Athletic Shoes 101

It’s important to have proper fitting footwear to protect your feet, legs, ankles, and most importantly, your back from discomfort or even injury. Chronic activity with ill fitting, or inappropriate shoes can break down joints and tissue, making it more prone to injury. 

First, it is important to choose the right shoe for the sport to protect your feet from the stresses of that sport.   Walking into a shoe store to buy athletic shoes can be confusing when it comes to buying the right shoe for your feet and your sport of interest.   Second, if you are running, it is of the utmost importance that the shoe be appropriate for your arch height (pronated, average, high arch-underpronate), body type (heavy weight, lean), and also how your foot strikes the ground. 

Here are some tips on observations you can make to help you know what to look for in your next pair of shoes: 

Know your foot

Feet come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Your shoes should match the shape of your foot and the way your feet strike the ground.  Look at your last pair of shoes.  Notice where they show the most amount of wear.

1. Overpronation: If your shoe shows the most wear on the inside edge, it means that you have low arches or flat feet and have a tendency toward overpronation, meaning your feet roll inward.  This causes extra wear on the outside heel and inside forefoot.  Choose a shoe with high support, and possibly motion-control, depending on how overpronated you are.

2. Underpronation: If your shoes wear out mostly on the outside edge, then this means you have high arches and tend to underpronate, which means your feet roll outward.  This causes wear on the outer edge of the heel and the little toe.  Choose a cushioned shoe with a soft midsole or neural arch depending upon how underpronated you are. 

3. Neutral:  If your shoes wear out evenly on both sides, then you have a neutral arch.  You are in the majority!  Look for a neutral arch shoe or mild stability (if a little pronation) shoe, which has the right combination of cushioning and support. 

Shop around and get expert advice.  Shoe stores offer many kinds of shoes for active people.  Visit one or more stores you trust.  Try on various styles and brands.  Often, private athletic shoes stores in your area (not chain stores usually) have employees that will watch you walk with your shoes off to get an indication of what your personal needs are in a good fit and function. They can also help you choose the shoe best suited for the kind of activity you do. 

Shop toward the end of the day or after working outYour feet swell at the end of the day or after exercising.  Try on shoes when your feet are at their largest.  Be sure to have your foot measured every time you shop for shoes.  Foot size often changes with age so choose shoes that fit, not by the size that you’ve worn in the past.  

Shop with your socksTry shoes on with the kind of socks you normally wear when exercising.  If you wear orthotics, be sure the shoes fit with them inside.  The salespeople will let you replace the insole of the shoe with your orthotic if you ask so you will know how the shoe really fits you as you will wear it. This is key, particularly if you already have injuries or want to prevent any.

No need to break in!  Athletic/running shoes should be comfortable right away. Try them on and walk around. They should NOT need to “stretch out” later.  There should be one thumb’s width of space between your longest toe and the end of the shoe.  The heel should NOT pinch or slip around when you walk, and they should bend easily at the ball of your feet (just behind your toes). Run around the store if you need to make sure. 

Choose the right shoe for your sportEach sport has shoes designed for specific demands made on the feet and ankles.  Look for these features when buying a shoe for your sport:

Note* Athletic shoes should not bend anywhere other than the ball of the foot. If the shoe bends in multiple places, it is likely too flimsy for even a neutral runner and demonstrates poor quality. You would be surprised at how many “fashionable” shoes are flimsy and don’t adequately support the activity.  

 1. Running - Choose a shoe that is light, has a thick, cushioned sole, and supports the foot while moving forward.  You'll need slightly different shoes depending on whether you'll be on the road or on trails. The outsoles of road shoes have just a few grooves in a mostly flat surface. The bottoms of trail shoes have a deeper tread for better traction on dirt or mud. Trail shoes' uppers are often waterproof.  

2. Walking - Choose a shoe that allows your foot to roll and push off naturally while walking.  A walking shoe usually has a fairly rigid arch, a well-cushioned sole, and a stiff heal support for stability. 

3. Aerobics – An aerobic shoe should provide sufficient cushioning and shock absorption and should have good side-to-side stability to withstand forceful impact.  Shoes need an arch support that will compensate for these forces.  It should also have strap support to provide stability to the front of your foot and to prevent slippage.  The upper part of the shoe should be high enough to prevent irritation to your toes and nails.

 4.Cycling – The key to cycling shoes is that they have a hard, completely inflexible bottom. There should be no ability to bend the shoe. Many of the new indoor cycling shoes are very flexible. These are not ideal, particularly for outdoor cycling. The bottom of the shoe should be firm in order to prevent injury to the foot, ankle and even knee and back joints. The upper part of a cycling shoe is the most important part of the fit.  The shoe should fit tightly but not so tight that is can restrict blood flow to the feet.  

5. Cross-Training – Cross-training shoes meet the comfort, cushioning, stability and requirements of many sports and activities.  The bottom soles of cross-training shoes are wide and stable to provide side-to-side support and stability that is needed for a variety of sports.  They are the most economical choice since they allow you to buy a single pair of athletic shoes for a variety of uses.  Cross-trainers, however, are not recommended for those who are on a regular running program. They do not offer enough cushioning and flexibility for runners and are heavier than typical running shoes. 

Consider fit and comfort before priceYou don’t have to buy the most expensive shoe on the market to get the best athletic shoe.  If you want a fashionable shoe or one backed by a celebrity, you’ll probably pay more and it likely won’t be the one you need. Fashionable shoes are usually designed with a neutral foot in mind to fit the majority.  On the other hand, you don’t want an inexpensive pair of shoes that could fail you and cause injury.  Choose a high-quality shoe that fits your foot the best and make sure they are comfortable. 

Know when to replace themAccording to the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, the average pair of running shoes should be replaced after about 350 to 550 miles.  This means that you should probably replace your shoes before they show any signs of major wear.  The shoe will gradually lose its absorption capacity and stability before it shows signs of wear. If it is not a running shoe you are actually running in (average miles or replace every 6 months), a good rule of thumb is to replace your athletic shoes once per year regardless of whether they still “look good”. Sometimes the wear that could create injury is not evident to the eye.


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