Unless you’re someone who wears sneakers exclusively, we are pretty sure you must have, at some point, experienced discomfort when you first break in a brand new pair of shoes.
In fact, some of us may have experienced this so many times that we never leave home unprepared to deal with “first-wear” blisters and pain – that is, ensuring that there are enough plasters, or Band-Aids, in our bags.
Why is it that new shoes – even those that are made of supple leather – are almost always uncomfortable to wear at first, despite the fact that we’ve carefully tried them on in the store before purchasing them? And how long should breaking them in take, before we finally give up on them?
Shoemaker and co-founder of Singapore footwear label Palola, Josh Leong, gives us the answers and facts, along with tips on how to make wearing new shoes a little easier on our feet.
DO LEATHER SHOES ACTUALLY NEED “BREAKING IN”?
According to Leong, the answer is yes. He pointed out that it is perfectly normal for new leather shoes to feel a little tight in certain spots on the feet. So don’t go regretting your purchase just yet – it may take a few more wears before those shoes start feeling more comfortable.“All leather shoes will stretch out over time as they are worn, as they mould to the shape of the feet,” he said.
Leong also explained how there are many types of leather used in shoemaking, and that each of these can feel and look significantly different from another. “Shoemakers typically tend to favour leathers that have less elasticity and are stiffer, as they’ll help retain the shape and structure of the shoes for a longer period of time. Using leather that is overly elastic and supple may result in the shoe becoming over-stretched and losing its shape over time,” he added.
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IS QUALITY A BIG FACTOR?
You get what you pay for – so does that mean cheap shoes are more uncomfortable on the first wear compared to a more expensive pair?
A higher price might be an indicator of the quality of the shoes, but may not mean that they’ll fit like a dream on the first wear. In fact, Leong said that it’s a common misconception for people to think that well-made, expensive shoes should always fit perfectly right from the start.
“While the quality of the materials used and the craftsmanship behind the shoes do contribute to the overall comfort that they provide, an equally important factor that also affects the fit and comfort would be whether the last (the structure around which a shoe is moulded) that the shoes were modelled on is suitable for the wearer’s feet,” he explained.
SOFTER LEATHER DOESN’T NECESSARILY MEAN A BETTER FIT
Many of us look out for shoes that are made of softer leather, thinking that this means that they should be better or more comfortable, but did you know that the suppleness or softness of the material has little or even nothing to do with its quality?
“Some of the most premium-quality box calf leather used to make men’s shoes is very stiff and dense, but this is also what makes the shoes extremely durable and last for many years. The suppleness of leather has more to do with the style of shoe that the shoemaker is trying to create, than being an indicator of quality,” he said.
He also noted that, in recent years, many shoe brands have been moving towards offering shoes made with very soft leathers that require less breaking in before they feel more comfortable.
“This solution, however, doesn’t really solve the problem at the root – that shoe brands are not paying enough attention to developing lasts that better ‘resemble’ their customers’ feet. Most mass-market shoe brands offer one standard fit across all their shoes, so it’s not surprising that their shoes will only feel comfortable to some customers, no matter how soft the leather is,” he added.
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THE FIT IS KEY
How, then, can one find shoes that require minimal breaking in? The key lies in finding a fit that that suits the unique shape of your feet, and this involves a lot more than just simply finding shoes in the right size.
According to Leong, foot width, length, the instep, as well as the shape of the foot arch and heel areas are all factors that can affect the fit of a shoe.
We might not be able to have a shoe last made exactly in the shape of our feet, but with a number of shoemakers here offering custom-fitting services these days, it’s not too difficult for one to nail down a shoe fit that is as close as possible to an ideal fit.
Otherwise, Leong recommended being aware of the unique characteristics of your own feet while shopping for shoes, and going for reputable shoe brands that offer a choice of different types of fits.
TRY ON SHOES CORRECTLY
Besides assessing how the shoes look on your feet, it makes good sense to walk around in them when trying them on in the store. This is the most immediate method of detecting any fit issues.
Leong also recommended taking note of whether there’s any sharp pain or pinching in certain areas of the feet when you are wearing the shoes.
“When wearing the shoes, be very aware of whether your feet are sitting flat and in their natural position, with ample space in front of your toes so that you can avoid having them curl up while you walk. Also, it’s always better to try on shoes as late in the day as possible, as your feet can expand by up to half a size at the end of the day due to the surrounding temperature, as well as the amount of walking that you do throughout the day,” he advised.
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HOW LONG SHOULD IT TAKE TO BREAK IN NEW SHOES?
It depends on how stiff the leather is. Leong said that, generally speaking, it should take around eight wears for stiffer leather to soften and mould to the shape of feet, while softer leather should take about four wears to break in. Of course, this also is dependent on how long you wear the shoes each time, too.
In order to figure out whether the issues with fit and comfort will lessen after sufficient breaking-in, it’s important to know which areas of the shoe are able to mould and break in, and which areas of the shoe will not.
“It’s not so bad if the shoes are tight in the width at the area where the foot flexes, as that part would definitely stretch out over time. However, the fit is unlikely to improve if the problem area is in the shoe length or the instep zone, because no amount of stretching or breaking in will allow these parts to fit more comfortably,” Leong explained.
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TIPS TO MAKE BREAKING IN YOUR SHOES EASIER
Instead of using shoe liners (which may alter the fit of the shoe) to reduce friction on the skin, Leong recommended rubbing a little candle wax or Vaseline on the “hot spots” inside the shoes that are causing discomfort to your feet.
Applying a high quality shoe cream on the exterior will also effectively increase the suppleness of the leather, and thus speed up the breaking in process.
“Another trick to help stretch out your shoes is to use a wooden shoe stretcher. Alternatively, you can put a few pairs of socks over a pair of shoe trees and use them to stretch out your shoes” he said.
Finally, avoid shoes that are made using synthetic materials, since they won’t stretch and mould to feet in the same way that leather can, even after breaking them in for extended periods of time.