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Three Common Shoe Problems That Lead To Foot Pain

The shoe market is full of problematic shoes. Some problems are unavoidable, or at least understandable. Some are inexcusable. Here are three of my “favorites”.

There are lots of reasons why the shoe industry cannot perfectly fit every foot out there with mass-made shoes. Human feet vary in a dizzying array of ways. Length, width, arch height, toe length, bone thickness, heel width – and that’s all before the various foot ailments and deformations. On top of that, lots of people have never measured their feet in adulthood so most people don’t know their size. The shoe industry has to base production orders on historic sales data, which, given how many people wear the wrong size, is most likely not representative of the actual size distribution among their customers. All of these are legitimate problems. It’s frustrating, but at least you can appreciate why these are tough to tackle.
However, there are some shoe problems that should have never made it to a store shelf, yet I see them in stores all the time. These things cause problems for the customers ranging from foot pain and impaired balance all the way to eventual foot damage. Here’s the thing: these problems ARE fixable. There are many footwear development teams that correct these problems at the sampling stage, as they should. There are also lots of companies that don’t bother – perhaps because they don’t know any better, or maybe because they know their customers can’t tell the difference. Read on, and spare your feet from this nonsense:

No padding for the ball of the foot

All shoes have at least a bit of padding in the heel area, but many women’s “fashion” styles have zero padding in the ball of the foot. This ridiculousness is due to a variety of reasons – “we’ve always done things that way”, “they’ll wear it anyway as long as it’s pretty”, cost cutting – but it’s ridiculous nonetheless. Zero padding in low heel shoes, especially ballerina flats and sandals, is bad enough. Seriously, finding a non-sporty flat sandal with padding in the front is nearly impossible. In heels, however, it’s inexcusable. The percentage of body weight carried by the ball of the foot shifts from 50% in a flat to 90% in a high heel shoe. The average American woman weighs 166 pounds. When that average American woman wears heels on her night out or to work, the balls of her feet carry 149.4 pounds. On concrete sidewalks. Is a little bit of padding really too much to ask for?
Nope, it is not. So ask for it! Buy shoes with padding for your hard-working feet. Do not buy the other stuff.

Toe spring issues

If you look at just about any shoe from the side, you’ll notice that the very front of it hovers a bit above the ground. This is necessary because without it the stiffness of the shoe will not allow the wearer to roll through the foot when walking. More structured shoes like platforms need more toe spring than the softer, thinner-soled shoes. It is not exactly the healthiest thing for your foot because the shoe’s stiffness prevents your muscles from doing the work of moving you around and things like toe spring only help mimic the correct gait, but if you want to wear that 5” heel with a 1” platform, you need some toe spring or you’ll have to clomp like a Cyberman.

Did I mention I’m a nerd? Oh yeah, it’s right there in the site name.

However, there’s a right way to do toe spring, and a multitude of wrong ways. Often, you see toe spring that is way too high. Look, there is no justifiable reason for jacking the toes off the ground like this:

Examples of bad toe lift in shoes
The red bootie will make sure your toes never touch the ground. The black boot is so messed up, it can’t even keep the heel on the ground.

Sometimes the too-high toe spring is combined with starting it all the way at the ball of the foot, like the red bootie above. This does not help the wearer roll through the foot. It prevents the wearer from using the toes for stability, grip, power – everything the toes are supposed to do. Heels make the balls of your feet work hard enough as it is. In shoes like that, you are left to totter around on just the balls of your feet for no good reason.

And then there is…whatever this is.

An unusual example of a shoe with bad toe spring.
The one time in my life I’ve seen negative toe spring so of course I had to snap a pic. I keep waiting for the day I get kicked out from DSW

Yes, this is an actual shoe available for purchase at DSW. Is there such a thing as negative toe spring? My theory is that this happened because they wanted to use a heel that is higher than the last was designed for, so they just slapped it on and sent it to production. This could’ve been a perfectly respectable shoe if they just added a (correctly shaped) half-inch platform in the front to level it out with the heel, but no. And the result? Heels pitch your weight forward in general. This shoe is a guaranteed disaster for the wearer.

Curved outsoles

Most balance issues are blamed on the heels, but since it’s the ball of the foot that bears most of the weight in a high heel shoe, the shape of the sole in the ball of the foot area is just as important. If 90% of your weight rests on the couple of square inches of your forefoot, it would be really helpful to have the entire sole under the forefoot actually touch the ground, wouldn’t it?

Behold.

Manufacturers make curved outsoles because it helps to squish the foot and make it look smaller. By lifting the outer edges of your feet, a shoe like that can get the bones in your foot move closer together without initial discomfort – the most important thing when it comes to buying. If the shoe doesn’t hurt in the five seconds you spend at the store trying it on, you’ll buy it.  It also lets them use the same outsoles for the wide widths as they do for the regular widths.

Let that sink in for a second.
Some manufacturers use the same outsoles for different widths. It’s not necessarily the brand’s fault. It’s not an obvious thing to catch in development – and when you do, they will argue with you. Opening molds for new outsoles is a cost they can’t pass on to the brand, and so that is often a corner they cut.
This is a problem because it squashes the bones together and makes the bones in the center carry even more of the weight. Stress fractures, anyone? This is also the problem because it makes the shoe extremely unstable. This causes the side-to-side wobble with every step that we usually blame on the heel.
When you’re out shoe shopping, lightly push the edge of the front opening with your finger. If the shoe rocks out like the video above – I don’t care how pretty it is. Don’t buy it. Actually, take a video of it and send it to me. And then don’t buy it. Your un-fractured foot bones and un-sprained ankles will thank you for it.

There are many more shoe problems out in the wild, and you rarely see just one in a given shoe. Usually it’s some combination of glaring structural issues like those that turn a stunning percentage of available shoes into torture devices. Once you start paying attention to proper fit and the right materials on top of that, and of course you want them to look good, too, and you’re on a budget…and…and…
Yes, it’s a tall order. It can be demoralizing to even go shoe shopping after a while, like trying to eat healthy in a world filled with junk food. If you can’t have anything, what’s the point of trying?
Welcome to my world. My cobbler is my best friend because every pair I finally do get has to last me for a while. Shopping is more often than not an exercise in futility, and I don’t even have a non-standard size. All of that is worth it because shoe shopping for damaged feet is much more difficult than shoe shopping with prevention of foot damage in mind. Your feet and health are worth it.