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Do your footwork

When buying walking shoes, forget your vanity -- big and bulky mean more support and toe room. No one shoe is right for everyone.

March 12, 2007|Marnell Jameson | Special to The Times

WHEN Peter Valk, a race walker and walking coach, fires up a new team of walkers, the first thing he tells them is, "It's all about the feet."

Valk, 53, of Calabasas, walks 30 miles a week. Over the last five years, he has crossed the finish lines of 13 marathons to support Team in Training, a fundraising effort for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. (He is a leukemia survivor.) He coaches others to do the same.

"Shoes," he says, "are a walker's single most important piece of equipment. When you're walking 26.2 [miles], you want a shoe that's a help, not a hindrance."

No one shoe is right for everyone. And, of course, a shoe has its limits: If walkers do too much too soon, they will get injured regardless of their footwear.

But the right walking shoe can save you some grief. Ideally, it should provide cushioning, support and just enough flexibility, and should also correct stride problems, says podiatrist Bob Baravarian, chief of foot and ankle surgery at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital. The right shoes can prevent or mitigate the three most common overuse injuries walkers suffer: plantar fasciitis (pain in the heel), Achilles tendinitis (pain from the back of the heel up the calf), and posterior tibial tendinitis (sore arch or inner ankle).

"Instability causes most of the foot problems we see. Something in the shoe causes the lower leg to be less stable than ideal," says Charlie Hoover, co-owner of Phidippides, an elite running shoe store in Encino. (He's been fitting shoes to walkers and runners for 27 years.) The proper shoe, he says, can correct 90% of those problems.

Plantar fasciitis usually occurs when the shoe allows the foot to roll in too much toward the center. To correct this problem, the inner edge of the shoe, in particular, needs to be firmer.

Walkers who suffer posterior tibial or Achilles tendinitis often need a more supportive shoe that keeps the foot from rotating too much from side to side.

The ideal shoe for you is one that supports your particular foot and walking mechanics. Here's how to choose:

Work with a pro. Go to a store that specializes in running and walking shoes and has a knowledgeable staff. Tell the salesperson about any foot problems you know of, and what kind of walking you do in terms of speed, distance and surface. Expect to spend between $70 and $90.

Know your foot. If you overpronate (roll in), supinate (roll out), have a claw toe or hammertoe, a bunion or a calcaneus bump on the back of the heel (also known as a "pump bump" because it's common among women who wear pumps a lot), ask for a shoe that accommodates your foot issues. Different shoes will emphasize motion control, stability or cushioning. Ask the salesperson which of these types of shoes he or she is recommending for you, and why.

Motion control shoes are more rigid, and have more support on the inner section of the shoe to help prevent feet from pronating. These are good for folks who tend toward flat feet or who are overweight. Stability shoes are a little more flexible, lighter, and are good for those who only pronate a little and so don't need heavy support. Shoes with more cushioning are good for people who supinate, because their feet tend to be rigid.

If you have bunions or toe problems, you want a roomy toe box. Speed and race walkers sometimes pick shoes that have less stability, cushioning and durability, a trade-off they make to get a lighter shoe that aids fast-paced training.

Test for stiffness. A walking shoe should generally be a little stiffer than a running shoe, says Baravarian. Too much give in the shoe causes rocking and rolling that can stress tendons and ligaments in the ankles and legs. Fold the toe up toward the heel: It should bend slightly near the ball of the foot. Try to twist the shoe as if wringing out a wet towel: It shouldn't twist much.

Look for dual density midsole. You want two types of dense foam between the shoe's sole and upper. Walking shoes are like tires; you can have a good tire, but you still need built-in shock absorbers for a smooth ride.

Check for comfort. Walking shoes should feel great right out of the box. You shouldn't have to break them in. In the store, you should feel no pressure points anywhere on the foot.

Check vanity at the door. Ladies, be prepared to wear a walking shoe a half to a full size larger than your normal shoe. You don't want the shoe to be too wide, but you want it a bit longer in the toe area. Don't worry about what the shoe looks like. "People come in with a preconceived idea that they want something not too bright and not too bulky," Hoover says. "Color is irrelevant, and bulk in a shoe usually means it offers good support, which you want."

Buy late in the day. Your feet are likely to be swollen a little. Bring the socks you plan to walk in.

Take a test walk. Most specialty stores will let you try the shoe on their treadmill or sidewalk. Take your time.

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