Is it Better to Wear Bigger or Smaller Shoes?

Recently, I found the most amazing pair of running shoes on sale. Sadly, my usual size didn’t fit. I wasn’t sure if I should buy the bigger or smaller shoes instead, so I researched what the experts had to say.

So, is it better to wear bigger or smaller shoes? Experts all agree that you should only wear properly sized shoes. Yet, many people believe you can wear bigger shoes if you wear thick, heavy socks. Podiatrists can provide inserts to help make bigger shoes fit better. Every expert agrees that smaller shoes are harmful.

It seemed like fair advice. Unfortunately, even armed with a new pair of fluffy socks, the bigger shoes weren’t comfortable for me. Determined to get those perfect shoes, I dug deeper into my research. There had to be a way to make them fit, right? Maybe I could just wear super thin socks and get the smaller size?

What I discovered made me think twice about trying to force those shoes to work for my feet.

What’s the Problem with Smaller Shoes?

A long time ago, my mother told me that tighter shoes gave your feet better support. It didn’t seem to matter that my feet ached after a day at school. She insisted that was a sign my feet were getting stronger.

Now I know that she was wrong and that tight shoes were damaging my feet. I have the ingrown toenail scars to prove it.

I got off lucky though. Things could have been much worse.

According to OrthoInfo, wearing shoes that are too small can cause injuries and permanent deformities. When your feet get squished into small shoes, there isn’t enough room for them to expand. It can affect your balance, making it harder to walk.

Worse yet, you might end up with ingrown toenails, corns, and hammer toe, among other maladies. Some foot problems, like bunions, may even need surgery.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think any shoe is worth having my feet cut open. By this point, it was obvious that smaller shoes weren’t going to work for me.

What’s the Problem with Bigger Shoes?

While I wish the thick sock method worked for those cool running shoes, they didn’t feel right. There was plenty of room for my toes to spread out, but even with the big socks, my foot was sliding back and forth inside. I could just imagine the blisters I’d get after a sprint around the track, let alone after a whole month.

My hunch was correct. Dr. Ramona Brooks is a podiatric surgeon—a doctor who operates on feet—and has seen the damage a larger shoe can do. One big problem is tripping and falling. Another is the increased friction as your foot moves around inside the shoe. The extra room can cause blisters, calluses, and even injuries to your toenails.

How Do You Know If Your Shoes Fit Right?

If you’re not sure if your shoes fit or if it’s time to buy new shoes, you can do a quick test at home.

  • Put on your shoes. Stand up straight and wiggle your toes. If they have room to move, your toebox is big enough. But don’t cheer yet! It could still be too big.
  • Using your fingers, press down on the top of the shoe, right at the tip. You should have about one half of an inch of space between the front of your longest toe and the front of the shoe. If you have more than this, your shoes are too big.
  • Make sure there are no thin spots or holes at the top of the shoe for your toes to poke out of. Worn spots may indicate a bad fit. This is often due to wearing a shoe that’s too narrow for your foot.
  • Check the inside of the shoe that cups the back of your heel. Is it worn and ragged? Your shoes may be too small. This is especially likely if you suffer from frequent blisters or sore spots on the backs of your heels.
  • Check the bottom of the shoes for wear and tear. If the tread has worn down or you can see holes, it’s time for new shoes. If they’ve worn down only in certain places, you may not be getting the right support. Try a different style or size.

The American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society (AOFAS) created this excellent fit guide. And this article in The Men’s Journal has some great fitting tips that work for men and women.

By far, the best way to get properly fitting shoes is to see a professional. They’ll use a special tool called a Brannock Device to measure the length and width of your feet. It’s normal to have one foot bigger than the other, so don’t worry if that happens to you. The sales associate will use those measurements to help you find the right shoes.

It’s a good idea to prepare yourself before you go to the shoe store. If you know what to look for, you can help the associate fine-tune your shoe options. The following YouTube video has some pointers for the next time you go shoe shopping.

Does My Shoe Size Change Over Time?

One popular misconception is that once you reach adulthood, your feet remain the same. That isn’t true, and it’s a risky line of thinking. In fact, that belief causes most people to keep buying the wrong size shoe. Not surprisingly, they end up with the same sore feet and injuries over and over.

Between gravity, loosening ligaments, and age, your feet will continue to change. Experts suggest having your feet measured by a professional once a year.

Standing, walking, and normal daily activities take a toll on your hard-working feet. To help support your feet, have several pairs of shoes ready for different activities and different times of the day.

Is It Safe to Make Ill-fitting Shoes Fit?

Before you dive into shrinking or enlarging your ill-fitting shoes, do your research.

Like the sock advice from earlier, there are a lot of hacks online for making bigger shoes fit your feet. While wearing thicker socks might work for slight size differences, some hacks are downright dangerous. That goes for tricks to stretch small shoes, too.

Considerable engineering went into creating your footwear. Messing with that by stretching or shrinking them could cause serious trouble, including making your shoes cut the back of your ankle. Many of these hacks change the structure of your shoes. When the structure of a shoe is compromised, it causes weak points that can eventually break down.

Aside from damaging your footwear and wasting your money, you can also get injured. Changing the shape of the shoe too drastically can alter the way you walk. It affects how you stand and which parts of the shoe you put pressure on. Any of these may cause tripping, spots that rub, loose spots that flop, and a host of other issues.

Are There Any Shoes That Can Be Adjusted?

With those warnings in mind, it’s important to note that some shoes can be adjusted. Leather shoes usually respond well to gentle stretching. It’s not a good idea to stretch them too far, but it’s possible to make them a little looser. Synthetic shoes may not fare as well, though many people have had success.

This video gives a few tips on stretching shoes, plus information on the tools you might try.

For shoes that are too big, a podiatrist should be your first stop. They often have inserts and other devices that can help. This is especially useful for people with vastly different shoe sizes. The main drawback to a podiatrist is the cost, but you’re less likely to suffer an injury.

So, yes. There are ways to make shoes fit, but your best bet is to get shoes that fit right from the start. It’ll save you time, money, and a lot of pain.

Related Questions

Should your toes touch the end of shoes? No. If your toes are touching the end of your shoes, they’re too small. Make sure you have the width of one finger between the tip of your longest toe and the end of your shoe.

Should I wear a wide shoe? The width of your shoes will vary depending on the style of shoe and the intended activity. If your shoes feel too snug against your big toe and your pinkie toe, you may need wider shoes. If your arch feels tight, try the wider size before sizing up.


Take good care of your shoes, get your feet measured every year, and pay attention to how your feet feel. And if you end up having to choose between wearing bigger or smaller shoes, at least now you’ll be armed with information to help you make the right choice for you.

Kate Edison

My name is Kate, and I created FootwearDynamics to provide information and guidance on problem feet as well as the struggles that arise from having common foot issues. Since experiencing my own difficulties, I’ve decided to share my knowledge with you in the hopes that you’re journey to happy, healthier feet can be less troublesome and quicker to figure out than most.

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