The purpose of an athletic shoe is to protect the foot from the stresses of your sport, while permitting the athlete to achieve his maximum potential. While in some parts of the world athletes run and participate in sports barefooted, most of us require and benefit from the use of sport specific shoes. The concept of "Sport Specific Shoes" is an important one. It means that if you participate in multiple sports you need a shoe that is specific to each of those sports. If you lift weights, play tennis, do aerobics, run 20 miles per week, cycle, play golf, shoot hoops, snow board, mountain climb and play tennis - don't try to make your cross trainers do it all. As a matter of fact, just skip the cross trainer and get yourself shoes that are specifically made for each sport.

“...if you participate in multiple sports you need a shoe that is specific to each of those sports...”

The forces and motions that occur in different sports vary greatly. Because of these differences participation in varied sports require varied shoes. A brief look at the foot and leg motions in running and tennis will readily demonstrate the differing requirements of these sports. Tennis and other racquet sports require much side-to-side motion and the shoe must provide lateral stability. The shoes appropriate for racquet sports usually do not have any heel elevation. If the shoe is unstable when the athlete is moving across the court to reach a ball, there is an increased chance of sufferring an ankle sprain.

Recreational running, on the other hand, usually occurs in a straight line. Lateral stability is not as important. These shoes usually have slight heel elevation which will reduce stress on the achilles tendon, but slightly reduce the lateral stability of the ankle. Running shoes also have a larger toe box, more shock absorption, and better pronation control than tennis shoes. Interestingly enough, many of the so-called walking shoes have characteristics that are more similar to tennis shoes than to running shoes. Walking and running both occur in a straight line and the similar requirements of these activities suggest that one would be better off using running shoes for walking, rather than a shoe that resembles a tennis shoe. Unless, of course, you walk down the street practicing your backhand returns.

Long distance runners usually contact the ground on their midfoot. Sprinters have forefoot contact. Middle distance runners vary and may have forefoot or midfoot contact. Some runners contact the ground with their heel. This is often a sign of overstriding.

Should You Wear Racing Shoes

If you are planning on breaking a 4 minute mile (for which you will be wearing spikes anyway) or a 2:30 marathon then racing shoes might be for you. But only for racing and very limited training. Estimates from research indicate that you will have a 1 second per mile improvement for every ounce less of shoe that you lose. Going from a 14 ounce shoe to a 9 ounce shoe is a 5 second difference per mile which would leave you about 32 seconds faster in a 10 K and perhaps 2 1/2 minutes faster in a marathon. Is that going to make or break you? If you have biomechanical flaws and are injury prone or recovering from an injury it just might break you. You will be better off in many cases just using a slightly better fitting, smoother flowing and slightly lighter training shoe for your races.

“...If you are planning on breaking a 4 minute mile or a 2:30 marathon then racing shoes might be for you...”

Don't forget that racing shoes do not offer much shock absorption or stability. Don't try these shoes, just to try something different or because you think this might be the key to a dramatic improvement. It could give incremental improvement and a dramatic injury. If you are biomechanically sound and so inclined you may give racing shoes a try for short races. Start with a 5K.


Specific Problems Related to Running Shoe Design Flaws

Achilles Tendonitis Shoes that have inflexible soles cause the calf muscles to work harder and can contribute to the development of achilles tendonitis. The mechanical reason for this is that the looking at the shoe and leg as a fulcrum and lever system, they make the lever arm function over a longer distance and make the tip of the shoe the location of the fulcrum. The shoe should flex at the point where the toes join the foot, which also happens to be the widest part of the shoe. The shoe should also have a slight heel lift, which most running shoes do.

Shoes that have too much heel cushioning, including some of the air-cushioned models can also contribute to achilles tendonitis. After the heel strikes the ground, it continues moving, as the shoe's cushioning continues to absorbs shock. This continued motion can stretch a susceptible achilles tendon excessively.

