Dr. Tyson Green, Podiatric Specialist
Our feet are our main means of transportation. The average person puts their feet under tremendous pressure every day, just from daily activities. For an athlete or someone who exercises regularly, wear and tear on the feet is even more intense.
The shoes you wear for your sport or preferred fitness activity should be as carefully considered as any piece of equipment you use. In fact, it's actually the most important equipment to consider. Your shoes provide the foundation for your athletic performance. Choosing the right shoe can make a huge difference in keeping your feet and body healthy.
It can be difficult to pass up an awesome-looking shoe that matches your team uniform or that just screams "look at me," but in the long run you'll be glad you did. The most important thing about a shoe is not how it looks, but that it serves its function—to support and protect your feet during physical activity.
The first thing you should check for when buying a shoe is the material. The material for an athletic shoe needs to be breathable, especially for runners. An all-leather shoe can cause excessive sweating, skin breakdown and athlete's foot. Webbing on the top part of a shoe is a good choice for this reason. It is better to buy a running shoe over a walking shoe, because a running shoe has better construction and is lighter and more breathable.
When choosing a shoe style it should be a comfortable, perfect fit from the first time you try it on. Everyone should have their feet measured while standing to determine their correct shoe size. A shoe should never have to be "broken-in." Athletes run a lot, so breaking in a shoe risks injuries and blisters. And just like tires, shoes need to be replaced regularly. You should swap out your athletic shoes for new ones when the tread starts to wear or the shoe is wearing out in different areas. For runners, it is recommended that you get new shoes at least every 400 miles. This is about 20 weeks for the average runner. At this rate, an average runner should get about two to three pairs of athletic shoes a year.
A good athletic shoe should also have sufficient support. Stabilizing the heel is the most important part of the support function. The heel controls the rest of your foot, so if the heel is supported well, chances are the rest of your foot will be as well. Try the "bend test," which is a good way to test a shoe to see if it has adequate support. If the shoe bends in the middle it is not a good pick, but if it bends in the toes it could possibly be a winner.
Adding an insert to your shoe can give your foot more direct support. Socks and shoes alone do not give your foot enough support for serious athletic activity. There is no shoe out on the market that is made with a sufficient insert because it would be a costly expense. What you purchase is standardized for retail manufacturing, not customized for your foot. If you choose to add an insert, choose one with a heel cup to offer actual support, unlike a gel insert which is flimsy.
Good quality inserts can typically be purchased from a podiatrist, orthopedic specialist, or a physical therapist. Over-the-counter inserts from these sources are fine in most cases, but if someone has a chronic or severe foot problem or injury, they should get prescription inserts. Orthotics are one-size-fit-all, but there are significant advantages to getting an insert designed specifically for your own foot. At the Center for Orthopedics, patients can get a foot scan done to acquire an exact geographical map of their foot and its pressure points. We use this to create a custom orthotic insert that will fit inside any athletic shoe. It can be moved from shoe to shoe and will last longer than your shoes, providing uniform support and comfort, reducing not only wear and tear on your feet, but more importantly, your risk of foot and ankle injuries.
What about trends like barefoot-running and the popularity of shape-up shoes to help people lose weight and tighten and firm their legs and bottoms? I'm not a big fan. Barefoot running may sound natural, but it's not natural for us in this country. We grow up wearing shoes and our feet and ankles develop with a dependence on this support for walking and running. Our ligaments and tendon structures are not adapted to support bare feet under the stress of running. It can lead to pain and injury.
Shape-up shoes are really just a gimmick; one that can lead to problems. The advertisements for these shoes claim they give you a work-out when walking, and walking is definitely good for you, but it's the activity that provides the benefit, not the shoe. You'll get more benefit from walking by choosing a comfortable shoe that fits well, not by wearing one with a sole that is an unfamiliar size and shape. That can lead to fatigue and increase instability. I know some people swear by them and that's great, but in my patients, I've seen more negative than positive results.
When it comes to fitness, quality and fit, not gimmicks and flash, are what really matter. Choosing the right athletic shoe doesn't have to be difficult. Feet are smart. They'll tell you if the shoes aren't right. It's up to you to listen to them.