While sneakers constitute "casual" wear, you shouldn't be "casual" when choosing your workout footwear. With the onslaught of high-tech designs, innovative materials, and trendy styles, buying the right workout sneakers can be an intimidating experience. But finding the right shoe with the right fit is crucial for performance and injury prevention. Armed with the following information, you'll know what to look for in an athletic shoe, when to shop, and what to avoid.
If your budget is tight, realize that the most important purchase you can make for your workout gear is good-quality footwear designed for the activity you plan to do. For instance, if you walk for exercise you should not wear running sneakers--if you do, you’re asking for trouble with your feet. Sneakers that are designed with a particular activity in mind are constructed to offer the most support during a specific motion, such as jumping, walking, or lateral motion. I’m not a big fan of "cross-trainers" because they aren’t the ideal shoe for any particular activity. If you really need to perform more than one activity wearing the same shoes, I’d go for the most basic running shoe you can find.
Also, realize that the footwear you’ve worn during exercise for the past 3-6 months generally won’t provide much support and should be replaced, unless you are one of the lucky few that you could even exercise barefoot with no problems. If this is the case, you probably didn’t need the support of the sneakers anyway, and could probably get away with stretching them longer than the recommended 3-6 months.
Before you head to the store, determine the sports and/or fitness activities you do most often. This will help the sales assistant guide you to the correct shoes (be careful, though, for unknowledgeable "salespeople" especially in large chain stores). For example, if you jog and play tennis, your best bet is to invest in two pairs of shoes, as the forward motion of running and the lateral movements of tennis require different cushioning and stability. If you split your time between walking, cardio machines and weight lifting, however, a bare-bones basic model will probably suffice.
You'll also want to determine if you overpronate or underpronate, because these conditions can be counteracted with the right shoes. Pronation itself is a good thing: it's a natural occurence, and refers to the inward roll of the foot, which provides a natural cushioning each time you take a step. However, if your foot rolls inward too much, you will likely experience ankle and knee problems. On the other hand (or other foot!) if your foot doesn't roll inward ENOUGH, you underpronate. Not sure if you overpronate or underpronate? Examine an old pair of workout shoes. If the inside heel is visibly compressed and the heels lean toward one another, you overpronate and should look for shoes that have a "dual density" material under the inner heel or a firmer plastic or rubber insert, called a medial post. "Motion control" and "Stability" shoes fit the bill here. If the outer heels are compressed and the shoes roll outward away from each other, you underpronate and should look for soft shoes named "cushioning" shoes.
With this information in mind, it's time to head to the store. It’s usually best to shop later in the day, because feet tend to swell as the day goes on. Wear a pair of exercise socks while you try on shoes, and be sure to measure both feet and fit the shoe to the largest one. If you wear orthotics, bring them along and ask for styles with removable insoles. Always try before you buy. Check the length and width carefully. Allow for a minimum half-inch space between your longest toe and the end of the shoe. Make sure the shoe laces up comfortably, meaning that it provides enough support without being too tight. If you need narrow or wide shoes, visit a store that carries an assortment, or consider ordering a different width online once you find the ones you like. Make sure you stand and walk a bit in your shoes, and test them out with the type of motion you plan to do (run a few steps, pivot, jump, etc.).
Finally, always try something in addition to your usual brand, and don't just buy the same shoe if it's a new year's model. Shoe companies revamp their designs regularly, and you'll want to test the latest options. Sometimes another brand or style is actually more like your old shoes than the one that bears the same name! Please leave fashion considerations for your casual shoes--it’s much more important that you get the correct support for your workouts.
Click here for more on foot type and the appropriate sneakers for your type of training.
If you’ve been wearing the right sneakers and still experience problems, you might have a more serious foot issue such as arch problems that requires custom orthotics to correct. Keep this in mind if you continue to experience foot or leg pain while exercising. Although foot and leg pain are the most common problems when you wear sneakers that don’t suit your needs, all areas of the body including the low back can be affected. Make sure you’re working out with the right footgear, because it can make all the difference in your comfort and safety during a workout.