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KAREN VOIGHT

New Shoes, to Keep the Spring in Your Step

March 20, 2000|KAREN VOIGHT

As spring approaches and cloudy skies give way to sunshine, I'm in the mood to get outside and crank up the cardio. If you're at all like me, this means you'll be doing lots of aerobic activity to get in shape and healthy for the sunny months.

These cardio workouts are great for shedding winter fat and burning up extra calories, but they're also hard on your feet. For activities like run / walks, tennis and even cycling and hiking, our feet have to contend with the weight-bearing, pounding and quick-shifting demands we impose on them.

The first thing I do with each change of season is look in my closet and buy myself a new pair of sneakers if my old ones are at all worn out. Although they look fine on the outside, the inside of the shoe wears down from each workout. The shoes may not have the cushioning and support needed for high-impact exercising. Also, the sneaker materials can deteriorate even when shoes are not in use, due to heat, salt and chemicals they pick up on the road.

I should know. I've probably bought and worn enough workout shoes to fill a warehouse over the years. If you need to invest in a pair of new shoes, here are some tips.

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First, try to avoid shopping for shoes when you are in a hurry. You'll need time to try on and test different brands to find the right fit. Go shopping at the end of the day or, better yet, after you exercise, when your feet are slightly swollen. Also, before trying anything on, have both feet measured. Why? A survey by the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society found that 88% of women wear shoes too small for their feet. Because our feet change as we age, you may find that your shoe size isn't what you thought it was. Be sure to have both feet measured because many us have one foot larger than the other.

If one foot is larger than the other, you can buy shoes that fit the larger foot and wear an extra, thinner sock on the smaller foot. To get the right fit, remember to bring any inserts (like custom orthotics) with you and use them when trying on shoes.

Though it may seem like a ploy by shoe companies to make you spend money, sport-specific shoes are often necessary because different support and cushioning is needed for different sports. Running involves forward motion so you need front-to-back support with more shock absorption at the heel. Brisk walking requires a flexible shoe, especially in the forefoot, with proper arch support. Sports like tennis or racquetball, with lots of side-to-side movement, need shoes to stabilize your ankle and provide lateral support.

Walk, run or move sideways in the store--off the carpet area--to see how the shoes feel when you're in motion.

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Also, make sure the toe area is wide enough for a comfortable fit. Some companies make shoes in a variety of widths, which makes a big difference for people like me. My feet are so wide that a too-narrow shoe makes my toes fall asleep. On the other hand, shoes that are too wide and loose may cause friction and discomfort. Unhappy feet make for an uncomfortable workout.

Wearing the wrong socks can also spoil your exercise program. Opt for those made of synthetic fibers, which wick the sweat away from the foot. Cotton or wool socks can bunch up when wet and give you a nasty blister. Just like sneakers, socks are sport-specific, with padding in the right places.

When you're trying on shoes, wear the same socks that you wear for your workouts and check that there's a half-inch of space between the end of your longest toe and the end of the shoe. Too little--or too much--room may lead to blackened toenails, a common and painful problem. Shoes should fit right from the moment you put them on; the notion that you'll "break them in" isn't true.

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Bear in mind that, even with an ideal shoe, the more often you perform weight-bearing aerobic activities, the more stress you're putting on your feet, raising the risk of injury. To prevent injuries, try strengthening and stretching your feet with this simple yet effective move: In your bare feet, stand and simultaneously press your toes and heels deeply into the floor for 10 seconds. Lift your toes from the floor and spread your toes as far apart as possible. Repeat this exercise at least 3 times a day. So now that the sun is out, get some fresh air and jump into a calorie-blasting workout. Have fun.

* New York-based freelance writer Michele Bender contributed to this column.

* Karen Voight is a Los Angeles-based fitness expert whose column runs the first and third Mondays of each month. Her latest videos are "Ease Into Fitness" and "Yoga-Sculpt." She can be reached by e-mail at kvoightla@aol.com.

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