If you are starting a new athletic activity or recommitting to an old sport your choice of shoe wear is often critical. Choosing the right athletic shoe to optimize both comfort and performance is not easy. However, understanding the role of four components of an athletic shoe will help you make the right shoe choice. These shoe elements are: the size, the sole, the insert, and the uppers.
1. Shoe Size
When thinking about getting an appropriate fitting shoe it is natural to think about shoe size. The listed shoe size is important, but there are other elements to having a well fitted shoe. There is a Chinese proverb that says: “if you want to forget, your troubles, wear tight shoes.“ Most people have experienced the discomfort associated with wearing shoes that are too small. However, shoes that are too large can also cause problems. Larger shoes may not be uncomfortable, but they often negatively impact performance, and the excess foot motion within a shoe that is too big can lead to blisters and other problems.
Getting a good fitting shoe is so much more than just choosing the right “shoe size”. Shoe width is critical. The width of a shoe can vary widely between shoes that are the same “size”. For example, two size 11 shoes can be very different in their width, just as two individuals with “size 11 feet” may have very different widths to their respective feet. Making sure the length AND the width of the shoe fits your foot is essential. To do this often requires testing many brands, or in some cases seeking out specific shoe brands that make shoes in multiple widths.
The “forefoot width to heel width” ratio is also important. Getting a shoe which is perfectly fitted for length and forefoot width can still create major issues if the heel is too loose, or too tight. It is fairly common for individuals to have a wide forefoot and a narrow heel. In this scenario, achieving a well fitted shoe may require some extra work. Sometimes adding heel cushioning can help. Alternatively, a snug fitting heel with a tight forefoot may be addressed by attempting to further stretching out the forefoot width. This can often be done professional via shoemaker or by purchasing a commercial shoe stretcher.
2. Optimizing the Sole
Finding a well fitted shoe for your sport of choice is just the starting point. Ensuring that the sole functions optimum is the next step. When considering the sole of a shoe there are three elements to consider: stiffness, shock absorption, and heel height. A soul that is stiffer will generally be more comfortable. In some sports, such as running, a high-end stiff sole will absorb force and then return energy during the gait cycle helping to improve performance. However, in many sports there is a trade-off between having a stiff soled shoe that is more comfortable versus a shoe with a flexible sole that may improve performance and control. Sorting out this balance between comfort and performance is something that each individual will need to determine based on the sport they are performing, and their own personal preference.
The shock absorbing capacity of a shoe’s sole can vary widely. Increased shock absorption provided by the sole of the shoe can improve comfort, but for some sports too much shock absorption in the sole can decrease performance. Additionally, consideration needs to be given to the longevity of the sole with respect to shock absorption. For sports that involve considerable walking or running the shock absorbing component of the shoe’s sole can be lost fairly quickly. It can be frustrating when you need to buy another pair of running shoes eight weeks after you made a purchase because the sole has lost its shock absorbing capacity.
Finally, the heel height can be very important. The “heel rise“ is the difference between the height of the sole at the heel, and the height of the sole at the forefoot. For many sporting activities, a slight heel rise of 4–12 mm can help offload the Achilles and decrease the likelihood of developing Achilles tendinitis or other overuse injuries in this area. However, for other sports, there may be a loss of performance if the heel rise is too high.
3. Orthotic Insert
The orthotic insert is another critical element when looking to purchase an athletic shoe. Inserts can be prefabricated or custom. A softer insert may be beneficial from a comfort point of view, especially if the sole of the shoe is fairly stiff. Many athletic shoes and hiking boots come with high-quality pre-fabricated orthotics. However, if the orthotic insert is flimsy consideration may be given to buying a shock absorbing over-the-counter orthotic. In some instances, individuals may benefit from a custom orthotic. Although it should be noted that many, if not most, custom orthotics are a high-priced version of a well-made over-the-counter orthotic. If the goal is dispersing force widely across the sole of the foot, a good over-the-counter orthotic will likely do the trick.
The “upper” of a shoe is the part of the shoe above the sole that covers the foot. Choosing an athletic shoe with the right upper is often a matter of balancing comfort –versus protection and support. Many athletic shoes have flexible mesh-type shoe uppers which will provide considerable comfort. However, for some activities such as hiking, or sports such as tennis that require a sudden change of direction a more supportive, durable upper will be preferable. Additionally, it can take a while to “break in” a new shoe with a stiffer upper. Doing this in a graduated manner can make this process easier.
Choosing the optimal shoe for your athletic or fitness endeavor can be a challenge. However, by thinking about the the four elements of 1) size, 2) sole, 3) orthotic, and 4) upper; you will be well on your way to getting an athletic shoe that is not only comfortable, but also allows you to perform at your best!