Anatomy 101: males and females have different body parts. There are also differences in the body parts we share: hips or shoulders, for example …
When experts advise active women to buy specialist, fitted sport trainers it’s not because they want to line brands’ pockets – it’s because smaller men’s shoes aren’t fit-for-purpose. Many women’s ranges aren’t either.
Probably the most significant difference in feet, male to female, is in the heel. The typical female’s heel is narrower relative to the rest of the foot than the typical male’s heel.
Visualise a male foot and a female foot, of exactly the same shoe size, side-by-side. The female will likely have a narrower heel, a wider ball and a bigger ball girth (circumference of the ball of her foot) than the male.
What’s more, in active women the differences are even more pronounced. Females who do a lot of running — including netballers at the competitive end of the game — likely have an even narrower heel (than the female norm), as well as even higher foot arches (than the female norm).
Limits and injuries
When women wear poorly-fitting shoes in training and competition (which most do) then we inevitably suffer discomfort, swelling, pinching and pain. We’re at a greater risk of injury and we’re also more likely to sacrifice our movement – consciously or subconsciously – to mitigate injury risk. And when we can’t / don’t move freely, performance suffers.
No, it’s not fair. But it’s also not a lost cause. Solutions are out there if we’re prepared to look hard, test and say no to compromise.
Default male feet stepping on our turf
You’d think shopping in the women’s section at a sports retailer would be enough to land a pair of sports shoes built to your needs. ‘Fraid not. Not 100% of the time, anyway.
The jury’s still out on how committed manufacturers are to building trainers specific to the dimensions of the female foot. While some brands do aim for great, others are happy with good enough.
Good enough might be starting with a mould of a man’s foot and shaving off a few millimetres here and there. The reason some don’t go all in is pure dollars and cents: it’s a lot more cost-effective to modify an established design (around which mechanisms and a supply chain are already in place) than it is to go back to the research and development drawing board.
Hence why, across different brands and designs, women’s trainers can be hit-and-miss.
How do I find my trainers?
Your next pair of well-fitting sports shoes are (probably) out there and you shouldn’t have to settle. As with a decent sports bra, the search might take a while but that’s no reason not to.
Fundamentally, you’re looking for women’s trainers which fit the shape and dimensions of your feet, and offer both flexibility and generous cushioning. This doesn’t read like a big or complicated wishlist but to land the right pair you’ll need to go into test mode.
We suggest you test several brands and even different sizes. And in this case ‘test’ means really test: it means lacing them up fully (right to the top) and trying them out in a range of different settings to simulate the job you need them to do.
For netballers, we suggest you road-test your trainers by jumping in the gym, by running (indoors and outdoors) and by jogging uphill*. Assess the shoes’ performance and comfort through different actions in different environments: is there adequate room for your toes? How well-anchored do your feet feel? Crucially, how’s the heel?
*Watch for how the heels behave as you jump and especially as you run uphill. If the shoes slip up and down even slightly it’s a red flag. This is only going to get worse as you break the shoes in – so even small slippage means it’s best to go back to the rack.
All this might sound overzealous but it’s essential to put potential new trainers through their paces to find out how they perform on-the-job. Good women’s sport trainers are an investment in your game and performance but also, unfortunately, they’re expensive.
They typically cost more than the man’s equivalent … see reasons above.
So we have to be discerning and uncompromising. We owe it to ourselves. We didn’t write the rules of the market, and no – they’re not fair. But if this is reality, we’re damn sure going to demand more for our investment.
Lacing for better heel-fit
The issue of the heel is a well-known issue for active women. Having thinner heels in a world of limited options means getting that 100% snug and perfect fit mightn’t be possible.
But all’s not lost. A special lacing technique can add a tightness and a safety for the heel:
- Buy shoes that are wide enough in the forefoot.
- Lace up your shoes as usual but stop when you get to the next-to-last eyelet from the top
- Now thread each lace end through the top eyelet on that same side to form a small loop.
- Thread the lace-ends through the opposite loops
- Tie your shoes as you normally would.
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