The Truth About Exercise Shoes

athletic shoes

You’ve made a commitment to get fit. You’ve joined a gym or mapped out a walking route. There’s one more thing to do and it’s non-negotiable: Find … proper … footwear.

A good shoe is unique to the individual. It will make exercising more enjoyable, which means that you’ll be more likely to stick with it. But sorting through today’s bewildering array of rainbow-hued sport shoes and sneakers – which are more varied and technologically advanced than ever—can be daunting. Most will make a claim that they will prevent injury however this is not the case. Here’s what you need to know about shoes.

Before You Hit the Store

The first step in snagging the perfect shoe is to determine what you are going to use it for and what type of shoe you’re currently wearing. Are you going to walk or jog? Strength train? Maybe you’re going to get back on the tennis court. This knowledge will guide your choice, but honestly one shoe can fulfill all needs if you understand the big picture.

First, consider you current foot strength and your gait. If you have flat arches and/or tend to over-pronate, which simply means that your feet roll inward when you walk, you’ll need to address the route causes of the pronation. Long term foot health isn’t about what shoe you where, but how you move in it. If you have high arches that means you’re a step ahead of most, you’ll be able to handle a shoe with a lower heel to toe differential, which is commonly referred to as a shoe’s “drop” and it’s measured in millimeters. When you hear the word “stability” or “motion-control” these are common versions of shoes that change the natural pattern of how you walk or move. These types of shoes inhibit your form and there are no studies to prove that they will actually prevent injury.

Plan on getting a run mechanics analysis if you plan on taking up running and then think for yourself when you talk to a sales person that specializes in athletic shoes. Specialty shoe stores, have all the latest trends in shoe technology yet don’t realize the consequences of strapping on these innovative mistakes. When shoes came out in the early seventies, injury rates actually sky rocketed among runners.

Evaluating a Fitness Shoe

When deciding on a shoe, ignore the bells and whistles and evaluate three things, does the shoe have a wide toe box? What is the heel to toe differential? What type of activities will you be doing?
No matter the shoe it’s important to have the right amount of extra space in the toe box so that your feet can naturally splay. Your toes should have the capability of moving one by one just like your fingers. Many exercise shoes crunch up the users feet, which can unfortunately lead to foot problems. In addition, look for a low “drop,” this will allow your feet to do what they were built to do – move properly and remain strong. A large amount of drop shortens your achillies tendon, heel cord and can lead to ankle, foot or even knee and hip problems. Lastly, make sure to consider the current drop of your shoe and only decrease by 3 millimeters. This should be a gradual transition to “zero.”

Walking: Look for a light-weight shoe that is flat. Cushioning is not a huge deal for walking because one foot is always in contact with the ground. You’ll want to be careful with how much walking you do in your new shoe and give your foot time to adjust. Plantar fasciitis (which can cause serious, long-term heel pain) and is one of the most common injuries. This injury is due to improper technique, foot strength,or transitioning into a new shoe too quickly. You’ll want to wear your new shoe no more than 10% of your total time in the first week of switching and then gradually progress into wearing it full time. When switching, make sure to perform myo-fascial release techniques on your plantar fascia (the bottom of your feet) before and after walking. This can be done with a lacrosse ball or yoga tune up ball.

Running/Jogging: Although there is some disagreement among fitness professional about how much cushioning is optimal for a running shoe, many believe that the ideal running shoe should have at least some cushioning. The issue with too much cushioning is that it removes feedback with how your foot contacts the ground and you lose what is called proprioception. The goal for anyone taking up running should be to start with a run mechanics analysis and work on running drills for four to six weeks. After that gradually progressing into the flattest shoe possible as form allows is critical. The common thought is that a running shoe will help prevent injuries; however running form is number one predictor of injury.

Should your shoe have fancy gel or air inserts? Never. There is no statistical proof behind wearing orthotics in your shoes and most of the time they lead to injury. The goal is always to ensure proper mechanics, strengthen the feet and keep up with proper mobility habits. Finding a professional in your area who understands is crucial.

Cross training: If you’re planning to play your way into shape by participating in a sport, such as tennis, basketball or soccer, the same shoe considerations should be made as running or jogging. Shoes companies will promote what’s called a cross trainers, touting that they’re better for sports while providing extra flexibility in the front, for running and jumping, and lateral stability for side-to-side movement. If you plan to play a sport that involves running, you should consider getting an analysis before ramping up on the number of days of week. The activity doesn’t necessarily matter, but how you operate the shoe.

Hiking: A neutral platform and a shoe that is designed to work with your body to enhance movement still holds true. The key consideration for the avid hiker is the durability. Find a shoe that has a strong abrasion resistant mesh and no-sew printing techniques. This will protect the upper areas of the shoe while adding structural integrity. In addition, you’ll want to find a shoe that offers traction over a variety of surfaces. At most specialty stores you’ll be able to find the trail specific shoes; however make sure to still look at the toe box and heel differential.

Get a Proper Fit

When you try on the shoe, there should be about a half inch between your big toe and the end of the shoe. The heel of the shoe should be snug enough that your heel does not slip up and down when you walk or jog around the store, and as we’ve already discussed the toe box should be roomy enough so that you can wiggle your toes. When you exercise your foot will naturally swell therefore taking account for this room will be important.

Most fitness shoes will require a break-in period. Your new shoe should be comfortable right out of the box, but give it time before you increase how much time you spend in your shoe. We never recommend wearing a new shoe right of the gates for long hikes, walks or runs. Take your time and have a honeymoon stage with your shoes.

Now that you understand that the fancy technology detracts from your foot health you’re well equipped to choose fitness shoes that will be hard-working partners in your new fitness routine. When you pay attention to your movement and focus on keeping your feet strong you won’t have to replace your shoes as often. Sport Podiatrists will say every 300 – 500 miles is recommended, but only if you’re stuck in traditional thinking. Remain proactive with your foot health by finding the shoes with little drop and wide toe boxes – your feet will thank you for listening to the truth.