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Choosing the correct athletic shoes
June 2, 2009
It seems like there are as many different types of athletic shoes as there are people to wear them. So how do you know which one is right for you and your activities? Is it the cool style or the vibrant colors that should attract you to a shoe? Or is it the fit, function and structure of a shoe?
"There are hundreds of athletic shoes you can choose from. It’s very important to choose the correct shoe for the activity or sport you participate in because it can help you perform better and help keep you injury free," explains University of Michigan MedSport Athletic Training Clinical Specialist Vahan Agbabian. However, choosing the appropriate shoe isn’t an easy task due to the hundreds of shoes avaiable.
The prescription for a correct athletic shoe includes knowing your foot type, knowing your mobility and flexibility levels and knowing what activity you want to purchase the shoe for. Agbabian stresses the importance of choosing the correct shoe based on your foot type.
"If you have a higher arched foot, a higher arch shoe will probably feel more comfortable. For example, a Nike brand has a type of shock system and your heel is propped up with this device and with the heel propped up it matches a high arch foot type," says Agbabian.
Not only is structure of the shoe important, but so is flexibility of the person’s feet and flexibility of the shoe. Athletic shoes must be flexible or your foot will fight them as it rolls through each step, leading to shin splints. Twist them and they should twist. Bend them and they should bend at the ball of the foot, not in the middle of the arch. Set them down and poke the toe—it should rock as the toe should be slightly off the ground. If it passes these tests, it might be the correct pair.
Agbabian warns that "the type of shoe you choose should match your activity level." For example, if someone is trying to find a shoe to play tennis in, it needs to have enough stability to hold up to the demands of tennis—sprinting to the net, serving and cutting. You wouldn’t want to play tennis in running shoes, Agbabian says, because they don’t provide the stability you need. Running shoes aren’t designed for that kind of stability.
"Probably the one shoe style that allows you the most variability is a cross training shoe. You can run, be on the court, and go in the gym to work out," explains Agbabian. A cross training shoe is a style that carries characteristics of different types of shoes. Cross training shoes offer enough stability as well as comfort in order for individuals to participate in a variety of activities.
The most common problem that Agbabian and his colleagues see with people who have been wearing improper or incorrect shoes are blisters.
"If their foot type really doesn’t match the correct shoe then injury is likely to occur, such as ankle sprains and chronic pains that eventually travel up the leg," Agbabian says. He often sees patients who have a wider, flat foot who are using a shoe that’s not wide enough. The foot collapses, it flattens out more, and thus puts a lot of strain on their shins. This leads to the classic case of shin splints.
When deciding to replace a pair of shoes, consider the shoe’s construction and what activity the shoe is designed for. Even if shoes feel OK, they may be losing their ability to cushion and support your feet after prolonged use. Agbabian suggests changing running and walking shoes every 500 to 600 miles and court shoes such as basketball shoes after every season played. If shoes get to 500, 600 or 700 miles they begin to wear down or break a bit, then it’s time to change shoes.
The U-M team offers these quick tips that everyone should follow in order to find the "right" pair of athletic shoes:
- Shop for shoes in the afternoon, when your feet are at maximum size. (They swell during the day.)
- Wear the socks you normally wear with athletic shoes to assure the right fit.
- Try on both shoes. Most people's feet vary a bit in size from each other, so you should be sure the shoes fit your largest foot comfortably.
- Check for space at the end of your longest toe. There should be enough to let you move without pinching. Some experts recommend the length of a thumbnail.
- If you're a woman and your feet are wide, try men's shoes. These are usually cut wider. To find a size for starters, start with your own size, and subtract two.
- Move around in the shoes, and insist that they feel like a perfect fit right away. If they don't, keep looking.
- Don't shop by price alone, but do look for materials that breathe and good workmanship.
is a writer with the University of Michigan Health System.