There’s only one thing that smells worse after running than you or your running shorts: Your Goddamn shoes. It’s strong, it’s putrid and it’s a little astonishing that that smell somehow originated from you.
Running shoes aren’t cheap, and you’ve got to be careful with your cash. So what are you supposed to do about it, and how do you get rid of it? Since it’s the height of summertime, when everyone’s at their sweatiest, I asked true experts: the kinds of people whose vocation involves dealing with funky shoes pretty much daily. Surprisingly, almost no one mentioned the vast array of Odor Eaters-type products you can buy, or the bowling alley shoe spray. Instead, they each had some tip or trick that definitely seems worth sharing.
The Shoe Repairman
I first call up a shoe repair store in my city, Yes Shoe Repair, which once did a knockout job rehabbing some widely admired saddle shoes of mine. I figured, who deals with worn shoes more often than a shoe repairman? He tells me that they just shampoo the shoe completely. “We’ll take out the insole, then shampoo the fabric because that’s what usually absorbs the most smell,” the repairman says. “Then we have some deodorizers from different brands, like Angelus, that help a lot.”
You can do this at home, he says, if you just buy the right product, whether it’s for leather or fabric. Or take it to a store and have them do it — they charge about $15. “We’ve had pretty good results with it,” he tells me. Sounds good enough!
The Grail Seller
Next I cold-call Vintage Threads & Grails with my awkward line of questioning on how they get the smell out of shoes. Resellers like this obviously aim for shoes in the best condition, but hell, if there’s a really coveted pair of J’s that’s beat up, they’re gonna restore it or die tryin’.
What he says damn near blows my mind, and once yours is done being blown too, it’s something you can try at home. “After washing the exterior with whatever cloth or cleaning material I use, I’ll put them in those big gallon-size Ziplock bags, and then I put them in the freezer overnight, or at least for 12 hours,” he says. “A lot of times the freezer will kill off any of the odor-causing bacteria that might be on the shoe.”
He says he got the idea from his kids’ stuffed animals, which he was told to put in the freezer overnight to kill germs, so he tried it with shoes. It doesn’t fix every single shoe — particularly if the stink is really ingrained in some leather — but it does a good enough job, he says.
Just be sure to put them in a bag! You don’t wanna contaminate your DiGiornos.
The Vintage Store
How about another vintage retailer? They must know all about this stuff! And indeed, Kristin at Frock You! Vintage Clothing keeps it really simple. “My favorite cleaning solution is a spray bottle and rubbing alcohol,” she says, adding that it’s a good cleaner for inside the shoe, and it even takes the scuff marks off of white leather or other stuff on the outside. Don’t even dilute it — use it straight-up. There’s also a product she likes called Soilove that’s available at 99 Cents Only stores, as well as Walmart and sometimes supermarkets. “It has a tendency to really kill a lot of nastiness,” she says.
She also shares one definite no-no. “People used to put baby powder in shoes — that’s nasty,” she says. “That’s the worst idea ever.”
The Running Shoe Guru
This question, though, could never be answered completely until I called one man: Brian Metzler, a running journalist, ultra-marathoner and author of Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes. (Full disclosure, he’s also my former boss.) He knows more about running shoes than many shoe designers, and has tested more of them than almost anyone else on the planet. How does he of all people get the smell out of shoes?
The most important thing, he says, is to never run without socks (if you’ve ever done so, you’ve figured this out the hard way). But no matter how you’ve gotten your shoes stinky, he recommends two methods: First, just try hosing them off! He says that helps a lot. “Fresh water can cure a lot of things,” he says.
The other method he recommends is throwing them in the washing machine. Since running shoes aren’t only delicate but also expensive, stick to a few simple rules: Use cold water and regular detergent; maybe throw in a load of towels or jeans with them — i.e., something that’ll keep them moving around and provide some gentle scrubbing action. Afterward, let them dry outside. Direct sunlight is okay, too, as long as your shoes aren’t scorching in it.
A couple of don’ts: Never, ever put a pair of running shoes in the dryer, and don’t use harsh chemicals like bleach on them. The materials, the stitching and the glues can’t handle it, and you’ll be shopping for new shoes before you know it.
If you’re worried about shoe shrinkage, don’t. “There’s typically nothing in a running shoe in this day and age that would shrink, because almost everything is synthetic: There’s no more leather or anything close to that on a running shoe,” Metzler says. “There might be a little bit of temporary shrinkage, as opposed to a cotton or leather that would probably permanently shrink significantly.” So you might get a tightness the first time you put them on, he says, but they’ll stretch back out on your first run post-cleaning.
Finally, while you might be cleaning your shoes for the smell, Metzler points out other benefits besides not having them stanking out your whole area. “Sometimes it’s partly that they stink, but to me, it’s also the appearance,” he says. “I do like a clean shoe: There’s a feeling of being fast or fluid that to me partly comes from the idea that we feel good if we look good.”
It’s that same feeling you get when you run in new shoes for the first time — and it’s not because they have that out-of-the-box aroma. The best way to get back that new-shoe vibe during your runs is to clean them, and, of course, get the funk out.