Physical Therapists Using Clinical Analysis To Discuss The Art And Science Behind Running and The Stuff We Put On Our Feet

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Beginner's Guide to Walking,
and the Best Running Shoes for Walking

By DOR Editorial Team

While this website is called "Doctors of Running," we spend a great time personally either walking in the shoes we test or clinically treating/working with people who are having issues walking. Running usually takes only an hour or two of our day. The rest of the time is spent standing, sitting and walking. Running shoes have become extremely popular for everyday use outside of running due to their comfort. With that in mind, we decided to pull together a guide for those coming here looking for great running shoes specifically for walking or standing. The following guide provides a general overview of walking along with some guidelines you should keep in mind. At the very end you can find a list of recommendations for specific shoes we have found excellent for walking and through personal experience using all-day through our clinical work. 

Walking Background
Walking vs. Running
Mobility Requirements for Walking
Strength Requirements for Walking
Running Shoe Characteristics to Be Weary Of
So What Should I Look for in a Walking Shoe?
Walking Shoe Recommendations [Click Here to Jump]

Walking Background

Walking is (usually) the primary form of transportation for human beings, and a large number of people utilize walking as an effective and main form of aerobic exercise. While many people run for recreation, sport, transportation and more, walking remains the most common exercise and movement throughout the world.

Even when evaluating runners, looking at evaluating walking gait is a great place to start to begin to understand how someone moves. While we know that the most important movement to look at is the one that is the priority of the patient and the one that causes symptoms, walking gives an initial glimpse how how someone uses their body.

If you've spent any time following our work, you've heard us say that shoes are secondary to working on our own mobility, strength, and neuromuscular control. Therefore before we talk about shoes, we have to talk about the demands of walking, and how it differs from running. 

Walking vs Running

Walking is different from running in a few ways. Walkers always have at least one foot on the ground (both at one point), whereas running has a no foot contact or "flight" phase. Walkers also spend more time with their feet on the ground, so with longer ground contact times, the amount of stability may be different than when you are running. In some instances, the increased time on the ground will increase the amount of guidance a person needs, whereas other times, the decreased impact and slower movement of joints demands less guidance.

Impact forces during walking are much less given that it does not involve jumping from one leg to another like running. That means that with less muscle force needed for shock absorption, less cushioning may be needed for some people. With less impact and less muscle force needed, walking also involves much less range of motion from the joints of the lower body.

There are several similarities however. Walking also involves being on one leg at a time, which is why dynamic single leg balance and strength are important to both. The calf is very involved with running as a propulsive muscle and is very involve in walking to control forward movement of your tibia (shin). The hips are primary stabilizers of your pelvis and trunk (although ankle stability is very important), and the knees (quadriceps) tend to be primary shock absorbers. Finally, both running and walking utilize rockers to efficiently move forward, and walkers and runners that rear foot strike move through the same three rocker phases: heel rocker, ankle rocker, and forefoot rocker. These rockers take advantage of our anatomy to roll through different joints, but to use these rockers you do need to have adequate motion and strength.

Mobility Requirements for Walking

To walk efficiently and without putting yourself at risk for injury, there are requirements of motion for your hip, knee, and ankle. Some important motions that walking demands (during various points in the gait cycle include:

  • 15-25 degrees of hip extension
  • Near full knee extension (no more than lacking 5 degrees of knee extension)
  • 10 degrees of ankle dorsiflexion
  • 4-6 degree of ankle eversion (yes, pronation is normal)
  • 60 degrees of great toe extension

Lacking mobility in any of these motions should prompt you to see a physical therapist to learn techniques to gain appropriate motion. If you have a condition that prevents achieving full mobility (such as a fused great toe or a stiff knee following knee replacement surgery) possible modifications to footwear choices can help accommodate for loss of mobility. With all of the options on the market, it is possible that a shoe can be purchased to suit your needs instead of having a need for custom orthotics. For guidance in this realm, consult your physical therapist.

