Feb 19, 2011

Buying shoes online? Make sure they're right for your feet!

When you buy shoes in a shop they’re fitted for you, usually by people with some experience in figuring out whether or not a particular pair of shoes matches a particular pair of feet. That’s as it should be but what about buying online? Any good online retailer will let you return boots and shoes that don’t fit as long as they haven’t been worn outside, but it can be quite hard to tell if a pair of footwear will suit you when you first put them on.

The best thing to do is try them around the house before making the decision one way or another. Problems like hot spots and uncomfortable pressure points often take a couple of hours to show up so allow plenty of time. If possible, try new shoes and boots in the evening when your feet as tired and swollen as they’re going to get- all feet swell over the course of a normal day and the difference is often a half size or more. The evening rule goes for high street shoe shopping too. If you can leave the shoe shops til later in the afternoon you’ll get a better idea of what really fits and what doesn’t.

Always fit footwear with the kind of socks you’ll be using with them. Walking boots should be tried out with walking socks, running shoes with running socks, high heels with tights or bare feet. Most boots and shoes will ‘break in’ to some degree, especially if the uppers are unlined natural leather. However, if they’re uncomfortable straight out of the box they’re probably not going to change shape that much. Forget it and return them for a refund or an exchange.

When you put on a pair of running or walking shoes you should be able to slip one finger between your heel and the back of the shoe without too much trouble. If that’s not possible or a tight squeeze, go for a bigger size. There should also be about one finger’s width between the tips of your toes and the front of the shoe. Otherwise the toes will be squashed when you walk downhill or down stairs. This is especially important for walking boots- a mile of steady descent in the wrong footwear can cause nasty bruises.

There will always be some movement at the heel. Well fitting boots and shoes should keep the foot steady to reduce rubbing and potential blisters, but lacing them so tight there’s no movement at all is usually a mistake. Try your new footwear for a couple of hours and it should be clear whether or not movement between the foot and shoe will be a problem.

Width is a consideration as well as length. If a shoe or boot is too wide your foot will flop around inside and you’ll feel less stable and secure. If it’s too narrow the usual result is pain at the ball of the foot. Tightness across the ball is a particular concern with formal shoes and women’s high heels, which are typically much narrower than casual footwear.

If there is a distinct line where the shoe buckles just above the ball of your foot they’re probably too narrow. This will become a problem when you walk up hill and try to flex your toes. It’s not only uncomfortable- shoes that are tight across the toe usually don’t last long. The crinkle in the upper will become a hole very quickly.

Even if you do evaluate new footwear carefully you may sometimes be caught out the first time you go for a walk or a run or a night out on the town. Don’t despair and don’t resign yourself to discomfort either. Feet are surprisingly easily damaged and poorly fitting shoes can do lasting harm. Few retailers will take back used footwear unless there is a serious defect but there is always eBay. Get rid of boots and shoes that don’t fit and find some that do.

Jess Spate spent several years fitting footwear professionally and now edits Outdoor Equipment Online, a UK price comparison site that includes a large selection of and trail running shoes. She also works for Appalachian Outdoors, one of the USA’s top online retailers when it comes to outdoor shoes and boots.

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