Things are looking up this week as we talk about the top of the shoe, also known as the upper! There are some non-negotiable upper features and the upper is the primary contributor to the fit of a shoe, making this a crucial piece of selecting a shoe for you. Just like with the midsole it’s also important to determine what you’re going to be doing in the shoes. If you missed our midsole lesson click here to catch up. What activity you’re doing will help guide what kind of upper you want, like one with a waterproof membrane, a stylish leather or a lightweight mesh.
Regardless of material, for the structure and integrity of the shoe, an upper should contain these three features:
Secure closure: laces are the gold standard here, then velcro, and lastly slip on. Having the upper securely fastened around your foot will limit motion and provide increased support.
Stiff heel counter: this is the part at the back of the shoe where your heel sits. The heel counter keeps the ankle in an upright position and protects it from excessive motion.
Durable materials: leather, nylon, canvas, and mesh are the main materials used for uppers. Choosing a durable material will increase the lifespan of your shoe. If you want the longest lifespan I’d recommend choosing a leather or nylon.
Not every upper feature is present for every shoe and every type of activity. For example, these components most likely won’t be found in your dress shoes, but you will still notice a difference in the upper between, for example an Ecco dress shoe and one you find at Walmart. However, it is crucial for these features to be in the shoes that you’re looking to wear for long periods of time or during high impact activities so your feet have the support they need to take you through ten hour warehouse shifts or to the tops of mountains and back.
Another thing to look at when buying shoes is the shape of the shoe. The shape and style of the upper will truly influence how your foot will fit in the shoe. A person with a high instep may need a deeper shoe to accommodate this and often slip-ons aren’t even an option. Whereas someone with a wider foot will need the most space in the upper at the widest part of their foot, or for the upper to be a material that can be stretched such as leather. Some brands will provide more shape and stability to an upper by “welding” liquid plastics onto the upper in strategic places to improve fit, feel, durability, and structure. Doing this creates stability and durability without having to sew material onto it, which means a lighter shoe and lower risk of friction points. This is a feature to look for in trail, running, or walking shoes.
Overall, a shoe should fit comfortably. This even applies to your fashion-statement shoes! It shouldn’t feel tight but snug and secure is good. There should be a minimum of a pinky-width to a maximum thumb-width of space from the longest toe to the end of the shoe (remember the big toe isn’t always the longest toe). If you are still having trouble knowing where your foot is sitting in the shoe, pull out the sock liner or insole and check where your foot sits on that! This tip is extremely helpful with utility boots and for parents with growing kids. For width you should be able to squeeze the toe box and feel your foot with a little give, but it shouldn’t have enough room to cause forefoot movement.