Strength Requirements for Walking

Walking has several phases of movement that need different muscles to provide either shock absorption, help the body progress forward, or provide stability. 

The first phase of walking is moving from initial contact with the ground to what is called loading response. This requires the quadriceps to absorb shock as the knee bends and the ankle dorsiflexors to control the forefoot's movement to the ground. As the body moves over the ankle and toward terminal stance, the calf (specifically the soleus) helps keep forward movement under control and keeps your body upright. Finally as your leg prepares to lift off the ground and move forward into the swing phase, your hip flexors move the leg forward. 

In addition to the above muscle groups that help move the body forward, the gluteal muscles are helping provide stability throughout the time when your foot is on the ground. Appropriate gluteal strength and coordination provide a stable platform for your trunk, pelvis, and ultimately your entire lower limb including the foot and ankle.

If you plan on using walking as a regular form of exercise, ensuring that you have adequate strength in each of these muscle groups is important to remain symptom free and avoid biomechanical faults that may predispose you to injury. To get help with this, you may consult your physical therapist (do I sound like a broken record yet? Physical Therapists can be a huge asset!). 

Where Should I Walk?

As we like to say often here at DOR, "it depends." Different surfaces place greater demands on the body and some surfaces may be a better choice than others, depending on the individual. For example, many people enjoy walking at their local mall because they do not have to worry about cars and it is a climate-controlled environment. The potential problem with mall floors is that they are concrete, which is a very hard surface. While the relationship between surface hardness and gait mechanics remains unclear, some studies have found reduced plantar pressure and ankle dorsiflexion moments at initial contact when walking on a softer surface. For people with compression-sensitive problems, including arthritis, spinal stenosis, or discogenic pain, walking on a softer surface may be more comfortable as compared to walking on a very hard surface. Walking at the local school track or on a smooth dirt path may be a better option than walking on the concrete floor at the mall or on a sidewalk. 

Individuals should also consider the regularity of the surface that they are walking on. Some dirt or grass trails may have rocks, roots, or holes that pose a greater fall hazard to those with impaired balance, ankle range of motion, or lower extremity proprioception. Many sidewalks are in disrepair and may also have cracks or holes that also increase the possibility of a fall. For those who have balance or mobility impairments, a track or other dedicated, smooth walking path may be the safest option. 

Finally, the incline of a surface may affect a person's walking tolerance and comfort. For example, a person with lumbar spinal stenosis may be more comfortable walking on hilly terrain because uphill walking requires a forward trunk lean, which is often a pain-relieving position for those with spinal stenosis. Conversely, those with limited ankle range of motion, strength, or stability may find walking on hilly terrain to be uncomfortable or even unstable. We encourage you to speak with a physical therapist who will advise you on the best walking terrain for your individual needs. 

Maybe NOT the Vaporfly for your daily walking.

Running Shoe Characteristics to Be Weary Of for Walking

We can now finally start talking shoes. In the past, it was pretty safe to say that if a shoe was a good running shoe, it probably would be appropriate for walking as well. However, this has changed with the advancement in shoe technology including foams, geometries, and stiffening elements (like carbon fiber plates). It is starting to become more common to see a shoe designed specifically for running, such as the Nike Vaporfly, Adidas Adios Pro 2, or ASICS Metaspeed Sky. These shoes have cutouts and shaping that makes them quite unstable and awkward at slower paces, but smooth out once really moving at faster running paces. This goes back to the concept that though there is decreased impact on the ground with walking, there is more overall time spent on the ground during a step and therefore the platform must be "stable" in slower or even stationary situations.

Let's look at a few characteristics of shoe design that may impact whether you use it as a walking shoe:

Cushioning: Foam technology is being advanced in the running sphere for the sake of improving efficiency. As we recently discussed on a podcast with Dr. Geoff Burns, the stiffness and resiliency of a foam are what help produce more efficient running. The most advantageous measures of this have been found typically in PEBA based foams such as what you find in the Nike Vaporfly or Saucony Endorphin Pro or Speed. However, walking does not necessarily require this same efficiency within the foam, and the softness of the foam usually introduces a higher amount of instability, making them less than optimal at walking paces.

