How to choose a pair of sneakers

A marathon runner with brightly coloured

The head bone’s connected to the neck bone. The neck bone’s connected to the back bone. The back bone’s connected to the thigh bone (and so on and so on). This may be a little ditty you sang as a kid, but it carries an important message: Our body parts work in conjunction with one another — nothing is isolated. What starts at our feet, therefore, can influence how the rest of our body behaves. We may develop pains in our hips or back based on how our feet are moving. That’s why proper footwear is an important foundation for staying injury-free. We enlisted Dr. Andrew Sands, the chief of foot and ankle surgery at New York Downtown Hospital, to give us some pointers on choosing a good pair of sneakers to carry us from treadmills to trails and everything in between.

What can wearing the wrong sneakers do for your health?

Sneakers now have different areas of support for differently shaped feet. If someone does not know, for example they have a high arched foot, and the sneaker store salesman sells them something that exaggerates that high arch, it can lead to injuries such as stress fractures or ankle sprains.

If the wrong sneaker means cheap materials and poor construction (however fashionable they may be), and one walks all day on concrete, it can lead to pain, to overload syndromes or stress fractures. I see many people with problems from wearing cheap sneakers. On a different subject, if someone has diabetes, and develops foot insensitivity, the cheap sneakers can lead to ulcers and other increasing deformities.

Sneakers that are too small (short) cause bunions, stiff first toes and hammer toes.

How long should you keep your sneakers?

It depends on how big you are and how much you use the sneakers. If you are a husky guy and you walk all day at work then walk around on concrete in your free time, you should consider having two or more pairs of cushioned shoes. Alternating them allows them to breathe and rest between wearings. The viscocusioned materials have a chance to rebound. Eventually, however, these materials get crushed beyond repair and should be replaced. Also, if you run, the sneakers break down faster. In general, sneakers should be replaced every 6-9 months (if you’re a big guy) and 1 to 1.5 years if you are a lighter person. Write the date of purchase on the inside label in Sharpie. It makes it easier to keep track. Or do something like get yourself new socks and sneakers every year on your birthday.

 How do you know it’s time to replace your sneakers?

Place the sneaker on a hard surface. Look at it from the rear. Is the heel counter straight or is it smashed down to one side? Are the toes curling? Is the inside liner torn? If you look at them and have to think about it, it is time. If the heel material is creased or if the material is wearing or there is a hole, it is time to get new sneakers.

The new soles are often higher carbon content and so the soles don’t wear out now the way they used to. So you can’t use sole wear as an indicator. If there is sole wear, then they are waytoo old. If there is a bad smell or your dog won’t sit near you, it is time. And not enough attention paid to socks. Don’t wear old thin, socks, but DO wear socks. Sweat breaks down sneakers fast. People with diabetes should change their socks every day at lunch (but not in the lunchroom!).

What should you look for when buying sneakers?

It depends on the shape of your foot. And often salesmen don’t know. A visit with a board certified orthopedic surgeon who specializes in foot and ankle surgery will give you a lot of information that will guide you in choosing sneakers, shoewear and associated devices.  Sometimes a visit to a certified pedorthist is needed to craft a special insert. Your orthopedic surgeon will be able to give you a prescription should it be needed.

What questions should you ask a salesperson about the sneakers you’re interested in?

Ideally, you should know what you need and what you want before you go to the store. I always recommend a sneaker that has width sizing, i.e. Brooks. They have sneakers and walking shoes. A good salesperson will measure your feet with a BRANNOCK device. Manufacturers don’t have a standard sizing criterion, especially women’s shoes.  Don’t go by what you think is your number. Go by the proper fit: one finger space beyond the toe, and the width should be wider than your foot. Your foot shouldn’t spill over the sides of your shoes. The size you were in high school or college is not your current shoe size. Your feet change shape, especially after giving birth. The hormones that allow the baby to come out also allow your foot ligaments to spread and lengthen.

What is a more expensive pair of sneakers offering that a cheaper pair isn’t?

The more expensive sneakers might be made in the USA, which is important for some people. Also, the materials tend to be better — the shoes might be sewed instead of glued and there might be a removable insert. Avoid seam lines over bunions, as seam lines don’t stretch. Some shoes are overkill for everyday walkers.


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