How To Choose the Right Athletic Shoe

How To Choose the Right Athletic Shoe

PD_7_ss07009The right pair of athletic shoes can be a simple, but vital tool to prevent injuries and keep you comfortable. Unfortunately, athletic shoe shopping can be confusing and sometimes even intimidating. Here are some fast facts you need to know before you head to the store.

Why It Is Important to Choose the Right Shoe

Wearing the right athletic shoe may enhance your performance and provide the comfort and support you need to enjoy staying active. It is also important to help you:

Avoid Developing Foot Problems

On average, walking brings a force equal to several hundred tons on your feet each day and this increases significantly with sports. The proper fit and shoe for your activity help protect your feet from ailments that can develop over time. Common foot problems that may be associated with poor footwear include:

  • Blister—a fluid-filled bump on the skin
  • Bunion—a swollen, sore bump from displacement of the joint that connects your big toe to your foot
  • Callus—abnormal thickening of the top layer of skin
  • Corn—a small, thickened area of skin that forms on the toe
  • Hammer toe—a toe that tends to remain bent at the middle joint in a claw-like position

The wrong athletic shoes will also increase the risk of injury, which can sideline your activity plans for a long time.

Minimize Risk of Injury or Chronic Ailment

Your feet are subject to more injury than any other part of your body. Some foot problems can be the result of repetitive stress. Improper or poorly fitting shoes can also be a contributing factor for:

  • Plantar fasciitis—the plantar fascia, a supportive, fibrous band of tissue running from the heel to the ball of the foot, is injured, resulting in pain on the bottom of the foot
  • Stress fractures—tiny cracks in your bones that develop when the repetitive impact of jogging or running overcomes the ability of the foot bones to withstand this stress
  • Achilles tendinopathy—inflammation or tearing of the Achilles tendon
  • Heel spurs—calcium deposits that form where the plantar fascia connects to your heel bone
  • Sesamoiditis—tenderness or inflammation at the sesamoid bones, accessory bones found beneath the large first metatarsal bone in the ball of the foot
  • Extra stress on the ankles, knees, hips, and spine, which can lead to pain and disability

The next step may be a little more work at first, but remember that it will be worth it in the end. When possible, shop at a store that caters to the sport in which you participate. They have the most knowledge and will make it worth your time.

What You Need to Consider in Making the Decision

Tracking down a pair of athletic shoes that is appropriate for you does not need to be an impossible task. Before you get to the store, determine if you need a new pair of shoes. Look for cracks in the sole of the shoe or worn down heels. These are clear signs it is time to toss what you are wearing. Other signs of excess wear include stiff feel in the shoe, or deformity of the upper shoe. If you have noticed pain or soreness in your feet, knees, or hips after a workout, it could also mean you are due for a new pair.

The next thing to think about may not be so obvious. What type of feet do you have? Everyone has different feet, but they tend to fall into 3 categories:

  • Pronators have a low or flat arch and tend to wear down the inner edges of their shoes. If you are a pronator, you should look for shoes that offer support for your midfoot area, which limits overuse of the inside edge of your feet.
  • Supinators have a high arch and tend to wear down the outer edges of their shoes. Supinators require shoes with extra cushioning, particularly in the mid-arch area, to absorb shock and stabilize the heel.
  • People with neutral feet have an average arch and tend to wear down the heels of shoes evenly. They can wear just about any type of shoe.

Getting the proper fit includes determining if you need a wider or larger shoe than you normally wear.

In general, you should replace athletic shoes every 350-450 miles. You also need to consider other factors, like your activity, body weight, and the type of surface you exercise on. Keep in mind that it is better to use mileage as a guide even if the tread looks good. A good way to estimate how much mileage should be put on your shoes is to take 75,000 and divide it by your current weight. If you have a smartphone or tablet, you can also download one of several apps that track physical activity. They will give you a good estimate of how many miles you put on your athletic shoes. It will also give you a clearer picture of the types of activities you participate in. This will be helpful when you are ready to start shopping. If you participate in activities that cannot be measured in miles, a good rule of thumb is to replace your athletic shoes every 4-6 months depending on your level of activity.

When Making Your Purchase

Unless you regularly participate in a specific sport—at least 2-3 times per week—a good cross-training shoe is usually sufficient. Cross trainers combine several features so you can participate in more than one sport. A good pair should have the flexibility in the forefoot that you need for running combined with the lateral control necessary for aerobics or tennis. They are fine for a general athletic shoe, but if you regularly participate in a sport, consider getting a sport-specific shoe. You are much better off playing football and baseball in cleats. And regular running definitely requires a specific type of shoe.