Stiffening Agents: Super shoes, aka current day racing shoes with a softer PEBA based foam also typically are paired with a stiffening agent like a carbon fiber or plastic plate. These plates are becoming exceedingly popular and are now found not only in racing shoes, but also shoes designed for daily use. Before you pick this up for walking, recognize that this can alter the demands on the foot in a significant way, and the mechanism of moving forward is altered. We typically recommend staying away from plated shoes for walking except in very unique circumstances.

 Also commonly seen in the running shoe industry are rocker soled shoes. A rocker is placed in a shoe to decrease demand on the foot and ankle, especially during the propulsion phase of running. Rockers come in all different shapes and sizes, with some being subtle, some being extreme, some being flexible, and some being rigid. The type of rocker significantly changes the effect of the rocker on the body. Rockers can be nice for smooth transitions forward, but if it is too stiff and not in the right place, it will feel quite unnatural while walking. In fact a rocker that is too extreme and stiff may lead to a fall risk (forward or backward) for those with balance difficulties. Conversely, an appropriately placed stiffer rocker can help those with conditions such as a stiffer big toe. 

Heel Flaring:
While runners vary in their foot strike pattern (although majority are rear foot strikers), all walkers, barring a medical condition of some kind, land on their rear foot. Therefore walkers can be more sensitive to posterior heel flaring, which increases overall demand to the tibialis anterior (muscle in front of the shin), and can sometimes cause shin pain. It is important for walkers to find a shoe that either does not have any posterior heel flaring or to find a shoe with a bevel that integrates that back of the midsole so that it doesn't lead to early impact.

So What Should I Look For In a Walking Shoe?

When you keep getting deeper into the weeds about shoes, there are so many choices where it can become paralyzing when you finally come around to picking a pair. Ultimately, just as the case is with running, you simply need to consider your personal needs and preferences. Knowing your needs in a shoe will come from experience and also can be aided by working with a physical therapist to identify any specific strengths or impairments you may have. Here are a few of the realms to consider when picking a shoe that's right for you:

High vs Low Drop: The heel drop in a shoe refers to the offset in height between the heel and the front of the shoe. Traditionally, the standard amount was 10-12mm, but currently it has shifted to 8-10mm, with additional options all the way down to zero drop (heel and forefoot are at the same height). A zero or lower drop shoe (4-6mm or less) will require more mobility and strength from your calf muscles as you walk. Those who have 10 degrees of ankle dorsiflexion and adequate foot strength may enjoy a zero or low drop shoe. These shoes require more work from your foot and ankle and less from your hip and knee. A high heel drop shoe (>10-12mm) will require less mobility and strength from your calf muscles. The higher heel keeps your calf in a shortened position, using less motion there and require more shock absorption from your hip and knee. Those with limited calf or ankle mobility may do better with a higher heel drop as it will help you transition forward over these limitations. Those with knee issues, specifically at the patellofemoral joint, may do better with lower drop shoes as the lower drop may keep your knee in a more optimal position and shift work down toward your ankle instead. 

High Stack vs Minimal: Stack height refers to the amount of material under the foot in a shoe. A shoe with a high stack height will have a large amount of midsole underneath the foot. A classic example of this is most of the shoe offerings from Hoka. This usually provides more cushioning underfoot, but does not always mean the shoe will feel softer. There are some higher stack height shoes that still have firm cushioning, so do not make that assumption. Higher stack height shoes will work for people who want more protection underfoot. Minimal stack height shoes are ones that have only a small amount of foam under the foot. These are often more flexible shoes with better feel for the ground given the lack of extra cushioning. These are great for people that want to feel more of the ground.

