward to create more of an arch and a stiffer foot to push you forward.
As mentioned previously, you need a certain amount of dorsiflexion—or ability to bend your toes toward your shin where that motion occurs at your ankle. This allows you to land on your foot and then to move your body weight from your heel toward your toes to take the next step. If you don’t have enough dorsiflexion, you might compensate by using excessive pronation to make up for this and still be able to advance your body weight forward.
Step 3: Discover the current function of YOUR particular feet
Flat feet (little to no arch)
On the one hand, a foot on the flatter, floppier end of the spectrum gets great shock absorption when the foot makes contact with the ground. However, this foot type has difficulty with re-supinating. In other words, as the heel rises away from the ground, there is not enough inward turning of the heel. This translates into a foot that remains relatively floppy and is inefficient as a lever for pushing the body forward.
Flat feet usually occur because of the alignment of the lower leg bones, particularly in the ankle. Although alignment is inherited, flat feet can also occur or be accentuated by deconditioning or lack of correct use of the foot muscles. Regardless of the cause, research shows that flat feet can be reversed substantially or entirely by strengthening the foot and ankle. Exercises specific to learning to create an arch and using this in functional activities can result in stronger foot muscles, a higher arch, and a more efficient lever for forward propulsion.
This foot type has a limited ability to absorb shock when the foot hits the ground, but the high arch is an efficient lever for propulsion. Because of its inherent stiffness, there’s less demand on the muscles to create a rigid lever. As in flat feet, the shape of the arch is determined by the inherited alignment of the lower leg bones, particularly the ankle.
Injuries most common to high-arched feet are stress fractures due to the limited shock absorption. Unlike flat feet which can be strengthened to create an arch, it isn’t possible to train a high-arched foot to be able to pronate (or better absorb shock). Instead, research (here and here) shows that individuals can learn to better absorb shock by how they use other joints, most commonly the knee, hip, or ankle.
The middle of the spectrum foot
If you have a foot type that isn’t flat or excessively high-arched, then you have the best of both worlds. Consequently, this foot type typically has less problems. You should have some ability to absorb shock when the foot hits the ground as well as some ability to create the rigid lever needed for forward propulsion.
Step 4: How to choose shoes based on this information
The mentality of the running shoe industry
The running shoe industry would have you believe that you need to buy shoes to make up for the deficits inherent to your foot type as we described above. However, if you allow your shoe to make up for these deficits, you will never learn to accommodate for them yourself. As an example, if you have a flat foot and you control it with a motion control shoe, how will you gain the strength to control it yourself? Likewise, if you have a high-arched foot and you buy a shoe with added cushioning, how will you ever learn to provide extra cushioning through your other joints?
Humans have been running for millennia. However, running shoes came about in the 1970’s. Clearly, running barefoot is not the fad here. But that’s not to say that everyone should be running (or walking) barefooted. They most definitely should not. However, if it’s viewed as a goal that may or may not ever be reached, then it encourages you to strive for improved function.
How to choose shoes based on your specific needs
Instead, learning how to choose shoes should be very specific to you as an individual, your needs, and your goals. Questions to take into consideration should start with ‘what foot type do you currently/or naturally have?’ but it should also include:
- What activities do you plan to engage in? If you do any activities barefooted or in footwear that doesn’t provide cushioning or control, it’s important to learn to meet the needs of your feet as independently as possible.
- Do you have symptoms that could be improved by strengthening your feet or learning to absorb shock better? Repeated stress fractures, tendon injuries, or foot pain, in general, can all be signs your footwear isn’t working to your advantage.
- Do you have issues, other than your feet, that are a higher priority and need more focus before being able to give proper attention to your feet? With a postpartum population, pelvic floor issues and some diastasis recti symptoms can take priority over the need to focus on your feet.
- Do you have issues, other than your feet, that don’t seem to be improving at the expected rate? On the other hand, both pelvic floor symptoms and diastasis recti can be improved by improving foot function, particularly strength.
The right shoe for you is any shoe that helps you to move closer toward your goals—whether those goals are increasing arch strength, improving shock absorption, or something different. Along the same lines, the wrong shoe for you is any shoe that prevents you from making progress toward your goals.
It’s entirely possible that different kinds of athletic shoes or everyday shoes could become stepping stones for reaching a more functional foot over time. Just as there is no “right” shoe for the population at large, there may also be no “right” shoe for any one individual. It may progress as the person is able to progress in understanding their foot and improving its function gradually.