The modern athletic shoe is a far cry from the canvas Keds and Converse high top sneakers that your parents and grandparents may have grown up with. Today there is a wide range of athletic shoes, specific for each sport, with many brands, styles and features within each athletic shoe category. With so many choices, going into a store to pick out athletic shoes can be overwhelming. I’ll share some factors to consider so you can make the best choice to support and protect your foot and to help prevent injury.
Before we discuss specific shoes, let’s talk a little bit about your feet. Before choosing an athletic shoe, it is important to know the type of foot you have. If you have flat feet, your foot may lack proper support, which can result in strain and stress on the foot, legs and knees. If you have a high arch, your feet may be more vulnerable to overuse injuries during sports and exercise. Because the high arch foot is more rigid, it tends to be a poor shock absorber.
One way to get an idea of your arch type is to place your wet foot on dry concrete or a piece of paper. If most of your footprint appears on the ground or paper, you may have a flat foot. If most of the middle portion of your footprint is not visible, you may have a high arch. If you suspect you may have a flat foot or high arch, it’s best to consult with a podiatrist for an evaluation so you can be sure to choose the best shoe for your foot type.
Anatomy and fit of an athletic shoe
A shoe is made up of many parts that are meant to provide support and protection:
- The outer sole is the outermost surface of the sole, the tread.
- The upper is the uppermost part of the shoe, the part that contains your foot and has the laces.
- The midsole is the layer of material between the upper and the outer sole. This layer provides most of the shock absorption and stability of the shoe.
- The shank is the area of the midsole from the heel to the ball of the foot.
- The counter is the rigid piece surrounding the back of the heel, which supplies stability to the foot.
When looking for athletic shoes, you want to choose a shoe that provides maximum support and protection. Athletic shoes for most sports should have at least a 1” heel height. You should check a shoe’s stability by holding the shoe at each end and bending it upward. A shoe with a supportive, rigid shank should bend at the part of the shoe under the ball of the foot and not at the arch. Squeeze the counter at the back of the shoe. The counter should be firm and rigid and not easily bent.
Proper fit is an important factor in choosing the right shoe. It is important that the shoe you choose is based on how well it fits, and not its labeled size. Shoe size can vary by style and manufacturer. Ill-fitting shoes can cause blisters and injury to your toes and toenails. To avoid a shoe that does not fit you properly:
- Shop for shoes later in the day, when your foot may be a little swollen. This will give you a better idea about how the shoe will fit and whether it will be comfortable.
- Wear the socks you exercise in when trying on shoes.
- Allow about 1/2” (a finger’s breadth) between the edge of the shoe and the end of your longest toe. Make sure the width and height of the toe box are wide and high enough to accommodate your toes and the widest part of your foot. If one foot is longer or wider than the other, select the size for the larger foot.
- Your heel should fit snuggly in the counter of the shoe, without slipping or causing rubbing or irritation.
When possible, buy shoes you can return. Wear the shoes around the house and if they are not comfortable, return them. Shoes should be comfortable from the time you put them on in the store. Beware of shoes that you feel you have to “break in” to be comfortable.
Types of Athletic Shoes
Choosing the proper athletic shoe is important, both for the enjoyment of a sport and to reduce the risk of injury. Different types of athletic activity put stress and strain on different parts of the body. The wrong athletic shoe can cause injury, not only to your feet, but also to your knees, hips, back and other parts of your body.
The type of exercise or sports activity that you participate in will help to determine which shoe may be best for you. Serious participants in any sport should consult with their coach, trainer, or other professional who specializes in the sport and has a personal knowledge of your specific interests, abilities and level of participation.
Running shoes should provide cushioning, traction and stability. The outer sole should be durable, the counter and midsole shank should be rigid, and the shoe itself should be as light and flexible as possible. Running shoes tend to have more cushioning in the heel and less at the ball of the foot. Running shoe uppers tend to have more mesh to keep the feet cooler.
A walking shoe should have a comfortable, soft upper, with good shock absorbency, a relatively smooth tread, and a rocker type sole that would encourage the natural roll of the foot during walking. Walking shoes should provide stability and durability on different walking terrains.
Cross-training shoes give more control for lateral or sideways motion, in addition to shock absorbency, making them a better choice for activities like aerobic classes. Running and walking shoes are built more for forward motion and do not provide as much lateral stability as do cross-trainers. Most cross-trainers also have a wider outer-sole than running or walking shoes, which adds to the side-to-side (or lateral) stability of the shoe.
Court and Field Sport Shoes
Sports such as tennis, basketball, soccer or baseball require a shoe specific to each sport. Court shoes (tennis, basketball, racquetball, volleyball) should be sturdy with a stable sole made for indoor court activity. They should have support for side-to-side as well as back and forth motions. Field sport shoes (soccer, football, baseball) usually have cleats, studs or spikes. You should consult your coach or trainer for recommendations.
There is a growing movement away from wearing any shoe that interferes with what is perceived as normal walking and running. “Barefoot” shoes usually have uppers made of lightweight material, with soles of 3-millimeter thick polyurethane. They may have separate pockets for each toe. The risks vs. benefits of barefoot running are still unclear, but be aware that barefoot running can cause injury in individuals with underlying biomechanical foot problems. If you are seriously considering barefoot running or “barefoot” shoes, you should first consider an examination by a podiatrist to determine if you have any underlying structural issues with your foot that need to be considered and addressed.
How many different pairs of athletic shoes do you need?
Whether you really need a separate pair of shoes for each sport that you participate in will be determined by the sport and your level of participation. For example, walking in a running shoe is possible, depending upon the shoe, the comfort, and the level of activity. However, due to the walking shoe structure and the greater stress that is placed on the foot with running, it is not recommended to run or jog in walking shoes. Because walking shoes are stiffer and running shoes are more flexible with extra cushioning to handle greater impact, it is recommended that you get a pair for each activity if you do both frequently.
One final note
It is important that you retire worn-out, beloved old shoes to prevent injury through a loss of support and shock absorbency. Check your shoe often for evidence of wear. Even if your athletic shoe still looks good, if they have taken you more than 300-500 miles, it may be time to replace them.