Stiletto shoe survival tips

Hello, holiday season, and hello to all your festive excuses to get glitzy. Nothing says “Party!” like glorious shoes, but few things are more daunting than the prospect of beautiful stilettos reducing you to tears in less than two hours.

We’re not advocating wearing them or not wearing them: We’re offering strategies for those of you who’ve set your minds to it – whether it’s because of, or despite, that recent French survey whose author concluded “heel size exerts a powerful effect on men's behavior.”

Dan Mauney – owner of SHU Salon in South End and known by some as “Dan the Shoe Man” – has more than 20 years’ experience in the shoe industry. He’s taught classes on how to properly walk in high heels, and he has tips that can make your evening more about the party and less about debilitating foot pain.

Some things he suggests – staying hydrated, doing calf stretches before getting into your heels, or taking a preemptive anti-inflammatory – have nothing to do with your shoes.

Other things are entirely about shoe design. “Thicker heels are friendlier,” he said: Sometimes a sturdier base (rather than a stiletto) can enable a woman to wear a higher heel. And pointy-toed shoes can be better for narrow feet, while rounded toes are often more accommodating for wide feet, he said.

Let’s be clear: OrthoCarolina orthopedic surgeon Dr. Robert Erdin, a foot and ankle specialist, reminds us that foot- and ankle-related injuries and issues – hammertoes, neuromas, tendon problems, overload in the arch and arthritis, among others – can arise from wearing heels that are too high, don’t fit and/or are uncomfortable.

“If you put it on and it hurts, it’s probably not good for the foot,” Erdin said. “There are certainly long-term effects that the fashionable shoe can put you at risk for.”

Erdin waves off the theory that one can “train up” for a big night in heels, noting that the body can be trained to do just about anything. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy or beneficial.

“You can build up stamina, your calf muscles, to maintain a position. A ballerina is an extreme of the high heel position. They work for years to build the power to do that,” Erdin said. “Is that necessarily good for you? Not necessarily … There’s no way to ‘teach’ a foot to like a position that it doesn’t like you putting it in.”

Erdin said he is not telling women not to wear heels, but rather to find the right style of shoe, one that’s comfortable and stylish for your foot. He has patients trace their bare feet on a piece of paper, then set the shoe on top of that rendering. “They’re surprised at how little room (their feet have)” he said.

“There’s a wide variety of shoes and styles, like there’s a wide variety of feet … You have to accept the way your foot is made and look for a shoe that’s comfortable, rather than try to force a foot.”

So whatever style or heel height you choose, here are tips for surviving the season, per Dan the Shoe Man:

Planning is everything: Don’t let the first time you wear the shoes be at your event. When you’ve got a chance to be at home for a few hours, put on a thick pair of athletic socks and your shoes, Mauney said. “Be active: Do laundry, go up and down the steps, (wear them) while you’re cooking dinner or putting on your makeup. But not just sitting,” he said. “The athletic socks will be a buffer and your feet heat up the leather.”

The combo will accelerate what your foot would do naturally over time – stretch the shoe to create broken-in comfort. Mauney recommends being careful with actual shoe-stretchers, because the damage can’t be undone if you overstretch.

Know yourself: If you regularly hoof all over uptown in heels, you likely know what heights you’re comfortable at. But if you usually stick to flats, don’t try to force yourself into the 4-inch “nose-bleeds,” Mauney said. “A lot of times we’re brainwashed by magazines that if we’re not in a 4-inch heel (we’re not dressed up),” he said. “You can still be very feminine and very sexy in a 2-inch heel.” And every holiday season, Mauney said, any decent shoe store will have at least a few styles of dressy flats.

Know your event: Is it a cocktail party that will require standing and milling, or a sit-down, seven-course meal? If you’ll spend the majority of the time sitting, go for the sky-high heels, Mauney said. If you’re on foot and caroling, plan accordingly.

Walk your dogs: Borrowing a yoga concept, this essentially means alternate your body weight back and forth between your feet. “We all lean to one side over another,” Mauney said. “Stand on the balls of your feet, not your toes. Even if you’re standing at a cocktail party, move around, walk your feet.”

No “fake it till you make it”: If you’re not comfortable in a 4-inch heel, don’t risk it. Your body will eventually betray you, Mauney said. So try a boot or that style with a thicker heel. “Knee boots are still very appropriate for dress,” he said, adding you can always wear athletic socks as an added buffer. “Boots can cheat a bit because ... (there’s) more holding you in.”

Bring backup: When you can, bring heels in varying heights to transition through the night. Start in the tallest and switch to something lower midway through, or the reverse: Work your way up. If you’re hitting several gatherings in one evening, leave the other shoes in the car and no one will be the wiser.

Proper padding: If you’ve got any concern about comfort, bring along a pair of clear, rubber half-pads for the soles. They’re portable, relatively inexpensive and help alleviate pressure. “If your feet start crying, step to the ladies’ room and put them in,” he said. “That couple of dollars can save the shoes and the night.” So why not add the pads before heading out? Mauney said he’s not “pad aggressive”: They’re no substitute for proper fit. “You may not need them, but have them on standby. If you buy the gel ones, you’ll get instant relief,” he said. “Don’t do it unless you need to.”

Stretch it out: At the end of the night – and again the next morning – reverse-stretch your calves by doing heel dips on the edge of a step, Mauney suggested. “It’ll help speed up recovery time.” (And remember to hold on to the hand rail if you’ve had a cocktail or two.)