So you’ve been suffering from bouts of heel pain recently. Here’s a question for you:
Are Your Shoes at Least Partially to Blame?
We hate to break it to you, but there’s a good chance the answer is a resounding yes.
We’ve come a long way since shoes were first invented by our ancient ancestors. The earliest shoes were little more than leather moccasins or simple sandals—there to protect the bottoms of your feet from sticks and stones and not much else. Even up to the dawn of the industrial resolution, you certainly couldn’t expect much in the way of comfortable arch support. Rubber soles weren’t even a thing until around the dawn of the 20th century!
But a curious thing has happened.
Even though the technology now exists for us all to have comfortable, supportive, breathable, shock-absorbing, wonderful shoes, many if not most of us are wearing shoes that don’t fit, aren’t comfortable, or aren’t appropriate for our activities.
Combine that with a world that’s now almost entirely covered in concrete, asphalt, tile, and other hard and flat surfaces, and what do you get?
An epidemic of heel pain, that’s what!
So, are your shoes causing your heel pain? They might be if:
They Don’t Fit
The simplest and most common problem is that you’re just straight-up wearing the wrong size. Shoes that are too small can pinch your heels (and toes for that matter), while shoes that are too big may flop and slide around and be unable to dampen impact force effectively.
Remember, size includes both length and width—so a number and a letter. Unfortunately, most shoe departments (and even many full-blown shoe stores) are often poorly stocked with different width choices, so finding the appropriate fit may not always be easy.
They Aren’t Right for Your Activity
You wouldn’t go hiking around the Snake River Canyon in a pair of snazzy dress shoes, would you? How about running a marathon in a pair of Wellingtons?
I mean, that would be ridiculous, right?
Yet many people consistently wear the wrong shoes for their activity.
One of the most common errors is wearing the wrong kind of athletic shoe—typically, using your same old ordinary pair of everyday walking shoes for everything from basketball to distance running to trail running and hiking.
The thing is, each kind of activity poses different risks and challenges to your feet. With basketball shoes, for example, you really need those thick, heavy soles and midsole cushioning to protect your heels from all that jumping.
For hiking, the amount of cushioning, support, and durability you need for your heels depend on whether you’re just going out for a couple of hours, a day hike, or a full-blown backpacking trip where you have to haul a ton of heavy gear.
Choosing an activity-appropriate athletic shoe will go a long way toward keeping your heels pain-free.
Other Types of Shoes
Of course, some shoes just plain aren’t meant to be worn for long periods of time under just about any circumstances.
Some of the worst offenders here include:
- Ballet flats. No arch support and no cushioning often mean heel pain if you wear them for more than very brief periods of time.
- Flip flops. All the same drawbacks as ballet flats, plus the fact that they flop around on your feet means you have to actually change the way you walk when you wear them. This can cause pain throughout the legs and back, too.
- High heels. Although these are more associated with pain in the front of the foot, wearing heels for long periods of time can make you hurt just about everywhere.
Not to say that you can never wear these types of shoes at all. They serve their purposes. Flip flops, for example, are generally a good choice for a day at the pool.
Once again, the point is to choose shoes that are appropriate for your activity. Flip flops aren’t inherently bad, so much as they are bad if you think you can get away with walking around in them all day. That’s not what they’re designed to do.
They’re Worn Out
All good things come to an end.
No matter how much you love your shoes, how great they felt when you first bought them, or how well they were constructed, the materials will degrade over time.
In particular, the midsole—the spongy layer between the sole and the insole responsible for most of a shoe’s shock absorption—will flatten, compress, and lose its “springiness.” As a result, a greater percentage of the impact force of your steps will be transferred to your bones, joints, and soft tissues rather than being dampened by the shoe.
More obviously, the treads on the bottom of the sole will wear down over time, too, which reduces the amount of traction you get on all types of terrain—and increases the risk of slips, falls, and injuries.
So, keep an eye on how your shoes are looking, and how your feet feel in your shoes. Some rules of thumb:
- Athletic shoes tend to have about 300 to 500 miles of “life,” depending on factors like your weight, running gait, and the quality of construction. Depending on how often you run or work out, you may need new shoes as frequently as every couple of months.
- Casual shoes that endure 3-4 days per week of “everyday” wear might last about a year on average.
- If you find your feet are hurting more and more, and you’ve had your old pair of shoes for quite a while, there’s a decent chance they’re at least partially responsible.
Some Tips for Getting a Good Pair of Shoes
So now you know all about “bad” shoes and why they contribute to heel pain. But do you know how to find a good pair of shoes?
Here are the basics:
- Shop late. Feet tend to swell up over the course of the day, so try to shop when your feet are likely to be a little bit larger than normal.
- Always measure. Feet change size and shape over time, even in adulthood. Don’t just assume you’re going to be a “12W” forever.
- Always test. Shoes should be comfortable to walk in the minute you put them on. Walk around the store a bit to make sure the fit is right.
- Pinch the heel. If the heel of the shoe collapses easily when you press on the sides, chances are you’re not going to get the support and cushioning you need.
- Bring your socks. When at the shoe store, make sure you’re wearing socks of the same type and thickness you will typically wear with that pair of shoes.
- Get shoes appropriate for your activity. Basketball players need basketball shoes. Backpackers need backpacking boots. You get the idea.
- Get shoes appropriate for your gait style. This is especially important for runners. A person who overpronates when they run might need a different set of features from their shoes than someone who under pronates. If you don’t know your running style, no worries—we can help you find out at your next appointment.
All that being said, sometimes your shoes are not the problem—or at least not the whole problem. Sometimes your feet themselves are your own worst enemy if their structure is biomechanically inefficient. Fortunately, we can help with that too, by providing you with an appropriate pair of prefabricated insoles or custom orthotics meant to cushion, support, and correct for biomechanical flaws with your feet or walking gait.
And of course, we also provide comprehensive treatment options for a wide range of painful conditions—so if your heels are already chronically hurting, we’ll help you get over your systems quickly and help you get set up with the shoes and/or orthotics you need to keep the pain from coming back.