If you’ve spent any time on TikTok, you’ve probably noticed the Gen Z affinity for “normcore” style with their mom jeans, oversized sweatshirts, bike shorts, and chunky sneakers.
The chunky sneaker or “dad shoe” trend has been around for a few years now, but the rise of comfortable fashions during the coronavirus pandemic has brought it to new heights. In February, The Wall Street Journal published an article about the popularity of “sensible, comfortable, even orthopedic-style shoes.” These sneakers can be clean and white or play around with other neutrals and bright colors.
And it turns out, podiatrists ― the medical professionals who care about the health and wellness of your feet ― are fans of this movement.
“I am thrilled! These sneakers are offering a lot more support and room for your feet that lack in more narrow dress shoes or heels,” Dr. Bobby Pourziaee, a podiatrist and self-proclaimed High Heel Doc, told HuffPost.
“I love the athleisure trend that is becoming ever so popular! Before this, there has been so much social pressure on women to be in foot-wrecking shoes like heels all the time,” echoed Dr. Jackie Sutera, a podiatrist and Vionic shoe Innovation Lab member.
Not all “ugly” sneakers are created equal, however. Even these geriatric-seeming shoes can vary in terms of comfort, support, and other foot health-promoting features.
It is difficult to provide a blanket statement on all of these sneakers, said Dr. Alex Kor, a past president and fellow of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. “But a majority of these trendy sneakers seem to offer the average consumer a drastic upgrade instability, cushion, protection, etc., in comparison to previous generations of trendy shoes.”
He noted that one popular white sneaker, the Nike Air Force 1 (dubbed “Gen Z’s favorite sneaker“), is “excellent in that it provides cushion, stability, has a rigid shank and has a rigid heel counter.”
Pourziaee similarly praised the wide toe box of the Air Force 1, which gives your toes room and helps prevent corn formation and nerve irritation in the ball of the foot.
“I think with so many options and styles of sneakers currently on the market, you can be fashionable and still be comfortable,” Pourziaee noted. “Jerry Seinfeld must have been on to something wearing white sneakers before they were ‘cool.'”
A supportive shoe trend is a relief.
Though many podiatrists like the “ugly” supportive sneaker fad, they have not been fans of other shoe trends over the years. “As a podiatrist for 30 years, I’d say the barefoot running or minimalist shoe fad several years ago was a bad idea,” Kor said. “Most feet are not designed for running and high-impact activities while barefoot or while wearing a minimalist shoe.”
He also advises against wearing Crocs because they bend in the shank, but he likes Birkenstocks as a sandal option. Dr. Robert Kornfeld of the Chronic Foot Pain Center echoed Kor’s sentiment on running in “barefoot” shoes.
“I saw many runners who suffered injuries running in them,” he said. “Again, it depends on the structure and function of that individual patient. Some people do run comfortably in them. But those with stability issues, hypermobility, etc., do not.”
Dr. Emily Splichal, a podiatrist at the Center for Functional & Regenerative Medicine, “hated” Skechers Shape-Ups, which were the subject of several lawsuits and hip injury reports, but she loved Allbirds sneakers. Beyond sneakers, Pourziaee said, he’s not a fan of floss heels and prefers wedges as a more supportive alternative.
“I know they show off your feet for the world to admire, but they don’t provide the best support,” he said. “There is a general lack of support around the foot and ankle, which can easily lead to twisting of the ankle, and the lack of support can also lead to overuse injuries, like tendonitis.”
Sutera quickly noted that she is “not a fan” of the ultimate hybrid ― the high-heeled sneaker, which has come and gone in style over the years.
There’s a science to choosing good shoes for foot health.
Whatever the trends are, it’s vital to make sure the shoes you’re buying are suitable for your feet.
“The most important thing is to try on shoes toward the end of the day when your foot is most swollen,” Pourziaee said. “This will ensure a proper fit and help prevent surprise foot pain. Shoes should feel good and fit properly when you try them on, so don’t try to ‘break them in.’ Specifically, shoes made from material that will stretch and allow your foot to breathe through the day are also beneficial.”
He also stressed the need to try on both shoes and make sure the heel doesn’t move around while walking because that could lead to tendonitis or plantar fasciitis.
“The two most important features of a sneaker that I emphasize to my patients are that the shoe needs to be comfortable and that the shoe should have a rigid shank,” Kor said. “This is a subtle but important and commonly ignored feature of a shoe that the average shoe store will not explain to the consumer.”
Given the limits of shoe store employee expertise regarding foot health, Kornfeld believes people should consult with a podiatrist when choosing a sneaker, mainly if they’ve dealt with pain issues. Some patients may require a rigid sole, while others may need flexibility or could require custom orthotics.
“My feeling is that since so many people these days understand the importance of fitness as a contributor to good health, it only makes sense to see a podiatrist before starting an exercise routine or choosing sneakers,” Kornfeld said. “A little education can go a long way in preventing problems down the road.”