What is the right athletic shoe for you?

The fall sports season is upon us. Scholastic athletics, marathon training, and weekend sports leagues are all in full swing. One of the most basic items needed to participate in any athletic activity is a good pair of shoes. Athletic footwear for sport is specialized in so many ways, tailored to the demands of each specific sport. A good athletic shoe should:  1) reduce impact; 2) provide traction; and 3) allow quick starts and stops/lateral motion, each in varying degrees depending on what sport the shoe is designed for.

In general, there are certain features that are desirable in all athletic shoes:

Semi-rigid properties - Athletic shoes should generally be semi-rigid, only being able to bend in the toe box. If when attempting to bend the shoe, while holding it at both ends, the shoe prefers to flex in the center near where your arch is located, this is a bad sign. A shoe like this lacks support. Also, supportive shoes should not be easy to twist. A shoe that readily twists allows your foot to pronate (tilt inward) excessively. Over-pronation is thought to be the root causes of many overuse injuries in the lower extremity.

Removable insole (not glued) - Most of the high-end shoes are now sold with a removable insole that comes with the shoe. The reason shoe companies are doing this is so that you may remove the stock insole and replace it with a medical grade insole/orthotic/arch support if need be.

EVA/PU midsole - One of the biggest developments over the last 20 years in the shoe industry has been the use of EVA (Ethyl Vinyl Acetate) and PU (Polyurethane) based midsoles. In most shoes, the midsole of the shoe is the 1-3cm of spongy material that lies between your foot and the ground. These materials absorb shock, reduce impact, and return energy through rebound. Impact is known to be one of the basic causes of overuse injury. The first shoes to use these materials were running shoes starting in the 1970s. Currently, I have seen EVA and PU midsoles used in anything from running shoes to baseball cleats, dress shoes, hiking boots, tennis shoes, and basketball shoes. Some shoe types like soccer cleats don’t use this type of midsole.

Many people are unsure of what type of shoe to buy. In general, most people could probably get away with using a running shoe for running, boot camp classes, walking for exercise, light hiking, and most gym activity. If your workouts are mostly gym or class-based and they have a high degree of lateral movement, you may want to consider a cross training shoe. Caution should be used when running more than one mile in a cross-training shoe, as they sacrifice cushioning for lateral support. If you or your child is participating in baseball, football, field hockey, or any other field/court based ball sport, then you should purchase a cleat or shoe specific to that sport. In some instances, the shoes can be used in multiple sports; however a sport-specific shoe should be purchased in most cases.

Here are some recommended features for specific sports:

Soccer cleats - Should have a very stiff sole and upper (material that covers the top of the foot). The stiff sole resists excessive rebound forces that occur during kicking the ball. The upper must resist constant lateral (side to side) motion and sudden starting and stopping.

Baseball cleats - Look for similar features as the soccer cleats. I have seen baseball cleats that have EVA midsoles.

Basketball shoes - You can get low top or high top shoes. If you tend to turn your ankles or are prone to ankle sprains, then a high top would be better. Make sure that when you lace the shoe tightly, it resists your ability to turn your ankle inward. Many basketball shoes recently have begun to employ cushioned EVA/PU midsoles. Again, the upper should be very sturdy and able to accommodate the large amount of sudden starting, stopping, and lateral motion. The outsole should be generally very flat and wide without many traction features. Large amounts of surface area/contact surface are desired.

Tennis shoes - Similar features to basketball shoes, however most are low top. Generally, these shoes should be very rigid and wide as tennis requires large amounts of lateral motion.

Cross-Training shoes - A cross training shoe is basically a cross between a running shoe and a tennis shoe. The shoe should have impact resistance with a cushioned midsole but should also be built with a lot of lateral support. This type of shoe is great for Cross Fit, plyometrics, or court-based ball sports. Again, I would not run more than a mile in a pair of cross trainers.

Hiking shoes - Hiking shoes are generally made for walking only. They tend to be much heavier than running shoes or trail running shoes. They usually employ a cushioned midsole and many other features also found in trail running shoes. Sometimes they will also have added height for ankle support, insulation for warmth, and/or waterproofing.

Running shoes  - 1) Training shoe - These are your general run of the mill jogging sneakers. Of all athletic shoe types, this type of shoe is the highest selling shoe category in most of the developed world. They are heavier than spikes or lightweight trainers. Running shoes are the only type of shoe to build a different shoe for your foot type and/or gait pattern.

There are three main categories of running shoes. If you run (or plan on running) more than 10 miles a week, then you should go to a running shoe specialty store to have your gait pattern and foot type evaluated by a running shoe expert to determine what type of shoe you will need.

  • Neutral - These shoes are built with more cushioning than support, and are well-suited for people with normal or high arch type. If your BMI (body mass index) is low and your gait is normal, this is your shoe type.
  • Stability - These shoes usually combine cushioning and support. The support is built into the midsole of the shoe. A stability type shoe does not necessarily have actual arch support built into it. Most stability type shoes will have reinforcement in the instep that prevents your foot from over-flattening (over-pronation) in the gait cycle. If you look at the instep of the shoe there may be a gray section of midsole or a piece of plastic that is molded into the shoe. This type of shoe is optimal for people that have a mildly flattened arch in the foot.  In my experience as a physician, most people that plan on doing a significant amount of running should fall into this category. Use caution when adding an arch support/orthotic to this type of shoe. An arch support can add to the support that is already built into the shoe which can be too much support in some cases.
  • Motion control - This type of shoe usually has a very high degree of support in the instep. People with a flat foot and/or a high BMI would need this type of shoe. The shoes are generally very rigid but still have the ability to reduce impact forces. People that weigh around 200lbs or more should consider this type of shoe.

2) Racing Shoe/Lightweight Trainer - These shoes are built with less material than training shoes to achieve a lighter weight. This makes the shoe faster, but less resistant to impact forces and less supportive. Some racing shoes/lightweight trainers contain small amounts of stability/support. This shoe type is usually for runners that compete in races on a regular basis. You should not be using this type of shoe if you have a high BMI and/or abnormal gait. When runners choose to use these, it should be for less than 20% of the total weekly mileage.

3) Spikes/Flats - This group of shoes is made with the least amount of material possible. They are super light weight and almost always lack support. They are strictly intended for competition, mostly around the track or a cross-country course. Track and cross-country spikes usually have a spike plate which allows for the insertion of metal spikes for added traction. A track spike should not be used for cross-country. Most track spikes are easily ruined if used on pavement. Flats are very basic racing shoes that do not contain a spike plate.

4) Minimalist Shoes - Minimalist shoes are shoes that are made with very little material. There is a movement in the running community that supports wearing minimalist shoes for all types of running. The theory is that running in this type of shoe forces one's biomechanics to revert to a more natural state. This is a very controversial topic and beyond the scope of this article. In general, I do not advocate trying minimalist shoes unless you are a very experienced runner. There is an extremely high risk of injury during a transition period when running in these shoes.

5) Trail Running - Trail shoes are similar to regular running shoes. They usually have added features such as a modified outsole with added traction. Some have waterproofing, a rock plate, or a reinforced upper for added lateral support on uneven terrain. They are usually a tad heavier than conventional running shoes.

Dr. Crispell is a foot and ankle specialist at Riddle Hospital in Media, PA. He is a guest contributor to Sports Doc.


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