There is nothing like a pair of new shoes to put a lively spring in your step; that is, once they are broken in and do not rub or press your foot. Even though new shoes always look good, they sometimes can feel downright painful.
The most common place new shoes bite you is at the back of your heel. Because heels are designed to be sturdy and prevent your foot from slipping out the shoe, they tend to be harder than other parts of the shoe. Fortunately, there are several ways to break your shoes in so that you can wear them more quickly and comfortably.
As a footwear blogger who has broken in countless pairs of shoes, from tough Doc Martens to stiff canvas sneakers, here are my 13 top tips! I’ve included both FREE methods, and products that will get the job done quick, to ensure you have plenty of options for your needs.
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1. Use A Heel Cup Or Heel Liners To Stop Rubbing Instantly
If you want a quick fix that is guaranteed to stop the painful rubbing on your heels, you can try wearing heel cups or heel liners with your shoes. This will make breaking them in pain-free and easy.
Heel cups are made from high quality skin-safe gel, and provide a protective layer that will take the beating from your new shoes, instead of your poor skin.
Here is my top pick from Amazon, that is affordable and has excellent reviews:
Heel cups are particularly popular with those who play sports, or enjoy high intensity activities like hiking. My thinking is, if they are good enough for those kind of activities, then preventing heel rubbing from your new shoes will be a breeze. My experience with them has been great for breaking in tough boots, like Doc Martens. Say goodbye to your blisters!
Another super easy way to eliminate heel pain, is to use heel liners to cushion your heels as you walk.
Here is an affordable multipack from Amazon that will do the trick for BOTH Men’s and Women’s shoes.
Heel grips act like little cushions, cupping your heels comfortably and eliminating blisters. In the above multipack you get 3 pairs, so you can share them with family, or add them to every pair of shoes that bother you!
Personally I really like heel liners, and use them to protect my feet when breaking in new shoes.
They’re cheap and effective – what’s not to like?
2. Wear Thick Socks to Break in Your Shoes
A great way to soften your shoes is to wear thick socks and walk around in your new shoes. If you don’t have thick socks, wear double socks and walk around your home for 15 minutes at a time. Doing this repeatedly over the course of several days will expand your shoe by 10 to 15%, and the material around your heels will become less stiff.
It will take a while to do this, but the longer you keep your shoes on, and the thicker your socks are, the quicker you will soften the heel of your shoe. Socks that stick above your heel or ankle will make the breaking-in less painful.
Alternatively, wear your shoes with socks while you watch television, eat, or do any other passive activity at home. If you move your feet up and down or flex and point your feet, this will create movement and expand your shoes. This method will take a bit longer, but it will still get the job done.
The great thing about using socks to break your shoes is that you become aware of pain points without having to endure blisters. You can treat these specific spots when you know where the pinches are.
Although it sounds contradictory to making a shoe more comfortable, lacing your leather shoes tight and walking in them is an effective way to stretch them as it puts strain on the upper.
3. Use A Shoe Stretcher To Target The Heels
A fool proof way of breaking in shoes that rub your heel is to use a shoe stretcher.
A proper tool will always be more effective than gritting your teeth through the pain and trying to soften the heels on your shoes yourself.
Here is my top pick that is a reasonable price:
Use a shoe stretcher for 12 to 24 hours at a time, and see how quickly the heels of your new shoes often up. A shoe stretcher is a staple household item that will be used for years to come.
Ask if a member of family could lend you one, or invest in your own and solve the problem once and for all – say goodbye to breaking in painful shoes ever again!
4. Heat Your Shoes to Soften Them
New leather shoes can be particularly difficult to break in. Leather can initially be hard, and it takes a while to relax and stretch.
The leather becomes softer and more pliable when exposed to heat. If you have a hairdryer, it’s a great idea to heat your shoes (focusing on the heel sections the most) and then slip your feet into them when they are warm. Heat them at a distance of 20cm, for a maximum of 15 seconds at a time.
Walk around in warm shoes for a few minutes until they cool down. The shoes will mold to your feet, and the leather will soften up and take the shape of your heel. If you don’t achieve the desired result after the first attempt, try again until your shoes feel comfortable.
Take care not to burn your feet or shoes while you do this. Using the lowest heat setting on your hairdryer is best and avoid holding the nozzle too close to your shoe.
Heat works well for rubber boots and shoes too. Target heat at the trouble spots, but take special care not to overheat the rubber.
Placing leather shoes in the sun also makes them soft; when your shoes are warm, walk around in them to soften the leather.
5. Freeze Your Shoes to Stretch Them
As strange as it sounds, freezing your shoe works wonder when you need to stretch them. Ice expands inside your shoe, and when the shoe has defrosted, the material will have stretched out.
Put a watertight bag of water into each shoe and put them in the freezer. If you are worried about damaging your shoes, put your shoes inside a sealed bag too. Make sure to position the bag of water in the heel area, to expand this section specifically, and reduce the rubbing on your heels.