If you are a walker, should you buy walking shoes instead of running shoes? No need. Despite being called walking shoes, most are designed like cross-training shoes, offering lateral support while skimping on bottom padding and heel elevation. So if you walk a lot, you may actually be better off wearing a good pair of running shoes with their support for continuous forward motion and pounding.

Though shoe manufacturers hype the special features of each shoe they make, sports shoes can be divided into two general categories.

  • Lateral and stop-and-go movement —Virtually all sport-specific and cross-training shoes are designed for activities that require lateral and stop-and-go movement, such as baseball, basketball, tennis, racquetball, and soccer. To enhance performance and prevent injury, all sport-specific and cross-training shoes include a great deal of support on the sides and are flat across the sole.
  • Continuous forward motion —Unlike most other athletic activities, running is done in a continuous forward motion, requiring very little lateral movement and very little starting and stopping. In addition, running inflicts a great deal more continuous and sustained pounding on the feet than almost any other athletic activity. So, although running shoes require relatively little lateral support, they incorporate a great deal of padding underneath the feet to act as shock absorbers. In addition, most running shoes include a slightly elevated heel (to reduce the transfer of stress to the Achilles tendons), as well as a much larger toe box (to accommodate the forward motion of the foot).

Do not be intimidated. Generally, stores have sections of athletic shoes. You can narrow down the choices right away by finding the section that is closest to your activity. Here are some different types of athletic shoes you may find:

  • Running —Runners and joggers should wear shoes that provide flexibility in the toe area and overall cushioning for impact (shock absorption). Such shoes should also have good heel control.
  • Trail running —This type of running increases the risk of ankle sprains because of the uneven terrain. You may need a shoe with a wider base, more traction, and more lateral support.
  • Barefoot running —Talk to a trainer before making the transition to barefoot running shoes. It is not for every type of runner and the switch needs to be done gradually. Keep in mind that barefoot running shoes may not have extra support or cushion, but will give your feet some protection.
  • Walking —Walkers should also look for shock absorption in the heel and especially under the ball of the foot. Walking shoes have more rigidity in the front than running shoes, so you can roll off your toes rather than bend through them.
  • Aerobics —Shoes for aerobic conditioning should be lightweight to prevent foot fatigue and have extra shock absorption in the sole beneath the ball of the foot where the most stress occurs.
  • Tennis —For tennis and other court sports, you will need shoes that provide stability on the inside and outside of the foot plus flexibility in the sole beneath the ball of the foot.
  • Basketball —Basketball players should choose a shoe with a wider base and a thick, stiff sole to give extra stability on the court. A high-top shoe provides support when landing from a jump.
  • Field sports, hiking, and specialty sports —Cleats, studs, or spikes are appropriate for field sports like soccer, football, and baseball. Special hiking shoes are available for trail blazing. Likewise, for sports such as skating, hockey, golf, and bicycling, you may want to wear shoes made specifically for these activities.

You may not need a different type of shoe for each athletic activity you participate in if they are all similar.

Getting the Right Fit

Remember, fitting a shoe is a very individual process. Factors like gait, biomechanics, weight, and foot shape are highly unique. The American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine recommends finding a reputable footwear retailer for proper fit and a sports medicine podiatrist for concerns about injury or footwear for specific foot types.

A good fit is critical for your enjoyment and performance. Keep in mind that it is wise to go shopping after a workout or at the end of the day, when your feet will be at their largest. Also, you will want to wear the same type of sock that you will wear when you are exercising.

Next, you will want to try on several different pairs of shoes. Shoes fit properly when: There is a firm grip of the shoe to your heel. You can wiggle all of your toes. The shoes do not feel too tight or too loose. Walk around for about 10 minutes to make sure it feels right.

Lastly, you should have both feet measured. Fit shoes to your larger foot. Lace your shoes beginning at the farthest eyelets; apply even pressure as you crisscross to the top of the shoe. Try on both shoes. Walk or run a few steps. The shoes should be comfortable as soon as you try them on. You should not need to break in athletic shoes to make them comfortable.

Now you are ready for the store. Keep in mind that you should not be swayed by the price tag. The most expensive is not always the best. Ultimately, getting the right shoe with the right fit is what you want.


American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine
American Podiatric Medical Association.


The Canadian Orthopaedic Association


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Last reviewed October 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 10/25/2016

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