If you walk into your local sporting goods shop to find a new pair of athletic shoes, chances are you might get a tad overwhelmed. There is a plethora of selections ranging from flashy neon running shoes, sturdy cross trainers, comfy walking sneakers, and the latest lightweight, minimalist shoe. Before you begin your search, there are a few things you should understand about buying a shoe that fits perfectly, and I’m not just referring to the correct shoe size.
Know Your Foot
Many people don’t realize the specific characteristics that differentiate their feet from everyone else. Beyond basic shoe size, there are factors such as width, arch height, unstable ankles, and so on. Even if a friend of yours recommends the new pair of sneakers they purchased, that doesn’t mean they will fit you as well. A significant factor in proper fit is accommodating your arch type. For a more visual idea of what your arches are like, grab a wet sponge and a piece of paper. Wet the bottom of your bare feet, and stand normally on the paper. What does your footprint look like?
Compare your footprint to the illustration above. If you are most similar to the one on the right, you have flat arches, or what is often referred to as “overpronation” or “pes planus.” This is a common problem with many people, resulting in the arch of your foot collapsing and bearing more stress than it should. On the opposite side of the spectrum, high arches (also referred to as “pes cavus,” “underpronation,” or “over-supination”) can result in instability. Many shoe stores have the technology to more accurately evaluate your arches and provide you with a shoe that will best serve your purposes. In addition, most shoes are designed specifically with these arch types in mind, and there are plenty or orthotic inserts available as well.
Other factors such as wide feet or bunions may require that you buy a shoe with a wider toe box, or a shoe with increased ankle stability if you are prone to rolling your ankle.
Know What You Need
Evaluate your typical weekly exercise habits. Do you run 5-10 miles a day at least 3-5 times per week? Do you primarily lift weights? Take aerobic group exercise classes? Play basketball with friends on the weekend? A little bit of everything? The more specific your activity, the more specific your shoe will need to be. If you spend at least 3 days per week running longer distance, you will want to invest in a good pair of running shoes. If you are part of a sports team that practices or plays multiple times a week, buy a shoe that is specific to that sport. Even if you have a good pair of basketball shoes, they won’t be optimal for performance if you join a volleyball team. Do you participate in a training program that has a wide variety of movements like lifting, jumping, or sprinting? A versatile pair of cross trainers is a good match for you. If you are constantly moving and jumping , then you will want to look for a lightweight shoe that won’t feel heavy on your feet, but still has sufficient cushioning to absorb the high impact of movement.
Know What’s Available
Now that you know more about your feet, and have a general idea of what to look for, let’s discuss different types of shoes in a little more detail.
Running shoes have good arch support, flexibility, stability in the heel, good traction, and will likely be lightweight to avoid weighing your feet down as you log those miles. These are a good shoe for anyone that runs primarily as part of their exercise regimen.
Walking shoes are more cushioned in order to absorb the impact of the heel strike during the stride. They are also a little stickier in comparison to running shoes, and will be a bit heavier as well. If you go on long walks every day, these are the kicks for you.
Cross trainers tend to have thick soles, durable enough to provide sufficient support on a variety of surfaces such as hard gym floors, courts, or even asphalt. Some are made with leather or thicker synthetic material to provide stability, while others may be made with a lightweight mesh material to dissipate heat. If you spend your days in the gym lifting, jumping, or doing a variety of activities, browse through these selections.
Many shoes within these subgroups provide special features like inserts filled with gel, Freon, or air, as well as spring structures on the heels. These aren’t just for show. They can help provide relief for those that need added arch support or those that tend to get heel pain during exercise. However, these special features may not be recommended for those that easily twist their ankles, as overly-cushioned shoes tend to provide less traction.
Keep the price range in mind. You may think a generic pair of $15 sneakers is a steal, but they may prove more troublesome if they don’t have sufficient support or traction. At the same time, a celebrity-endorsed pair of kicks may seem flashy and promising, but the $200+ price tag does not necessarily promise better performance. Also remember that while a good pair of athletic shoes is a worthwhile investment, it is not a long-term one. Specialists recommend replacing shoes after about 300-500 miles of use. If you don’t regularly log the mileage of your daily run, pay attention to the tread on the bottom of your shoe or the cushioning inside. If the back heel is beginning to show significant wear, or if the shoes feel uncomfortable or unsupportive, it may be time to replace them.
When trying on the shoe, pay attention to how it fits right then. Shoe designs nowadays do not need excessive breaking-in periods. If they feel stiff or uncomfortable, breaking them in won’t necessary change the feel that much. Even if they might begin to conform more specifically to your foot, it’s better to buy a pair of shoes that already feels comfortable. Also, try on shoes at the end of the day or after you finish working out, because that’s when your feet are at their biggest. There are fewer things worse than buying a great pair of shoes, only to find out they are uncomfortably snug when you work out.
Choosing the wrong shoes can lead to shin splints or aching heels, blisters, or general discomfort. Take advantage of specialty sporting goods stores and their knowledgeable staff who will be able to walk you through the specifics of what you need. Good luck finding the perfect fit!