If the Shoe Fits: How to Choose the Right Athletic Footwear

by Kristen Troy

Ads for new shoes are all over social media, in our emails, TVs, and magazines, so how do we know if what we see is advertising finesse or a shoe that will make us faster? In addition, when there are so many brands, models, and styles of workout shoes out there, how do you choose which is best for you? To better understand the effect shoes have on athletic performance and what to look for in workout shoes, I spoke with Elite PT’s Kyle Hughes, PT, DPT.

Before we dive in, let’s go over some terms that will help you understand your shoes. In general, there are three main categories of shoes: neutral, supportive, and motion control. The primary factor that determines which category is most appropriate for you is whether you deal with pronation or supination. Pronation means your weight is more on the inside of your foot when you walk, while supination is the opposite, with your weight more to the outside of your foot. Most people are mild pronators or supinators, so shoes in the neutral category will work for them. A supportive or stability shoe tends to be for individuals needing moderate help to control pronation. Finally, motion control or highly supportive shoes are for moderate to severe pronators. This type of shoe is less common in non-specialty shoe stores. Next time you go to get fitted for shoes or see a healthcare professional about your feet, bring a few different pairs of worn shoes you frequently used. The wear pattern can help the professional gain insight into which shoe type is best for you.

Supportive shoes can be minimally, moderately, or maximally supportive. The factors that influence the level of support are the heel drop, stack, and weight. Every shoe has a “stack,” which is the height of the padding between your foot and the ground. The stack can vary in different areas of the shoe. The difference between the height of the heel and the height of the toe stack is the “heel drop.” Finally, the “upper” of a shoe refers to the collection of parts above the shoe’s sole.

The obvious question to ask is how much of a difference does the shoe make? Dr. Hughes explains that shoes can impact performance, but performance is also dependent on many other factors. Depending on the level of exercise, a generic running or training shoe can often be sufficient. However, for those who train multiple times per week, a more tailored shoe may be necessary.

For example, frequent runners will want shoes with less supportive uppers, so the shoes are lighter and require less energy to move forward in their strides.

Running shoes typically have less supportive uppers because they do not need as much padding for lateral (side-to-side) movement compared to shoes designed for other sports. In comparison, tennis and basketball shoes tend to have more supportive uppers, which help to reduce the risk for ankle sprains during the common side-to-side movements in those sports. Similarly, for Zumba® and HIIT classes, a shoe with a lower stack and more padding in the upper is preferable. This type of shoe will help prevent ankle roll and reduce the risk of tripping or falling.

If we look at shoes for lifting, it is common to see brands like Converse® and NoBull™. These are common in the weight room because many lifters feel better connected to the floor while wearing them. Limiting the cushion between your feet and the ground increases balance and gives a steady base to perform your lift. Flat-soled shoes are popular among many power lifters because they are versatile and can be worn for every desired lift. In addition to flat-soled shoes, there are types of shoes considered ideal for weightlifting. These shoes feature a more pronounced heel drop, allowing for lower squats and potentially reducing the risk of back or knee injuries. Many companies, including Reebok®, Nike®, and Adidas®, have started producing this style of shoe. For most lifts, you can use weightlifting shoes, but they’re primarily worn for squats, cleans, snatches, push presses, and jerks. They are not recommended for deadlifts because the raised heel requires the lifter to do more movement to perform the lift, increasing their chance of injury.

A basketball player might look for a shoe with supportive uppers whereas a runner would likely want something lighter with more cushion
in the sole.

Of course, the type of shoe that’s best for you depends on personal preference and level of comfort. “You want to make sure the shoe is comfortable and feels supportive,” says Dr. Hughes. He recommends that athletes have their feet measured before buying shoes to ensure a good fit. In general, you want about half an inch between your longest toe and the tip of your shoe. It is also important to remember that your shoe size and foot measurements may change as your feet adapt to various workouts. Getting sized after a workout or at the end of the day can help you get more accurately sized. If you plan on cycling with clip-in shoes, it is vital to get measured and fitted for your first pair. Doing so will help to avoid injury and excess strain on your ankle, knee, and hip joints.

It is important to remember that footwear is only part of the equation for a great workout. A shoe is no substitute for solid training and conditioning as well as proper nutrition to support performance and recovery. Although appropriate footwear can provide an extra edge and helps reduce the risk of injury, we must also consider the entire kinetic chain. Curious how well you move or if any imbalances in your movement patterns may increase your risk of injury? Consider having one of our certified personal trainers take you through the Functional Movement Screening. To set up this free assessment, reach out to Maria Crennan at mcrennan@hachealthclub.com.

If you are having any pain or persistent injuries, please call to schedule a physical therapy evaluation with Elite PT at
(302) 234-1030.

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