In my closet, there’s a mountain of shoes. There are purple Brooks, seafoam green Hoka One Ones, grey Under Armours, and lilac Nikes. The pile is so large that it rises to brush the hems of my coats, similar to how Mount Kilimanjaro's peaks extend to touch the clouds.
No, I’m not a sneakerhead. I’m just a woman who’ll try anything to avoid injuries when running.
I’ve completed two marathons and a handful of halves. Thanks to years of training runs, I know Central Park like the back of my hand. I also know exactly which spots on my feet will develop blisters as I increase my mileage. I know the precise shapes I need to pretzel my body into after a run to avoid re-injuring my left knee and right hip.
But… I still don’t know what shoe is the best fit for me. And as it turns out, many women may be in the same boat.
I'm a wellness reporter and I love running, so during my career I've spent hours talking to people who study the sport. I'm especially interested in sneaker-related research, since I've never felt like I've been able to find my perfect shoe. No matter what brand or support level I choose, I'm always dealing with hotspots, pain, blisters, and injuries.
One thing I've learned during my interviews and from reading is that although the women’s running shoe industry has grown faster than men's over the last few years, many sneakers aren't actually designed with women in mind. And that may be the source of my dissatisfaction.
Shoes are constructed around foot-shaped molds called “lasts.” Surprisingly, many brands use one mold based off a man’s foot to make all their shoes — including women’s, says Katie Manser, a research assistant at the independent shoe research lab Heeluxe. “Very few brands actually use women-specific lasts,” she adds.
This news floored me, so I reached out to 14 well-known shoe brands to ask about the gender of their lasts. Six didn’t respond or declined to comment. Hoka One One and Saucony said they use unisex lasts. Adidas, Altra, Asics, Ryka, Nike, and OESH told me they use lasts based on a female foot to develop some or all of their women’s running shoes.
"You don't have weird feet, you have women's feet."
The problem with using male lasts is, to put it simply, women are not just small men. We tend to have a flatter, wider forefoot and a narrower heel than guys, whose feet are longer and skinnier, says Casey Kerrigan, MD, a distance runner and founder of OESH Shoes, who is internationally recognized for her research on walking, running, and the effects of footwear. That means a shoe based off a man's last won't fit a woman well.
Need proof? Heeluxe uses pressure sensors to test shoes' fit. “In our database studies, women’s shoes are 70% tighter in the forefoot than men’s — that’s super alarming,” says Allison Meadows, another research assistant at Heeluxe. They're also 30% looser in the heel. “Most women will come in and say: ‘I must have weird feet — it slips off my heel,’” Meadows adds. “It’s like, no. You don’t have weird feet, you have women’s feet.”
Women’s feet aren’t the only thing that sets them apart from men. Women have wider hips, for instance, Manser says. That means their thigh muscles pull more on their kneecaps and lower legs as they run, Dr. Kerrigan adds.
That may partially explain why women and men tend to be injured differently. Cis-women are more likely to have instability of the pelvis, patellofemoral pain syndrome — a.k.a., runner's knee — and stress fractures than cis-men, reports the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Men, meanwhile, are more likely to suffer from tendon and knee cartilage problems.
Of course, shoes alone can’t compensate for all of this. Many experts believe training is the primary way to protect the body from injury. But it’s possible that women’s sneakers could be doing more to minimize their risk of harm. Dr. Kerrigan takes her faith in sneakers a step further, saying: "I believe that men and women are prone to similar types of injuries, but it’s poorly designed footwear that’s causing more and different ones [in women]."
I'm a long-time Harvard MD who proved that women’s shoes are poop.
Casey Kerrigan, MD
The earliest-known spiked running shoes were created in 1890 by Joseph William Foster, who founded what's now known as Reebok. As I learned more about the gender gap in running shoes, I started to wonder: If Foster was a Josephine instead of a Joseph, would my experience with sneakers be different today?
Dr. Kerrigan thinks so. She believes that the practice of using male lasts is common because traditionally, most sneaker designers were men. According to her, it takes a woman — someone who can look down and see that her foot is wider near the toes and narrower at the heel — to design a shoe for a woman. It was this conviction, and the two decades she spent researching running, gait, and footwear, that inspired her to found OESH, where she creates shoes that are made on a last molded after her own foot.
“For a long time, when people asked for my title, I’d say: ‘I’m a long-time Harvard MD who proved that women’s shoes are poop,’” Dr. Kerrigan laughs. “That’s how I described myself. Now, I say that, and also ‘OESH founder.’”
Ultimately, you can’t look at a shoe — or its creator — and know for sure whether it’s right for you. Finding that perfect fit requires trial and error. But the women I spoke to made some good points. Maybe someday 3D printed shoes will be the norm, and every women, man, and nonbinary person will be able to design a shoe that’s custom-made for their specific foot. But until then, I’ll try to make sure the next trainers I add to the growing pile in my closet were designed by someone whose foot looks more like mine.