700 years ago, when shoemakers and craftsmen needed some clarification and recognised standard to trade, King Edward II decided that 1 yard would be 3 feet or 36 inches, or 108 barleycorns laid end-to-end.
This was helpful in some ways, but the length of barleycorn varied year to year from between 4mm and 15mm. So, despite standardisation, there was still some ‘flexibility’, eventually dropping the barleycorn measurement.
In the early 1900s, the Ritz stick was invented in America, initially to help size the feet of the US army. This is a fantastic tool that is still used today in many stores to measure our feet. It has a heel stop and toe stop on a slider and can tell you both the length and width of your feet.
However, until 1988 it was entirely based on men’s sizing and ignored women completely. Eventually, it was acknowledged that male and female feet are different, and the Ritz stick was updated.
And, of course, today, we have all sorts of fancy technology that can tell us about our feet – although most of us have never had our feet measured professionally.
Does your size matter?
When I ask someone their shoe size, they give me an answer; however, for some reason, there is always a but. And they are right. The size varies depending on shoe type, model, brand, manufacture, stitching and materials. And, even for adults, it will change over time.
For example, an adult will often size up by 1 to 1.5 in European measurements due to various changes in life, such as the body weight, acquired condition affecting tendons and ligaments, a neurological disorder, surgery, pregnancy, menopause and much more. Feet shape and size may seem static – but a wide variety of factors influences them.
Most foot problems are linked to ill-fitting shoes. Whether they are too big and not providing support, which can lead to imbalances and issues like plantar fasciitis—or they are too small and cause toe deformities and skin and nail problems.
That said, simply knowing your number won’t necessarily be that much help. Every brand makes so many shoes, using so many different factories in Vietnam, China, and Portugal that there is no consistency anymore. So, never trust the number. Only the fit matters and your overall feeling when you try the shoes.
How to tell if your shoes are the right size?
So, if the fit is important, how can you tell if the shoe is right for you? Shoes must strap and protect the feet while offering enough volume and flexibility for the foot to move and swell (and shrink) throughout the day. If the shoes don’t feel good in the store, they
won’t do your feet any good afterwards.
Check the length of the shoe using the thumb rule. Place your thumb across the front of the shoe, running parallel to the tips of the toes, and make sure you do not feel any part of your toes. Check that you can’t feel your second toe in particular as for some people the second toe is longer than the big toe.
One thing I discovered when selling shoes as a student was the number of parents who face their children and look for their big toe with their thumb. Anytime the child’s second toe is longer than the big toe, they would miss it. This is why we need to turn the thumb and place it transversally along the front of the shoe – so we don’t miss a longer toe.
Allow an extra size for running shoes and less space for football shoes where the feeling of the ball is important when playing.
For hiking shoes, since the tongue tends to be attached on both sides and doesn’t move around, you must make sure the shoe doesn’t feel tight on the top of the foot (above the instep). Always try your hiking shoes or boots with thick socks on, and then you will have the option to gain more volume with thinner socks on long hikes. A snug feeling is essential, a tight feeling will hurt. Do not use the very top eyelet on boots when walking uphill on a long-distance hike, as this will give your ankle more flexibility.
Remember, if your ankle cannot flex enough, your knee might have to flex more to compensate. This is not a good thing when walking up slopes/hills. Downhill, use every eyelet to secure your ankle as your foot and ankle are the parts most prone to roll in or out.
When considering ‘office’ footwear, if at all possible, avoid wearing shoes, especially ones with high heels with pointed toes, as these squeeze the toes and can lead to deformity. A few hours on an occasional evening is fine, but as a day-to-day shoe, they are best avoided.
Next, check the width and ensure you have enough space around the toe box. Some materials (plastic, varnished leather, etc.) do not give. These materials press on the ball of the foot and cause pain. Also, if there is stitching around the ball of the foot, it won’t allow the material to give and this can also lead to pressure on the forefoot. It’s either a case of the foot misshaping the shoe or the shoe pressing/rubbing onto the foot, affecting the skin and joints (leading to skin build-up, metatarsalgia, Morton’s toe, bunions, etc.)
If your foot is quite narrow, you can still give yourself the support you need by lacing the shoe correctly. Cross the laces to maintain the forefoot and use the heel lock lacing method to maintain the heel in place. Make sure you do not tighten your shoes too much, as this moves any foot pain elsewhere on foot.
Ensure you have enough space to accommodate a high instep. For example, if you have a high instep (lump on the top of your foot) stay away from the Richelieu or Oxford type of dressy flat shoes (for men and women). A Derby type would be more appropriate as their construction method, made in quarters, provides you with open lacing that will accommodate the higher insteps.
When it comes to purchasing trainers, skip some of the eyelets above the instep in order to create a window of decompression. You will then support the forefoot and the heel without applying any pressure on the instep.
Finally, always try the shoes before buying them, and do it at the end of the day when the foot gets swollen in size. If you use shoe inserts or orthotics take these with you, and always try the shoe with the type of sock you intend to wear them with.
These tips are important as ill-fitting shoes can cause many problems, including an imbalance in your gait and overall body biomechanics. This can lead to pain and make you more susceptible to back, neck and hip problems.
By using orthotics, tailored-made to each foot, you can reduce the risk of imbalance and damage, and correct posture problems. In turn, this will reduce pain and can often give you, as some patients put it, a new lease of life as the movement becomes easier and the body is stronger when properly balanced.
Orthotics need to be custom-made for your feet, as each person and each foot is different. Orthotics are made for your feet, not for your shoes. A great way to see what is going on with your feet is to make a simple footprint on a sheet of paper. This is often enough to highlight the bones’ limits and plantar pressures; from there, a professional can build a pair of custom orthotics. This is always best done with you in the room so each orthotic can properly fit and adjust during the process. This way, you can be sure that the orthotic will do its job.
Do orthotics affect the size of shoes I need to buy?
If your orthotics are bulky you might need to go up a size. When custom moulded, layer by layer, directly onto your feet, and when the aim is to use the volume available merely, many of my patients find they go down a size.
Often on social media, you will see pictures of the toe box of the show having been cut out underneath. The post will claim that this shows how your feet as ‘squashed’ into the shoe and that being unable to spread your toes is a bad thing. However, these two-dimensional clichés do not reflect the truth. The foot is three-dimensional with 28 bones and three arches that need support. Therefore, being able to move around a lot and spread your toes inside the shoe and not feel the shoe support you is not good for the foot.
Custom orthotics will help sustain your arches (whether high or collapsed or anything in between), which helps to make the most of the volume available in the shoes, preventing your foot from collapsing or flattening. With orthotics, high arches are maintained, flat feet are given structure, and collapsed arches are realigned – in other words, everyone can benefit from more arch support. Orthotics also take the pressure off the ball of the foot and stop your toes from spreading. No need to size up or buy a wide-fitted shoe anymore.
Whatever shoe you buy, always ensure that it currently fits by following the tips above. And, if you have foot or back, neck or hip pain, get your feet and gait checked by a professional podiatrist and biomechanics expert.
Christophe Champs is a consultant in Podiatry and Biomechanics and the founder of PODO Clinic and Workshop.