"Probably 15 percent of the injuries that I see are directly related to ill-fitting, improper, or worn-out shoes," says Perry Julien, the Atlanta podiatrist who was in charge of athletes' foot care for the 1996 Olympic Games. "The right shoe is critical to optimizing performance and preventing injury." Short of taking Julien along with you, the way to ensure that you choose proper-fitting hiking boots and running shoes is to follow these guidelines:
1. Forget what you know. Strange as it sounds, figuring your size can be dicey, says Phil Oren, internationally known master boot fitter. Start by standing on a Brannock device (that cold metal gizmo found in shoe stores) with your full weight. Take one measurement from the heel to the longest toe. Then take a second based on the alternative method that uses the doodad that snugs to the ball of your foot. Go with the longer of the two sizes."It's the proportions of your foot that will ultimately effect what size you buy," notes Oren. "You need a boot or shoe to bend where your foot bends."
2. And forget again. Do the above every time you buy a new pair of shoes. Why? The ligaments and tendons in your feet relax as you age, causing them, in effect, to grow.
3. Buy fat. Head to the store late in the day, when your feet are at their pudgiest. "With boots, consider buying an even bigger pair if you're going to be wearing them most often at elevation or carrying a heavy load," says Julien, noting that high altitude and the weight of a pack can also cause your feet to swell.
4. Take stock of your socks. First, settle on the type of hosiery your feet need. "Most people just stick with the cotton tube sock they use for everything," says Oren. "It's a bad habit." If you're prone to blisters, you may need a silk liner; if you sweat a lot, you'll want an acrylic or polypropylene sock to wick moisture; if your feet are forever cold, try wool.
5. Be flexible. Before you slip on your prospective purchase, make sure it isn't too stiff. "Hiking boots and running shoes should bend without too much pressure," says Phyllis Ragley, president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. Holding the shoe firmly by its heel, push up on the toe with two fingers. If it doesn't bend easily, it may well strain your foot muscles.