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Ever stare up at the racks of an athletic-shoe store feeling just a tad overwhelmed? Picking through the plethora of options can be a daunting task: There seem to be shoes for every activity and in every conceivable style.

While some variables are purely cosmetic, a great many options hinge on functional features and foot type. And all of that is important, because wearing the wrong shoe for your sport, foot or body mechanics can lead to nasty conditions like shin splints (inflammation of the connective tissues that attach your muscles to your tibia, or shin bone) or plantar fasciitis (irritation and pain in the plantar fascia, the tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes). Conditions like these can create severe discomfort and pose daunting fitness obstacles. A good match, meanwhile, can take you to the next level in both comfort and performance.

So how do you recognize wrong-shoe syndrome before injuries occur? And how can you wade through the marketing blitz to find the right shoes for you? Read on, and you’ll be taking a firm step in the right direction.

Form Follows Function

Remember when everyone had one pair of Chuck Taylors to wear for everything from hiking to shooting hoops? Well, we’ve become a bit more selective, and shoe manufacturers have gotten a lot more savvy to our wide variety of fitness needs. “Nowadays, there’s no reason to settle when it comes to athletic shoes. There are styles for every kind of exercise and foot type,” says Chicago-based sports-medicine podiatrist and certified athletic trainer Lisa Schoene, DPM.

And, while it may seem that the marketing is just a bunch of hype, the array of choices can actually be a good thing – assuming you know how to choose. To get started, evaluate your footwear on these two fronts:

1. Are these the right shoes for my body mechanics and foot type?
Tune in to your body and you’ll recognize the telltale signs of a doomed relationship, explains Schoene. Foot or knee pain usually means that your shoes are skewing your alignment (or at least not supporting it). Ignore the pain and you’ll likely end up with an injury. For instance, if you get a nagging pain in your right knee every time you run, or if your ankles roll while you’re lifting weights, you may need a different pair of shoes.

2. Are these the right shoes for my chosen activity (or activities)?
Don’t try to do it all in one shoe, since different sports put different stressors on your feet, cautions Stephen M. Pribut, DPM, a Washington, D.C.–based sports-medicine podiatrist and a past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. Here, with Pribut’s help, we look at what three types of athletic shoes have to offer.

Running Shoes (Good for people who run more than 5 miles per week.)

Running shoes are designed for straight-ahead motion, have mesh or breathable uppers, and offer a variety of features to support your foot type. Their midsoles are structurally important, because the materials used there affect the degree of cushioning and the amount of stability and motion control. If you’re a severe pronator – someone who has flat feet, or whose feet roll inward while running or walking – you shouldn’t pick an overly cushy shoe. The cushion allows motion after foot strike. (To identify your motion-control needs, see “Assess Your Foot Type.”)

Weightlifting Shoes (Good for serious lifters of heavy weights.)

Specialized weightlifting shoes have dense, stable midsoles, thin outsoles, reinforced outer side straps for lateral stability, ventilated leather uppers, and rubber grips to prevent sliding. Styles such as the Adidas Ironwork II and the Adidas adiStar Weightlifting shoe were designed for Olympic weightlifters and bodybuilders – in other words, those who pump iron in a big way. Fitness-shoe retailers generally don’t stock this type of shoe. But for most general weightlifting purposes, cross-trainers will do nicely. Something to keep in mind: You shouldn’t lift weights in running shoes – the extra cushioning reduces stability.

Cross-Training Shoes (Good for people who participate in aerobics or other gym classes, do light weight training, or switch quickly from the stair climber to the bike.)

Cross-trainers have low heels; offer some stability features, such as dual-density midsoles; and typically have uppers constructed of synthetic, breathable mesh. Initially designed as a multipurpose court shoe, their reach has extended into light running and recreational weight training. If you’re jogging only to warm up, or if the bulk of your strength training is light or on machines, you can wear cross-trainers. But get specialty shoes for field sports, heavy weightlifting and distance running. Because even though cross-trainers do offer moderate cushioning and more lateral stability than running shoes, they don’t provide the variety of custom features necessary for intense training.

If you depend on your feet to get you through your workouts, give them the footwear they deserve. Once you’re clear on what they need and why, shoe shopping won’t seem so intimidating after all.

Assess Your Foot Type

Podiatrists perform evaluations that include a gait analysis and precise measurements of the difference between the ideal neutral foot position and your relaxed foot position. Shoe specialists at specialty running stores will also evaluate your feet in different shoes as you run on in-store treadmills. (Don’t be shy about asking for an evaluation – they can be very useful.)

But you can also get a handle on your foot type at home. To determine shape, try this “wet test.” With bare, wet feet, step onto a surface such as a sidewalk or dark construction paper that shows the imprint of your foot. The characteristics of your imprint reflect the shape of your feet.

1. Overpronator. A flat foot with a complete outlined impression. Because the foot strikes on the outside and rolls excessively inward, you’ll need shoes with a straight or semi-curved last (the basic shape of the shoe) for stability, as well as features, such as high medial support, that offer maximum motion control and stability for the inside of the foot.

2. Supinator. A high-arched foot that doesn’t leave an imprint where your arch should be. This foot type tends to underpronate, or roll outward, and, as a result, is not a good shock absorber. Look for shoes with a semi-curved or curved last to encourage some pronation, and lightweight midsole cushioning materials like ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) for more flexibility. Stay away from styles boasting high motion control or medial support.

3. Neutral. A neutral foot that leaves a moderate imprint in the arch area. This foot type is ideal, generally landing on the outside but rolling inward slightly to absorb shock. Because they require minimal alignment correction, neutral foot types may benefit from shoes that imitate barefoot running, such as the Nike Free. Or, try a semi-curved last with moderate cushioning (for general shock absorption). Stability or motion-control features are unnecessary.

While the wet test determines the shape of your foot, it may not always accurately reflect biomechanics, explains sports-medicine podiatrist Lisa Schoene, DPM. “I’ve seen patients who have very high arches on the wet test, but when they run, their arches collapse, so we still have to correct for overpronation.” To evaluate biomechanics, she suggests that you stand barefoot in front of a mirror and squat or lunge. Look at your feet during the motion. Note whether the arches collapse and roll inward (overpronation), roll outward (supination), or remain fairly neutral.

Shoe Wear-‘n’-Tear

No matter how perfectly they match your needs initially, there comes a time when even the right shoes simply wear out, quickly becoming the wrong ones. Here’s how to tell if it’s time to bid your current footwear farewell.

  • There are holes in the outsoles, or the uppers look frayed or worn.
  • Worn-out shoes feel dead. There’s little cushioning or stability. You get aches and pains when you wear them.
  • Athletic shoes of any kind should never see a birthday, says sports-medicine podiatrist Lisa Schoene, DPM. She suggests changing shoes every 400 miles or once a year, whichever comes first. Are your shoes serving as closet dust collectors? You still have to swap them, Schoene says — shoe materials deteriorate over time even if you don’t wear them frequently.

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