Are Your Walking Shoes Flexible Enough?

Shoe Flexing in Forefoot
Shoe Flexing in Forefoot. Westend61/Getty Images

Walking is a natural rolling motion from heel to toe, with your foot bending at the ball on each step. If your walking shoes are not flexible enough, your ankle and shin muscles end up fighting your shoes. You can end up with tired and sore feet and shins.

Many shoes marketed as walking shoes are not flexible at all. They are built for comfort and stability and not for brisk fitness walking. Most running shoes are flexible, but may not bend in the right place for a walking step vs. a running step.

Comfort shoes may have the same pitfalls and be either too stiff or too unstructured.

For general walking purposes, the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society notes that walkers can tolerate more rigidity in the forefoot of the shoe since they roll off their toes in a walking stride rather than bending their toes as runners do. How much flexibility is too little or too much will likely vary from person to person depending on their walking speed and style.

How to Tell if a Shoe Has the Right Flexibility for Fitness Walking

  • Twist them: Grab the shoe with both hands and twist in opposite directions. It should twist a little. If you can twist it completely into a spiral, the shoe is too flexible for walking longer distances.
  • Bend them: Try to bend the shoe in half, pushing the heel towards the toe. The shoe should bend at the ball of the foot. Some running shoes bend in the middle of the arch, which is not the right place for walkers. If you can bend it completely in half very easily, it is a shoe you should wear only for shorter workouts of an hour or less.
  • Poke them: Place the shoe on a level surface. Poke the toe down. The heel should rise up from the surface. This natural curvature will help you roll through the step.

Is There Such a Thing as a Too-Flexible Shoe?

The recent trend towards minimalist shoes and barefoot walking shoes can take flexibility too far.

If you walk for more than 30 minutes at a time, you may need more support than an ultra-flexible minimalist shoe can provide. This is especially true for older walkers whose feet are losing their natural flexibility and cushioning and need a shoe that will protect them a little better.

Other Things to Look For in a Fitness Walking Shoe

  • Low Heel: Walking shoes should not have a high heel, it should be no more than an inch higher than the sole under the ball of the foot. Some shoe companies have begun to list the heel drop measurement. Standard running shoes had heel drops in the range of 10 to 14 millimeters. Look for a lower number, from zero to 10 millimeters. But also be careful that you are not buying shoes that are too minimal in support and cushioning for your needs.
  • No Flare: Some shoes have a flared heel to give running stability. Avoid this for walking shoes, as walkers strike with the heel and ideally, the heel would be undercut (shaved off at the end) rather than flared. Less of a heel will help you roll through a step.

Research on Flexible Walking Shoes

Many common recommendations for athletic shoe features are being called into question. One is that people with knee osteoarthritis should wear highly cushioned, stable, and inflexible orthopedic shoes for walking.

As many people resist this and choose athletic shoes for style and comfort, one study tested the load forces felt by the knee and hip with different kinds a footwear. A flat, flexible, low-heeled, lightweight walking shoe had 7 to 15 percent less stress on the knee than clogs or stability shoes that had higher heels and were less flexible. Another study placed subjects in flat, flexible walking shoes and found a significant decrease in knee loading after 24 weeks, even when they switched back to their regular shoes.

This is an interesting path for research to take, and thus far it provides support for recommending that walkers may benefit from shoes that have at least some flexibility in the forefoot.

Sources:

How to Select the Right Athletic Shoes. American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society. http://www.aofas.org/footcaremd/how-to/footwear/Pages/Selecting-Athletic-Shoes.aspx.

Shakoor N, Lidtke RH, Wimmer MA, et al. Improvement in Knee Loading After Use of Specialized Footwear for Knee Osteoarthritis: Results of a Six-Month Pilot Investigation. Arthritis & Rheumatism. 2013;65(5):1282-1289. doi:10.1002/art.37896.

Shakoor N, Sengupta M, Foucher KC, Wimmer MA, Fogg LF, Block JA. Effects of common footwear on joint loading in osteoarthritis of the knee. Arthritis Care & Research. 2010;62(7):917-923. doi:10.1002/acr.20165.

Wearing the Right Shoes for Walking. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/Walking/Wearing-the-Right-Shoes-for-Walking_UCM_461782_Article.jsp#.Wgjo74hrzx9.

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