Plantar Fasciitis Shoes that are too flexible in the midsole or that flex before the point at which the toes join the foot result in forces that can both directly cause a stretch in the plantar fascia and contibute to excess pronation in the foot (subtalar joint). The lack of stability that exists in a shoe with this characteristic occurs not just at the transverse plane of the shoe where the shoe actually flexes, but also in a longitudinal plane, reducing the effectiveness of the shoe in limiting excess pronation.

Nerve Impingement Lacing systems can press on nerves and also tendons in two main areas that may create pain and injury. The most frequent place in which this can happen is over the first metatarsal-cuneiform joint where the bones at the base of the first metatarsal and the medial cuneiform create a small "bump". The nerve passing over this area and perhaps the extensor tendon to the big toe can become compressed under the laces and create significant pain. The best way to see if this is creating top of the foot pain at the middle of your foot is to relace your shoe and skip the lace eyelets that pass over it. If this fixes the problem, great! That was it. If not you may need to visit the sports doc to see what else may be creating the problem.

A second place where compression injury may occur is over the front of the ankle. Occasionally laces that are tied high and tight and run up over the front of the ankle end up compressing the nerves and tendons in the front of the foot and causing pain. The first approach to this should be to lower the lacing system and have it stop before the curve of the front of your ankle.

Shoe Wearing & Buying Tips

  • A shoe's midsole only lasts so long. It degrades from use and the resultant useful life of a running shoe is 350 to 550 miles. This means that if you are running 20 miles a week, you should consider changing by approximately weeks 20 to 25. The shoe may still serve a useful purpose; casual wear for walking. Replace the initial sockliner fairly quickly, it is likely designed to be comfortable and cushy when you first wear it. After that it loses shock absorption capacity quickly.
  • Sole wear does not necessarily reflect the loss of shock absorption by a shoe. Even with a new looking shoe, adequate shock absorption may be lacking. Use the 350 to 550 mile guideline instead of trying to guess how worn your shoe should look.
  • Length:
    • Make sure there is about a finger's width at the front of the shoe. This will help prevent runner's (black) toe. The shape and depth of the front of the shoe also have an effect on this problem.
    • Buy your shoes at the end of the day, when your feet are somewhat larger from the day's walking.
  • Width:
    • The widest part of the shoe should be at the widest part of your foot.
  • If you have had no problems while running in a shoe, you should probably try to obtain another pair of the same make and model.
  • Don't even dream of running a marathon in a new pair of shoes. Your shoe should have at least 100 miles on it to be broken in well enough to run a marathon.
  • Lacing:
    • Make sure you carefully lace your shoe before running. Too tight a shoe may make parts of the top of your foot sore or squeeze your metatarsals too tightly. Too lose a shoe may make your foot move excessively and be less stable, resulting in more than normal pronation.

Shoe Wear - What Can It Tell You?

Shoe wear is often taken to hold much meaning. So also, might be the reading of tea leaves, or the casting of yarrow sticks, to determine what Trigrams will be present in the current reading of the I Ching. While it may tell you much, there is much ambiguity present also. While some would disagree, I would rather examine a foot and watch your gait. It will tell me more about how your shoes will wear, than examining your shoes will tell you about either your feet or your gait. With that said, I'll describe some things you may learn from looking at shoe wear. One of the things to look for is asymmetry in wear. This will reflect asymmetry of function. There may be a leg length difference, one foot may pronate more than the other, muscles may be tighter or weaker on one side, or a rotational deformity may be present.

Sole Wear

Outer Heel - Rearfoot striker. The point of initial contact with the ground is usually the place showing the most wear. This could be normal wear. Most people have wear here. This can occur with a slight outtoe and the increase in the varus foot position that occurs in running because of the narrower base of gait (the distance from the midline that the foot strikes the ground).

Inner Heel Rearfoot striker. Possibly intoe gait, which would make this area the initial point of contact with the ground. Could also be severe pronation, if the heel counter is bent inward and the medial part of much of the sole shoes wear. The best way to tell is really looking at the foot in addition to the shoe.

