What Wear Patterns Mean for Walking Shoes

Pay attention to signs of wear on your soles and heels for clues about your gait

What your walking shoes look like after some wear can tell you a lot about both your shoes and your walking form. Wear patterns can reveal whether you overpronate, have a neutral gait, or a supinated gait, and whether you need to correct any issues. They can also tell you if your feet are being adequately supported or if it's time to go shopping for a replacement pair of sneakers.

Looks can be deceiving. A shoe that appears relatively new could be hiding a worn-out sole.

From holes to smoothed-out soles, to minor tears and more, explore different wear patterns and what they say about your shoes and your walking form.

Most walking shoes will only last for 350 to 500 miles before needing replacement. After that time, your shoes will have endured approximately one million steps and will have lost their cushioning and support.

Heel Wear Patterns

Worn Shoe Compared with Newer Shoe
Wendy Bumgardner ©

The shoe on the left shows a normal shoe wear pattern after 350 miles, while the shoe on the right is the same model, same wearer, but has only been worn for 100 miles. This depicts a normal shoe wear pattern for a person with a neutral gait, who neither overpronates nor supinates. That is, the foot doesn't over-rotate during the stride; it rolls through the step from heel strike to push off with the big toe in a straight line.

How to Read Heel Wear Patterns
Use this reference when checking out your own shoes for heel wear patterns:

  • A normal, neutral gait will see worn tread at the heel, especially toward the outside heel, as walkers strike with the heel at the beginning of each step. They will also see worn tread below the first and second toe, as they push off with the toe after rolling through a step.
  • Overpronators will see more heel wear in the middle of the heel and perhaps even toward the inner edge of the heel (the big toe side). Their shoes may even tilt inward when placed on a flat surface.
  • Supinators or under-pronators will see tread wear all along the outer edge of the heel. When placed on a flat surface, their worn shoes may tilt outward.

Sole Wear Patterns

Worn Toe of Walking Shoe
Wendy Bumgardner ©

Worn soles signify that you should replace your sneakers. Shoes are often designed to show this wear on the sole with a change of color, which can help persuade you that it is time to replace the shoes.

The shoe pictured on the left has logged about 350 miles and is showing wear on the sole near the big toe.

How to Read Sole Wear Patterns
These signs can help you determine what your sole wear patterns may mean:

  • The shoe wear pattern pictured is typical for supination. The wear is mostly along the outside edge of the shoe, closer to the little toe. The change in color shows a lot of wear on the heel. At the toe, you can see almost no wear on the inside to middle portion of the sole.
  • A neutral gait would show wear under the big toe. Neutral-gait walkers naturally push off with the first toe without excessive rotation during the stride.
  • An overpronator would see the worn off spot even more toward the big toe side of the sole.

Wrinkles in Sole Cushioning

Worn Heel with Compression Wrinkles
Wendy Bumgardner ©

The shoe pictured on the left has endured about 350 miles of walking, which equates to about 770,000 steps. It's clear there's already a significant loss of cushioning.

How to Read Sole Cushioning Patterns

This may be a bit more difficult than the above, but try to keep an eye out for the following:

  • Wrinkles are developing in the indented area in the heel of the shoe on the left. This is a sign that the shoe isn't springing back from the compression it uses to cushion each step.
  • Compression lines signify that the shoe is aging and losing its ability to cushion and support. If the walker was switching back and forth from wearing the older shoe to wearing a fresh pair of shoes, he/she could probably feel the difference in cushioning.

Walkers who are on the heavier side will likely need to replace their shoes more often than is typically recommended, or about every 200-350 miles, due to faster degradation of sole cushioning.

Wrinkles in Exterior Soles

Shoe Wear - Wrinkles in Heel
Wendy Bumgardner ©

With each step, your shoes break down little by little. The materials used in the sole and heel of your walking shoes have a limited lifespan. Shoes even age when sitting on the shelf unworn and will, unfortunately, continue to break down once you start wearing them.

How to Read Exterior Wrinkle Patterns

Keep the following in mind as you look at and wear your shoes:

  • Small cracks and wrinkles can be seen in the exterior heel of the walking shoe pictured. These are caused by the constant compression with each step as well as the aging of the materials.
  • As the shoe loses its ability to spring back with each step, it has less ability to cushion. You may start feeling more fatigue in your legs and feet after a long walk.

Interior Wear

Shoe Wear Patterns - Hole Inside
Wendy Bumgardner ©

The shoe pictured is breaking down from the inside out. Not only do the outside of shoes reflect wear and tear, but you also may be creating holes in the interior of your shoe. This walker has worn through the first layer of fabric at the bottom of his ankle as the bone rubs against the side of the shoe.

How to Read Interior Wear Patterns
These won't be as obvious as exterior issues, of course, so take the time to look inside your shoe for the following:

  • A hole may occur in a spot where you developed a blister or hot spot. The rubbing of your foot against the shoe creates friction that can damage your skin as well as the shoe fabric.
  • Interior holes are also a sign that your shoes may be too tight and you need bigger shoes, as feet naturally swell while walking.

In the case of a hole near the heel, it's important to learn how to lace your shoes to keep your heel from sliding forward in your shoe, especially when walking downhill.

Exterior Wear and Dirty Shoes

Worn Out Shoes
wikila/Getty Images

Constant pressure and rubbing from your big toe or your little toe may cause small holes to appear on the tops of your shoes. Worn-out uppers (the fabric covering the toe box) are a sure signifier that it's time to replace your sneakers. Other holes may appear around the ankle cuff of the shoe due to ankle friction while walking. When you see a hole, it's time to replace your shoes.

Should You Wash Your Shoes?

It is tempting to want to wash dirty shoes, but soap and heat can break down the glue holding the shoe together. If you must wash your shoes, wash them by hand with mild soap and allow them to air dry. Washing and/or drying shoes in a clothes washer or dryer can shorten their lifespan.

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