Soft vs FirmThe midsole material underfoot can be soft, firm or somewhere in between. Softer cushioned shoes will often given the feeling of more protection underfoot as the sole will often compress under load much more. Firmer midsoles will feel more solid underfoot, will compress less and will typically be more stable. Softer shoes, while providing more sole compression, will often feel more unstable. Firmer shoes, with less compression, will often be more stable underfoot. Whether or not that is a good thing will depend on your own preferences and biomechanics. 

Neutral vs Stability: Neutral and stability refer to the amount of resistance to motion side to side. Traditionally, stability shoes will have firmer pieces of midsole or material on the medial (inner) side of the shoe to slow down the rate of pronation. It was thought that it was important to control pronation (the inward collapse of the foot), however further research and clinical evidence has shown that this is a normal and important part of gait for adequate shock absorption. A neutral shoe refers to one that has no traditional methods of stability, including posts (firmer medial parts of the sole) or wedges (slanted soles). Now stability shoes include other technologies including guiderails (elevated section of the sole along the foot to guide you forward), frames (a firmer material surrounding a softer material to guide you forward through the softer material) and more. Whether or not you need stability is determined by whether you have a history of pronation related injuries (posterior tibialis muscle or tendon injuries, peroneus longus muscle or tendon injuries, calf injuries and more) AND what makes you feel more comfortable. 

Rocker vs Traditional: Rocker shoes refer to soles with large curves to them. There are a few variations of this. The most common is to have a fully curved sole, often called a rocker bottom shoe. This features both a curved heel (heel bevel) and curved toe (forefoot rocker or toespring). A full curved shoe will roll you forward with less effort from the foot and ankle. This shifts work upward to the knee and hip, which will do the primary work of propelling you forward. A rockered or curved heel will ease your heel into landings, which may take pressure off some of the muscles in the front of your leg. A rockered forefoot (upward curved) will take pressure off the front of your foot and reduce the strain/workload on the calves and Achilles tendon. A traditional running shoe often does not have rockers, instead featuring a flatter forefoot with more flexibility and a squared heel. The flexibility up front will work for those that want to use more of their ankles/calves if they have appropriate strength and mobility. The squared heel will often create a faster heel transition, although it can be more abrupt and requires more strength/control from the muscles on the front of your shins.

Why Use Running Shoes for Walking?

A frequent question we get is whether running shoes can be used as walking shoes. Outside of track spikes and super shoes, most running shoes can be used as walking and standing shoes. In fact, from our conversations with companies, most running shoes are actually bought for the purpose of standing and walking by people looking for something more comfortable. So the answer is clearly yes. From a clinical perspective, I will always suggest running shoes for those walking given the wider variability in features. Running shoes, especially now, tend to feature more cushioning underfoot, have better-rockered profiles, better and appropriate flex grooves and uppers designed for comfort rather than fashion (usually).

Running shoes are typically designed with better biomechanics, cushioning, and fit compared to typical walking/casual shoes. They can be used as walking shoes if comfort is a priority. Instead of asking what the differences are between running and walking shoes, I encourage people to realize that "running shoes" can work for both activities if comfort and appropriate biomechanics are a priority.

The Hoka Arahi 6, one of our favorite options for a stable walking shoe

Recommendations from the Team, by Category
(Click shoe to learn more)

Cushioned Neutral Walking Shoes
(Shoes that have a high amount of underfoot cushion that also moves comfortably.)

Hoka Clifton 9
(A classic maximal cushioned shoe. Latest version adds touch more volume)

Saucony Echelon 9
(Wide-fitting, stable neutral shoe that has a great deal of space for orthotics as well)

New Balance 880v14
(A traditional stack height, flat shoe that new runners may find comfortable due to how similar it is to the average footwear)

Brooks Ghost 15
(The popular everyday trainer is a high drop, well-fitting, stable platform for walking)

Topo Phantom 3
(A low drop, excellent fitting shoe that is a versatile do it-all with a stable underfoot)

On Cloudstratus
(A comfortable On shoe with additional clouds and plenty of room in the upper)

Nike Pegasus 41

(Comfortable fit and feel makes this a classic offering for run and daily usage)

Minimal Walking Shoes
(Shoes that have a very minimal amount of cushioning underfoot and a high amount of ground contact.)

