- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

“Picking an exercise shoe is like picking a toothpaste,” says Capitol Hill resident Ann Hawthorne, commenting on the great variety of athletic shoes available.
   
   Her remark reflects the frustration shoppers often feel when faced with choosing the perfect shoe for their favorite sport. At least with shoes, customers can try them on before purchase. Some stores even encourage them to try shoes outdoors on pavement or elsewhere before buying them.
   
    Beyond that limited reassurance lies a host of complications that can make the search seem the equivalent of running a minimarathon.
   
   “Every person’s foot is different, and each foot on every person is different,” says Michael Brown of REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) in Baileys Crossroads. One foot may be wider or longer than the other, or one arch may be higher than the other. Manufacturers aren’t about to sell shoes separately and give a shopper the right to pick a different size shoe for each foot because “that isn’t very cost-efficient,” Mr. Brown says.
   
   Marketing ploys often seem calculated to frustrate instead of inform. Advertising slogans such as “real shoes for real athletes” are meaningless for someone seeking real information. Sizes aren’t standard among manufacturers, and shoe styles can change with the season.
   
   Proper fit and comfort are primary issues when buying the right sport shoe. To this end, it’s useful to keep in mind that foot sizes change with age and are influenced by the kind of sport or exercise a person regularly enjoys.
   
   The Web site of the American Podiatric Medical Association (www.apma.org) describes the structure of a foot as being made of 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments and 19 muscles and tendons, all of them at risk if they are inadequately protected under motion and pressure. Runners, for instance, regularly exert up to several times their body weight with every stride.
   
   Running shoes with inflexible soles cause calf muscles to work harder and can contribute to the development of Achilles tendinitis, warns Washington podiatrist Stephen Pribut, a marathon runner. Conversely, he says, “Shoes that are too flexible can cause a stretch in the plantar fascia and contribute to excess pronation in the foot.”
   
   He finds that too many walking shoes don’t have enough room and cushioning in the forefoot and provide inadequate support in the rear foot.
   
   “Most people do two or three sports. Think what motions the foot is going through,” he says. “Walking or running is one type involving straight-ahead motion for which you need a slight heel lift and more room in the toe box and flexibility because the foot bends there. A court shoe is more side to side.”
   
   His Web site (www.drpribut. com) recommends buying shoes at the end of the day, when feet are somewhat larger from the day’s walking. He says to be sure to have about a finger’s width of space at the front of the shoe “to help prevent runner’s toe.” He also suggests that shoppers look at the Web site of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine (www.aapsm.org) for its recommendations on which shoes to buy for which sport.
   
   Ms. Hawthorne, who needed mountaineering boots for a trip to the Arctic, knew she wanted the Coflach brand, an expensive plastic double-layered model, and asked REI to order several sizes for her to try on before making her decision. Boots of this caliber, needed for what is considered an extreme sport or adventure, often are a once-in-a-lifetime purchase, or at most an occasional buy.
   
   Runners and walkers, on the other hand, need to change shoes often. At least every 400 miles, says Phillip Fenty, the founder-owner of Fleet Feet in Adams Morgan, a store that caters to runners and walkers of all levels, to the point of sponsoring a public five-mile fun run every Sunday at 9 a.m. and a free 10-week training course for fall marathons.
   
   He regards the idea of having a single pair of shoes that will be useful for every activity as a myth. “A cross-training shoe in this day and time is now used for court sports, good in the gym to lift weights, do aerobics or maybe for basketball,” he says. “You could probably use some of them for running, but generally, you need the correct tool for each job. If you are serious about tennis, you need a special shoe.
   
   “We always ask a customer what are their goals and why are they in my store,” Mr. Fenty says. “Are they in contact with their feet? We look at feet in a weight-bearing standing position, then we bring out several pairs of shoes. They walk up and down or run in front of the store and give us feedback.”
   
   A shoe’s value isn’t related to its price or appearance, he emphasizes, saying he has customers who are heavy runners with flat feet who can buy an $80 shoe to control their foot, while others needing more support will spend more. Mr. Fenty also believes everyone doing regular exercise would profit from using orthotics, buying over-the-counter brands at least initially. Orthotics are molded inserts worn to help correct or ease foot problems.
   
   Easy Spirit, whose shoes scored high in a Consumer Reports survey of women’s walking shoes, tries to make consumer choices easier by identifying walking and athletic shoes by degree of use: light walking, medium intensity and high performance.
   
   The magazine evaluated stability, fit, cushioning and flexibility, but this doesn’t take into account the shape of a person’s foot.
   
   There is good reason for such surveys. According to an article in the April issue of Shape magazine, walking is the No. 1 sport among women (44.8 million); running and jogging claims 11.1 million female participants.
   
   Serious exercise or fitness buffs are better off in specialty stores that have trained personnel. REI tries to help consumers at the outset by displaying shoe samples along one wall by category such as hiking, climbing, fitness, etc. and providing printed material describing each product for sale.
   
   Not every customer buys specialty shoes or boots exclusively for athletic purposes.
   
   Artist Jan Kern needs boots when she hikes every summer in Alaska, but she also wears them when she works in her East Capitol Street studio for ankle support when climbing ladders and handling large canvas frames. Her choice for day hikes is a sturdy Merrell brand with a Vibram rubber sole; in the studio, she wears a slightly heavier, higher boot made by Montrail.
   
   “The choice is all so personal, because [shoes and boots] that should feel good often do not,” she says. “People can go for a long time and then shoes become a problem because their feet have spread.”
   
   The best overall advice Mr. Brown offers customers looking for running or hiking shoes is “to get more room rather than less room.” Even when hiking on flat surfaces, a person may need a stiff-soled, high-ankle style for support. Body weight is an important factor as well as foot shape, he says.
   
   Most technology goes into making shoes stronger, lighter and easier to care for, he notes, and the air cushion found in certain styles is “strictly for comfort and contributes little to support.” Cracks in the sole of a shoe definitely indicate that it’s time for a new pair, he says.
   
   “We recommend patients get their feet measured properly before they even start looking at shoes rather than buy blind off the rack,” says Dr. James Girolami, speaking on behalf of the American Podiatric Association. “Shoes fit better these days, so we are not seeing as many irritation and friction injuries, but what we see more of is people getting more and more aggressive with an exercise program. This results in more stress fractures and acute types of tendinitis and plantar-fascia problems.”
   
   People are becoming more aware that feet aren’t supposed to hurt and will seek treatment more readily, but Dr. Girolami, like many other podiatrists, recommends that a person get an evaluation of his or her foot type from a doctor or physical therapist before purchasing shoes for strenuous activity. Orthotics can be prescribed as a corrective measure in many cases.
   
   “But we tell patients that orthotics are like eyeglasses,” he says. “They help but don’t cure.”
   
   Asked what he would most like to tell shoe manufacturers, he answers, “Seeing shoes made on a [form] more geared to the American foot. Traditionally they follow a European model, which is more narrow and shorter and more stylish. Make a shoe, even athletic shoes, more functionally adaptable.”

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