Your complete guide to choosing comfortable flat shoes

Tired of flat shoes that still hurt? Podiatrist Emily Smith shares some tips for choosing the right pair.

Written by Emily Smith

With the rise of bloggers giving fashion sneakers a healthy resurgence, one would think that our feet would be well supported within flat rubber soles and laces. Unfortunately, the design is still dictated by aesthetic, and often neglects essential support, structure or cushioning.

Even though this footwear is healthier than a pair of stilettos, flat shoes can still have their fair share of problems. Without proper support, you’re at greater risk of long term foot problems like arch pain, tired feet, tendon inflammation and even deformities.

So, how can you choose a supportive, functional shoe, without compromising on style? Simple. Stay on the frontfoot and look out for these three key characteristics to choose shoes with form and function.

Make sure they're not too flimsy

If you can fold your shoes in half to fit into your pocket, they probably lack the firm structure (shank) required to properly support your foot. On top of this, they might be missing adequate midsole and outsole to provide protection and cushioning to the foot.

A shoe without a shank can lead to leg and foot fatigue, soft tissue overuse including heel pain (plantar fasciitis) and instability of the foot and ankle. Lack of an outsole can cause pain in the ball of the foot (sesamoiditis and metatarsalgia) and heel.

Before you toss your favourite ‘flimsy’ shoes, try adding support with a makeshift shank and midsole. If the shoes has removable insoles, they can be easily replaced with a customised or off-the-shelf orthotic. If there isn't enough room for an insole, a footbed designed specifically for fashionable footwear can also do the trick.

…Or too rigid

On the flip-side, a shoe that is too stiff in the sole can be equally damaging. Test this by bending your shoes; without a proper bend at the ball of the foot, your natural movement (like when walking) is restricted.

If there’s no movement, it’s too hard. If it does bend, make sure it’s happening at the ball of the foot, not the middle.

Rigid shoes can lead to rubbing on the heel and foot, and cause toes to grip, which leads to an overuse of the lower limb muscles. Unfortunately, without this key flexibility, there’s little that can be done to improve support. Looks like you may need to leave these ones on the shelf!

Look for a slight elevation

Our feet aren’t naturally flat, and a good shoe should reflect that. For example, a standard pair of running shoes with a heel of 12 mm creates enough lift to comfortably land at a heel strike angle, while also providing shock-absorption.

Lack of elevation can cause leg, foot and back pain, as well as soft tissue overuse injuries, like Achilles tendonitis.

So, for happy feet, choose a shoe that has elevation of 10 - 30 mm inside the shoe (like a small wedge). Alternatively, grab a removable soft heel raise from a podiatrist, physiotherapist or the pharmacy. You can even invest in an off-the-shelf footbed that’s transferable between your shoes to make sure you have constant support and comfort.

If in doubt, or if you are experiencing any of these problems, see a registered podiatrist for assessment and advice.

Written by Emily Smith

Emily Smith is a sports podiatrist with 10 years sports medicine experience working with elite athletes and amateurs alike.

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