UPDATED: Added more input from Ryan in February 2017.
Almost anyone who has had an ExoSym will readily tell you, finding the right pair of shoes is a long and sometimes financially agonizing process. Anyone with painful degenerative foot problems will laugh through their tears while wisecracking “tell me something I don’t know.”
I’ve been on the search for the perfect comfy shoes for close to 20 years. As my feet hurt and further degenerate, this perfect shoe became more and more elusive. In all that time, I didn’t find one person – doctor, podiatrist, shoe sales person – anyone who could tell me what I needed to look for in a perfect shoe. Until now.
This past weekend, I took a trip to Wide Shoes Only in Renton. There I met Dominic, the shoe angel. The son of cobblers who has inherited the store and now runs it as president, Dominic not only knows shoes, he knows foot issues and what shoes are best for your situation. And he knows the ExoSym as well as other AFOs.
In fifteen minutes he’d educated me on what my weak, unstable club feet need and what the ExoSym requires to perform at full potential. He then showed me how to look for those things in every shoe I considered.
Dominic told me the ExoSym, and other AFOs, require a stable shoe. That means it is stiff in the bottom, not squishy to allow rolling right or left. The ExoSym doesn’t allow for the ankle to roll, so a shoe that does that will throw you off balance and be “like walking on a soft mattress,” Dominic said.
For example, New Balance has a number of shoes with roll bar technology as well as newer technology, not allowing the heal to roll in either direction. The shoes the Hanger Clinic gives out with ExoSyms (New Balance 1540) includes this technology.
When I shared this information with Ryan Blanck, creator of the ExoSym, he agreed to a point. However, the design of the ExoSym, unlike other AFOs, he said could handle a little squish in the sole. He suggested trying to twist the shoe in your hands (one hand on the toe and one on the heal and turning your hands in opposite directions). If it twists easily, don’t buy it. He said look for a solid sole (not the new trendy style of flexible soles pictured below).
Both Ryan and Dominic agree that you need a stiff forward part of the sole. A shoe that doesn’t bend so easily at the ball of the foot will provide more stability as your foot doesn’t bend at all in the ExoSym.
Shoes come in all kinds of verbiage for width – wide, extra wide, extra extra wide, 2E, 4E, 6E, W, WW, etc. Generally, these are determined from the base of the heal up to the ankle. Imagine the letter V with the point at the bottom gone. The wider the V shape between the sides of the heel and the top of the shoe is used to determine width. It’s not simply horizontal width, Dominic explained. Every shoe manufacturer has their preferred width measurement and quite honestly, said Dominic, the width designation doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as the “last.”
Drawn from the old cobbler word for the “last block,” or the block of wood that was whittled from drawings of a customer’s foot then used to design the shoe around, today’s “last” is the volume inside a shoe.
An extra extra wide in one shoe, for instance, doesn’t have as much volume as an extra wide in another shoe.
I discovered for me I needed more last, in terms of physical width for my wide foot plus the ExoSym, but also the cone (top of the foot) needs to be higher than typical or the pressure down on my foot causes my toes to fall asleep. This is what the New Balance 1540s I got from the clinic were doing – too tight and putting my toes to sleep.
With Dominic I found three amazing shoes. A (sadly, this is the story of my life) discontinued New Balance 1123, in size 5 ½ 4E. It allows me to put in a little extra height in the right and both feet fit snug and with circulation (we ask so little at this point, don’t we?). And they discontinued it for the 1540 that hurts my feet. Boooo!
He also found me a Cambrian casual sandle that fit the ExoSym and had good stability for a sandal (hello summer) and a gorgeous Drew Geneva dress shoe in taupe that is so very comfortable with soft leather uppers and a stiff sole for support. Extra Wide Shoes can order any size and even some shoes they don’t have in stock for you to try.
In the end it was hard to swallow the almost $375 for three pairs of shoes. That was, until I went home and cleared out all the shoes that don’t fit any longer or hurt my feet. For years I spent $30-$50 a pop on New Balance shoes that felt amazing, for about two months. They didn’t have the stability, so they broke down for me once they were broken in. And they hardly look worn.
This here represents $1,000 wasted on shoes. Suddenly, $375 for shoes sounds very reasonable. With the right last, they’ll last.
So, the moral of my story is, do your research, visit Wide Shoes Only when in Washington for your ExoSyms (seriously, make this a requirement because no one I’ve met, not even the mighty Ryan, knows shoes like Dominic), and understand that one person’s perfect shoe may not be perfect for you. You can only try them on to know, and it’s best to try them on with someone who understands your condition and knows shoes. Like Dominic!
And on a final note, I’ve started a page here on Going Bionic dedicated to shoes and shoe tips, so as I learn things from trial and error, advice or tips from others, we can all find them in one place. May the odds be ever in your favor as you hunt for your perfect shoes.