Pick the Right Exercise Shoe for You

Since I advocate fitness and write about Sporty Stuff here, I thought I should write about shoes for your workouts.  Most workouts will require some kind of footwear, and it’s important to have good shoes for your activities.  In general, I recommend running shoes for most exercise.  Running shoes will offer a variety of features (feet-tures??) to accommodate all sorts of arches and such.

(Note: I am not going to address the barefoot or lightweight shoe category here.  This article only describes “standard” shoes that most of us will use.)

OK, so right off the bat, let me dispel the notion that any one company makes the BEST shoe.  In fact, lemme tackle a few Shoe Myths that are circulating out there.

  1. The more expensive shoes are better.  In general, this is not necessarily true.  Yes, the higher price can indicate that a shoe has more cushioning.  And yes, the shoe manufacturers will usually spend more time wear-testing and researching the expensive shoes.  But you may not need all of that.
  2. All ________ shoes are ________.  If I had a dollar for every person who thought that all New Balance shoes are wide or all Nike shoes are narrow, I could retire to a beach on the French Riviera where a man named Jean-Pierre could feed me bon-bons and soft cheeses all day long.  Each of the shoe companies makes a ton of shoes, some narrow, some wide, some cushiony, and some not.  So you just need to find the one particular shoe—from whatever company—that fits you best.
  3. All sneakers are the same, so I can just get any pair from the department store.  Running shoes are actually manufactured for different foot biomechanics and uses.  There are a few basic categories:  Neutral, Stability, Motion Control, Lightweight Trainers, and Racing Flats.  Some have added “corrective” features and some are designed for racing.

So how do you go about choosing the best shoe for you, then?  And what do all those categories mean?  First, let’s look at the Technical Terms that you will need to know.

  • PRONATION/SUPINATION.  These two terms refer to the foot’s motion when you are in motion.  When you walk or run, you will generally strike the ground first with the outer edge of your heel.  (If you look at the heels of your shoes, you might notice that you wear out the outer edge first.)  Then, as you continue to move forward onto the forefoot, your foot will roll inward to some degree, so that by the end of the footstep, you will be pushing off the middle of the foot.

Pronation means that the forefoot rolls inward excessively.  Look at the forefoot of your current running shoes.  If you notice that the inside edge (big toe side) of the sole is worn down, then you are a pronator, meaning that you push off on the big toe portion of your foot instead of the middle.

Supination means you are not rolling inward enough.  If you notice that the outside edge (pinky toe side) of the sole is worn down, then you are a supinator, meaning that you are not rolling inward enough, or at all.

The body creates this rolling motion in the foot in order to provide natural cushioning.  In other words, it is deflecting the impact of the footstrike.  So a little bit of pronation is OK, but excessive pronation can cause injuries or problems, such as bunions.

Remember that these two terms refer to MOVEMENT.  Just because you have flat feet does not necessarily mean that you pronate.  A flat-footed person CAN pronate, but so can a high-arched person.  So just looking at your arches does not necessarily tell you what your biomechanics are.

Now that you understand the biomechanics, you can choose the right type of shoe for yourself.

  • NEUTRAL SHOES.  The Neutral (also called Cushioned) category is for the person who does not have any biomechanical problems (meaning you don’t pronate excessivelyl) or for the person who supinates.
  • STABILITY SHOES.  Stability shoes are for pronators, and come in a wide range of pronation control.  Some stability shoes will provide a small amount of control, and others will provide a lot.
  • MOTION CONTROL SHOES.  These shoes are for excessive pronation.  They will provide a lot of control of excessive motion (hence the name).

These three categories are a good place to start your shoe search.  Once you narrow down the category of shoe that you need, then you can go about further refining your search.  Some of the other factors that you will want to consider are your build (smaller or larger frame), how much use you will give your shoes (that is, how many miles will you put on them), and the shape of your foot (some shoes are cut wider and some are cut more narrow).  The staff of your local run shop can really help you here.  They will know how each of the shoes fit, and they can help you choose the best shoe for you.

Some further words of wisdom for the intrepid shoe-shopper. . . .

  1. Running shoes have about a 400-500 mile lifespan, so be prepared to get new shoes about every six months.  You can’t tell if a shoe is worn out just by looking at it.  If you have worn down or through the sole of the shoe, it is definitely dead.
  2. If you wear orthotics, remember to bring them with you to the store so you can test out the orthotic with the shoe and make sure it fits.
  3. Running shoes should fit so that you have about a thumbnail of space between you and the end of the shoe. Check for this space when you are standing up, not sitting down.  Remember that a tight fit does NOT mean support.  You need a little extra room in your running shoes to allow for proper foot biomechanics.  In general, expect to go at least a half size larger in your running shoes.
  4. Bring your old running shoes with you to the run shop if you can.  The staff person can look at the wear pattern on the soles of your shoes and help you choose a great new one.

You are now armed with some good information to help you in your search for the best shoe for you.  Now get out there and run!

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