Leave your shoes to freeze, and when the water inside is well and truly frozen, take your shoes out and let the water in your shoes melt before removing the bag. Your shoe, as well as the material around your heel, will have stretched considerably.
6. Use Newspaper Or Damp Towels To Stretch Your Shoes
Another solution to stretching your shoes is to use damp towels or newspapers. Roll wet newspaper into balls and stuff as many balls as possible into your shoes. Damp towels work just as well. You may damage your shoes if the newspaper or towels are dripping wet, so ensure they aren’t overly saturated and wring them out a bit first.
Leave these in your shoes overnight, and there should be a marked increase in the shape and size of your shoes in the morning. Putting wet newspaper works well if you do not merely fill the front of the shoe but also push as much newspaper or towel into the back. Targeting the heel is key, to reduce the rubbing and pain by expanding the shoes in this area.
Personally I prefer to use a damp dye-free towel, to reduce the risk of ink transfer from the wet newspaper onto the lining of your shoes.
7. Alcohol Works for Stretching Leather
Rubbing alcohol is an old school tip for stretching out leather. It works into the fibers of the leather and expands them, however it can dry out the leather a little in the process. Although this is not always a preferred option because alcohol may damage shoes, it works well, particularly for tight heels at the back of a shoe and for strappy sandals.
Use a small amount of rubbing alcohol on a cotton pad and dab the heel of your shoe with this, then squeeze and press the back of the shoe until it softens. Be gentle and make sure that you do not stain or damage the leather.
Alternatively you can make a solution of 50% rubbing alcohol and 50% water. Mix it in a spray bottle and use this to apply the solution to the heel of your shoes. Then wear your shoes around the house until they dry (or use a shoe stretcher if you want to avoid wet socks!). You will find the heel will have stretched out and softened once completed.
8. Wear Inner Soles or Orthotics
Both inner soles and orthotics raise your foot, particularly at the heel area, so that your foot and the top of the heel protrude above the collar of your shoes. A raised heel prevents direct contact with the top of the back of your shoe, which is often the part that digs into your heel causing rubbing.
The advantage of orthotics is that they are specifically designed for your foot, so the shoe will ultimately mold to the specific shape of your foot.
Gel inner soles work wonders as well. Because the soles provide ample padding, your foot will not slip and slide inside your shoe, creating friction at the heel.
9. Use a Stretching Spray and Shoe Stretcher
Many shoe stores now sell special stretch spray that softens the shoe and stretches it while you walk or even wear it. You can also find shoe stretching online, that is safe for use with leather, canvas, suede and more.
To enhance the effect of the stretching spray, use a shoe stretcher. Spray your shoes and leave the shoe stretcher inside them until you want to wear them out and about.
10. Oil and Rub Your Shoes
Oily substances soften the heels of leather shoes, particularly on the back of the shoe. Use any of the following oils to make your shoes moldable:
- Castor oil
- Mink oil
- Shoe oil
- Olive oil
Rub oil on your shoe’s heel and bend or squeeze it for 5 to 10 minutes. This should soften the leather and eliminate any rigidness. Test the oil on a small section of your shoe to ensure it does not stain, and use only a small amount of oil.
Alternatively try a leather conditioner for leather shoes.
11. Use Soap To Soften The Heels
An age-old hack is to rub a hard bar of soap inside the heels of your shoes to soften the leather and make it easier to bend. After rubbing the soap in your shoe, bend it to make the leather more malleable. Put the shoe on and walk around to let it take on the shape of your foot.
12. Bend and Twist Canvas and Sport Shoes
Even those these shoes appear soft; they can be hard and uncomfortable at first. The best solution to breaking in material shoes is to bend and twist them in all directions, even pressing and pulling on the heel of the shoe.
Wear socks higher than the top ridge of your shoe, particularly with sports shoes, to prevent the solid foot support from rubbing against your heels. However, your preferred socks may be thinner and lower like a secret sock; use high protective socks to minimize friction while you break in the shoe.
If the shoe is a sports shoe, the solution could be as simple as removing the shoe laces and rethreading them so that they are more comfortable and put less pressure on your foot.
13. Other Tips for Breaking in Shoes and Heels
There are several other ways to stretch your shoes and alleviate heel rubbing:
- Strappy sandals – Dunk your foot into cold water while wearing your shoe. Dry the shoe off and walk around in the wet shoe, stretching the back straps on the sandals.
- Use a cobbler – Go for professional craftsmanship to hammer and fix expensive leather shoes.
- Rub your shoe with alcohol – Although this is a favorite technique for many people, it could damage the fabric and strip the color.
- Use a potato – Wedge it in the front of your shoe and leave it overnight. In the morning, your shoe will have stretched and be roomier, so your heel isn’t squashed and pinched.
