Find the right athletic shoe for you
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Athletic shoes are a breed all their own. A properly fitted pair can make your workouts more enjoyable and more effective, supporting your legs and giving them stamina to work out harder and longer. The wrong shoes can cause pain and injuries, such as shin splits and strained muscles. With rack after rack of running shoes, walking shoes, basketball shoes and cross-trainers all offering their own unique system of cushioning—air, foam, gel—how do you know which one is right for you? Enter footwear specialists. Take Rob Tenny, a specialist at Canyon Ranch Health Resort in Tucson, Arizona. For 29 years he has helped men and women find the right shoe for their feet and their activity of choice. The biggest problem Tenny sees with athletic shoes is that most are too small for the wearer. “I always tell people they should wear their shoes much bigger than they think they need,” he says. “When we exercise, especially when we run, our feet move forward. As we apply pressure to our feet, they flex and move around inside the shoe, which pushes our feet forward—usually right up against the toe of the shoe.” When most of us fit shoes, we leave only enough space for a thumb to fit between the foot and the tip of the shoe. According to Tenny, you should double that amount. “When trying on athletic shoes, make sure they fit snugly in the heel,” he says. “And there should be enough room to place two thumb widths between your largest toe—which isn’t necessarily your big toe—and the tip of the shoe.” What happens if you buy shoes that are too short? “You’ll eventually suffer everything from blisters and bunions to corns and calluses,” Tenny says. Your athletic shoe size should run 1 to 1 1/2 sizes bigger than the size you wear for dress shoes.
Yet most people balk at wearing larger-size shoes; larger footwear doesn’t look as good and often does not feel as comfortable at first. But Tenny guarantees that if you wear them for a while, they’ll feel more comfortable than smaller shoes. “Feet weren’t meant to be constrained,” he says. “The best we can do is ensure that our feet feel good and have enough room to move.”
What’s Your Type?
Your foot type is another issue to consider when fitting athletic shoes. By wearing shoes that are the wrong shape for your foot, you put yourself at risk for injury, not to mention discomfort. There are three basic foot types: straight, curved and normal. To determine your type, stand barefoot in front of a mirror, with feet shoulder-width apart. If your heel rolls to the outside (overpronates), you have a straight foot. If your heel rolls to the inside (underpronates), you have a curved foot. If it is centered, you have a normal foot. What is pronation? After initial ground contact, your foot is designed to roll inward to disperse shock. People with normal feet pronate, meaning that with each step, they hit with the heel and then roll their foot inward. Overpronation occurs when your foot rolls too far inward and “rolls off” the shoe, when the ball of your foot should be pushing off. An overpronator’s foot is typically flat and moves around a lot, twisting the foot, shin and knee and potentially causing pain in all three areas. Overpronators need a shoe that is sturdy and stable to limit the foot’s movement. Look for shoes with straight lasts—a “last” is what gives a shoe its shape—or semi-curved lasts to limit the motion. “When your foot overpronates, you need to control its range of motion,” says Tenny.
Underpronation occurs when your foot doesn’t roll inward enough after landing. Unlike the overpronator, an underpronator’s foot has a high arch, is rigid and doesn’t have a large range of motion. For this reason, underpronators need a shoe that is flexible and has more of a curve so that the foot can move and bend in the shoe. Look for shoes with curved lasts. Self-diagnosis is one thing, but nothing beats finding a knowledgable footwear specialist to analyze your foot and recommend the perfect shoe. But unless you’re planning on heading to Canyon Ranch, you’ll need to seek out an expert on your own. Most general sporting goods stores don’t have experts and often staff their shoe department with whomever they have available—often a college kid at home on semester break. Serious runners and walkers buy their shoes at technical stores, which specialize in athletic shoes.
There, an expert will steer you toward the right shoe. Many people buy shoes based on what a sales clerk recommends, the current fashion and for what particular sport the shoe has been designated—a mistake because even though a shoe is designed for a specific activity, it isn’t necessarily designed for your type of foot. “Regardless of where you buy your shoes,” advises Lloyd Nesbitt, DPM, a podiatrist in Toronto, “try to find a knowledgeable salesperson who understands footwear and will take the time to guide you to the best style and size for you.”
The Game Plan
Once you know your foot type, you’re ready to buy athletic shoes. Take Tenny’s advice: When dealing with an inexperienced salesperson, “tell the salesperson that you need a shoe for this type of exercise and you have this type of foot and need this type of lasted shoe.” Even though you’ll probably have lots of colors and styles to choose from, stay true to your foot. “Fit is the most important consideration,” says Nesbitt. “No matter how good you hear a shoe is, if it doesn’t fit you, don’t buy it. No one brand will fit everyone’s needs.” By the same token, “Never let the salesperson talk you into trying on more than three pairs at one sitting,” Tenny warns. “You’ll lose all sense of discernment and only confuse yourself.” If you do buy more than one pair of shoes, be sure to alternate them, which is better for your feet. Different styles—even if you stay with the same shape of shoe—work different joints and muscles in your calves and shins, so you’ll be less likely to suffer an injury. Nesbitt also recommends that you shop at the end of the day or after a workout when your feet are generally at their largest. “If you use orthotic devices, make sure you wear them when shoe-shopping,” he says. Remember that price is not always a sign of quality. In many cases, you may simply be paying for the name or the style.
Finally, even if your shoes look fine, replace them every 300 to 500 miles or every six months—about the time it takes for them to lose their stability and shock-absorbing capability. Another good indication that it’s time to get new shoes, Nesbitt says, is if you start to feel pain on your feet, ankles, legs or knees even though you haven’t changed your exercise routine.
When it comes right down to it, buying the wrong shoes can cause a slew of problems. But if you really get to know your feet, you’ll be footloose and pain-free before you can say “bunion.”