Xero HFS

(Very minimal shoe with high flexibility and anatomical forefoot for splaying)

Xero Scramber Low
(A trail version of the above shoe, but versatile for everyday road to hiking)

Topo ST-4
(Topo's low stack shoe. Similar to HFS, but with wider fit over heel)

Rocker Sole Walking Shoes
(Shoes with strong rockers to take pressure off the feet)

Saucony Endorphin Shift 3

(An stable shoe with a strong forefoot rocker for those that want solid cushion underfoot)

Altra Via Olympus 2
(A favorite of the team for zero drop, max cushion standing and walking)

(Tons of cushion with extra room in the upper on a highly rockered and maximal platform)

Asics Gel Nimbus 26 (New)
(A new upper offers more room to go alongside a very comfortable underfoot cushioning)

New Balance 1080v13

(A softer, highly cushioned rockered shoe with some mild flexibility up front)

On Cloudflyer 4
(For those who want a firmer, highly rolling shoe that feels comfortable for all day walking)

Stability Running Shoes for Walking 
(Shoes in the stability category. Tend to be highly supportive for walking)

(A rockered stable maximal shoe with solid heel support and full length medial stability. Does fit narrow feet best)

Hoka Gaviota 5
(A rockered, mild stability trainer with a lot of cushioning underfoot. More mild stability than Arahi)
(For those with an extremely high level of stability needs)
(A higher drop, well posted, classic stability shoe with additional heel stability now. Post and guidance may be supportive for those with post tib pain)

Mizuno Wave Horizon 6
(Comfortable, stable platform which does not have a major intrusive stability element. Waves provide guidance moving forward)

Asics Kayano 31
(Newly updated, features a wide base combined with comfortable sole and no post for those who just want a steady, unobtrustive base)

Trail Running Shoes for Hiking
(A couple of recovery options for those looking for straight comfort)
(Great fit with Altra's wider sizing. Good grip)

Karhu Ikoni Trail
(Combines their fulcrum tech into the shoe which makes for faster transitions)

Topo Ultraventure 3

(A solid fitting, nimble trail shoe)

Topo Athletic MT-5
(Anatomic fitting, easy going trail runner)

Hoka Mafate Three2
(A trail, street-styled shoe for mixed use)

Recovery Shoes and Other Shoes for Walking 
(A couple of recovery options for those looking for straight comfort)
(Not pretty, but gets the job done with high level of Hoka comfort underfoot)

Hoka Transport
(A lifestyle shoe that is good for commuting if you have a narrow to standard fit and prefer a slightly firmer ride. Can off-road slightly as well)

Further Reading

Beginner's Guide to Running Shoes: Are you a brand new runner and unsure where to start? Visit this guide first to get started.
Stability Shoe Resource Page: Our comprehensive guide to stability shoes and alternatives for neutral runners as well
Carbon Fiber Plated Shoes Resource Page: Want to go as fast as possible for race day? Visit this page for all of our super shoe reviews
Getting the Right Fit: Unsure if your shoe fits? Visit this page to help you determine how to find the right shoe for your feet. Comfort is one of the most important things we emphasize at Doctors of Running before you get out the door and on the road. Sometimes the right shoe for you is not what works for many others. That is why it is important to try different shoes when you can to get a better understanding of works best for your needs.
Beginner's Guide to Nutrition/Hydration: Guest writer Jennifer Giles (Registered Dietitan/Nutritionist) helps bring a new guide for fueling to Doctors of Running as part of our summer hydration series.
Ultimate Guide to Hydration Products for Runners: We review 10+ hydration products that may help you on your running adventure.
Best Affordable Running Shoes: We compiled a list of the most affordable options you can find in the market today. Updated monthly.

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