- Seams and ridges – Check inside the shoe and look for seams and other ridges that could hurt your feet. If there are any rough patches, wear band-aids or tape until they soften up.
- Tighten leather shoes – Although it sounds contradictory to making a shoe more comfortable, lacing your leather shoes tight and walking around at home stretches them.
Top Tips to Protect Your Feet While Breaking in Your Shoes
Making a shoe wearable can sometimes be quite challenging; in the interim, there are many ways to protect your heels and lessen the friction between your foot and the shoe.
Keeping Your Feet Dry Prevents Friction
If your feet are moist, they tend to slip and slide in your shoes and chafe against the heels. Feet that slip around in the shoe cause friction between the foot and the shoe, often affecting the heel area as the shoe slips from front to back. Here are some ways to solve this problem and keep your feet dry:
- If your feet tend to sweat, apply clear deodorant and focus on areas that rub against your shoe.
- Dust talcum powder in your shoes and on your feet.
- Wear an innersole and wrap it in a moisture-absorbent sock.
- Make sure that your feet are completely dry before you wear shoes.
Prevent Blisters When Wearing New Shoes
Even though you have worn your shoes and they continue to rub against your heels, you may still need to find ways to prevent your heels from blistering and blisters from popping. There are numerous ways to protect your heels:
- Rub Vaseline on your heel to create a barrier between the shoe and your heel.
- Use gel pads and attach them to your heels. There are many different adhesive gel pads on the market.
- Use duct tape, sports tape, and plasters to protect your heel.
- Electrical tape works exceptionally well because it has padding.
- Heel grips work well in preventing heels from rubbing against the back of shoes.
Buying the Correct Size Shoe Prevents Excessive Abrasion
Fitting and buying the right shoe makes a difference in how easy or difficult it is to wear your shoe in. Podiatrists give the following advice:
- Always shop for shoes later in the day as your feet will be swollen, and your shoes must fit any time of the day.
- Try the shoe on your longest and broadest foot first.
- Walk around in the shoe before you buy it; this will give you a good idea of where the shoes will pinch and rub your foot.
- Wear socks when trying on your shoe.
- Rather buy a half or full size too big than a size too small. Shoes can only stretch to a certain degree, so smaller shoes may need to stretch more to give you a comfortable fit.
- Doctors and podiatrists agree that wearing ill-fitting shoes is not a good idea. Shoes that don’t fit properly cause bunions, corns, foot, and heel pain and deformity. Rather, find a well-fitting shoe, never sacrificing foot comfort for fashion.
- Not only does the breadth and length of the shoe matter, but the angle and height of the heel, the position of straps, and any materials that cover your foot’s bridge also matter. Takes this into account when buying shoes and make sure that none of these style elements can cause friction in your shoe.
Measure Your Foot Correctly When Buying Shoes Online
Suppose you buy shoes online; never assume that shoe sizes have the same dimensions across the board. Different makes of shoes may have slightly different measurements from others.
To accurately measure the size of your foot, you need a piece of paper or cardboard, a pencil, and a measuring tape. Better still, your measurements will be most accurate if someone else helps you take them.
Firstly, place your biggest foot firmly on paper or cardboard. Use the same pressure as you when you wear a shoe. If you plan on wearing socks with your shoes, wear them when measuring your foot.
Draw an exact outline around your foot. The outline will be the most accurate if someone assists you. The concern is that when you trace around your foot, the pressure that you apply will most likely change because you need to lean forward.
When using this as a guide to buying shoes, consider that there needs to be some room between your toes and the tip of the shoe. Use the outline to measure from the longest point to the back of your foot, which is the length of your foot.
Compare your foot measurements to the size table of the shoe brand you plan to buy. Measure the breadth across your foot from the widest point, where your bunions would be. As with the length of your foot, consider that it will not be comfortable if you need to squash your feet into shoes.
Other factors to consider are the instep of your foot and how high the bridge of your foot is. Consider this when deciding on a pair of shoes; pick a style that won’t rub across the top of your foot.
Particularly when it comes to heels, look at the shape of your heel. Some shoes have narrower backs than others or higher collars. Consider whether this will rub against your heel. Likewise, if you choose a pair of strappy heels, consider the style and whether the heel strap will dig into your ankle.
New shoes often cause painful friction between the back of the shoe and your heel. The best way to prevent rubbing and blisters is to find a suitable way to break in your shoe. There are several ways of making shoes more supple, and the method you choose depends on the shoe’s material, the shoe’s style, and the shoe’s size.
The most practical idea is to break in shoes at home before you head out and about with them. Wearing thick socks works well, as does heating the shoe, freezing the shoe, oiling, and bending and twisting them. Buying the correct shoe size makes it so much easier to wear in your shoes.
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Lorna is a footwear geek and the founder of Wearably Weird. She created a YouTube channel in 2021 for fellow footwear fanatics, dedicated to detail-rich footwear reviews and info. She has a fashion media qualification (awarded in 2011).