But with hundreds of styles to choose from, how do you know which ones are right for your sport and your feet?
Matching the Shoe to the Sport
In every sport, your shoes should provide good cushioning, flexibility, and stability. But some activities require more cushioning than flexibility, while other sports demand just the opposite.
“Shoes are designed for the motion of your feet in the sport they’re made for. That’s why you need different shoes for tennis and basketball, for instance. The stop-and-go in tennis is different from the bouncing and pounding of basketball,” says Dean Wakefield of the American Podiatric Medical Association.
When shopping for athletic shoes, look for these features:
* Aerobics: a firm heel counter (the hard cup that circles the heel), wrapped bottom, and good shock absorption
* Basketball: good heel counter, lateral (side) support, and cushioning
* Biking: a stiff sole
* Hiking: lightweight shoes with good arch support and heel counter; flexibility at the ball of the foot
* Running: shoes that curve up slightly at the front and back; a firm heel counter with slightly elevated heel and sharp-edged side and back soles
* Softball: firm soles with sharp edges; cleats and long tongue flaps that tie or Velcro down
* Tennis and other racket sports: good arch support, heel cup, heel counter, heel cushioning, and flat, hard, square-edged soles
* Volleyball: lightweight, flexible shoes with cushioning in the mid-foot section
* Walking: lots of room in the toe area; good flexibility, cushioning, heel and arch support.
Breaking Through the Hype
Manufacturers in the $5 billion athletic shoe industry are in such hot competition today, they seem to come up with new “innovative” features every season. Some are more gimmicky than anything else. For instance, some podiatrists say that shoes with chambers that can be pumped full of air don’t necessarily provide the best fit. They suggest saving a few bucks by opting for shoes that come in a selection of widths. These shoes often conform to the foot as well as a pair that has high-tech “pumpable” chambers.
On the other hand, experts say the new trend toward lightweight mesh – on portions of the shoe where support isn’t critical – is a good idea. Mesh keeps the shoes light and increases the airflow, helping prevent infections and blisters.
Perhaps no other feature is more advertised than a shoe’s shock absorbing, or cushioning, abilities. The amount of padding you need depends on your activity and the shape of your foot. Keep these guidelines in mind:
* For activities like aerobics classes and tennis, look for cushioning under the ball of your foot. If you walk and run, there should be extra cushioning under your heel.
* The harder the surface you play on, the more shock absorption you need. And large people require more cushioning than small people.
* If you have high arches, cushioning is super important.
* It’s possible to get too much of a good thing. If you exercise on grass or if your feet roll inward while you run or walk (called over-pronating), your feet might wobble if there is too much foam padding. You’d be better off with a shoe that offers more stability than cushioning.
New developments to watch for: A no-foam shoe will be on the market soon. Since the foam mid-sole is the first part of a shoe to break down, manufacturers are currently in their own “foot race” to see who will be the first to develop a no-foam midsole.
When to Replace Your Shoes
When your shoes lose their ability to absorb shock, you risk serious injury if you continue to wear them for active sports. To check the deterioration of the cushioning, grab the shoe along one side of the opening, with one finger on the inside and the other on the outside. Now squeeze the lining. If it doesn’t bounce back, and if you can see an indentation from your finger on the inside of the shoe, it’s time for a new pair. It’s especially important to check for deterioration in the heel and midsole cushioning. Also look for excessive wear along the surface of the heel and the sides of the shoe.
Another way to tell if it’s time for replacements is to try on a new pair of the same-model shoes as your old pair. If the new shoes feel a lot more cushy, start saving your baby-sitting or allowance money.
Hint: When you shop for new shoes, try them on in the afternoon. That’s when your feet are the most swollen and are therefore closest to the condition they’ll be in when you exercise in the shoes.
Do Good Shoes Have to Cost a Fortune?
The answer is, “No.” You can get a perfectly good pair of athletic shoes for a reasonable price, according to Dean Wakefield of the American Podiatric Medical Association. “The brand or price isn’t as important as buying a shoe that fits well and is appropriate for the sport you play,” he says.
You’re likely to find the highest prices at sporting goods stores and shops that specialize in athletic footwear because they have a special expertise in athletic shoes.
It pays to become your own expert. The National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) reports that in 1993 the average price for basketball shoes in a sporting goods store or specialty shop was $64; in discount stores, it was $29. You can even save dollars at a department store. The NSGA says tennis shoes sold for $48 in sporting goods stores and specialty shops compared with $30 in department stores. So it pays to shop around.