Forefoot Wear
Much forefoot wear and little heel wear, usually indicates forefoot strike, which the shoes of many faster short and middle distance runner's will show. Uneven wear, or wear below a second or third metatarsal area may indicate a Morton's foot (short first metatarsal) and excess pronation. The indicated metatarsal may be at higher risk for a stress fracture. Middle of the Sole
Lateral sole wear in general, may reflect a high arch, excessively supinating foot. Medial sole wear, with a bent counter and a medial shift of the upper, probably indicates severe excessive pronation.

Heel Counter

The heel counter may be bent inward with excessive pronation and tilted to the outside by a high arched foot.


The upper may likewise tilt inward with a hyperpronating foot and tilt outward with a supinated (under pronating) foot. It may exhibit holes by the toes, or by the big toe alone. This means it may be too shallow or too short at the front of the foot. There should be a fingers width at the front of the shoe in front of the toes. If the toes make a big bump in the shoe less than 1/2 inch from the tip of the shoe, the shoe is probably too short.

How To Fit Your Athletic Shoes

  • Make sure you go to a specialty running shoe store.
  • Wear the same socks you intend to wear for your sport. Sock thickness affects the fit of the shoe. Make sure you bring your socks or buy a new pair for a proper fit. Also, if you wear orthotics, bring those along too for fitting.
  • Be fit for the shoe late in the day. Your foot expands later in the day after bearing weight.
  • Check your size each time you buy new shoes. You may end up surprised to discover that your feet continue to grow as you get older. Suddenly one day, you'll need a size 9 1/2 rather then an 8 1/2.
  • Make certain you go to a store that will actually let you run to see how the shoe feels when you are moving.
  • Buy a shoe that feels comfortable, it won't feel better in a week, if it doesn't feel good when you buy it.

Oversimplified Guide to Shoes

Low Arch Needs much support. Stable shoe needed with good rearfoot control.

High Arch Needs more shock absorption. Better with a narrower heel A wide heel may make the rearfoot, which in a high arched foot, may be restricted in inversion and eversion, move too much and too fast at heel contact.

Normal Foot Whatever you've been doing, keep doing. Probably best with a combination of control and shock absorption.

Post Stress Fracture Don't forget to change your shoes frequently (350 to 400 miles) and get a shoe with adequate shock absorption.

Achilles Tendinitis See above discussion. Avoid air soles and excessively spongy heels. Use a heel lift. Avoid shoes that are too stiff in the sole. It should bend where the toes attach to the foot.

Selecting An Athletic Shoe

1. Sport Specific Shoe. Plan to select a shoe specific for the sport in which you will participate. While some have suggested that if you particpate in a sport more than 3 hours per week, a better suggestion is to always make sure that you use a sport specific shoe. It would not be a good idea to play soccer in tennis shoes or to jog in football cleats? Get a sports specific shoe for each sport you participate in.

2. Specialty Shoe Store. It is best to use a store that specializes in athletic shoes and has a good reputation in your community. If you are a runner, make certain to ask local runners clubs and runners that you know where they recommend you purchase your shoes. You might also call the office of a local sports podiatrist for suggestions.

3. Bring Useful information to the store. What injuries have you had in the past and what if anything is your current problem? Bring your old shoes in to the store. Which shoes have been succesfully used in the past and which ones caused problems? What is your general foot type and foot shape? How have previous shoe models worn?

4. Have Your Feet Measured Each Time You Purchase Shoes. As you age, you'll find that your foot size may gradually change also. Each manufacturer often changes where their shoes are made and the last that the shoe is made will vary from one manufacturer to another. The measurements should include sitting, standing and heel to toe, heel to ball and width.

In spite of obtaining a number from the Brannock measuring device, you'll still have to actually fit the shoe to your foot. The measurement itself is only a general guide.

5. Wear Socks You Plan To Use And Don't Forget Your Orthotics. If you wear an insert, an orthotic or an orthotic with a flat insert underneath it, bring these along to the shoe store. And be sure to wear the same type of sock when you are fitted for your shoe as you will wear when participating in your sport.

6. You need a fingers width between your longest toe and the end of the shoe. The shoe should be fit with your index fingers width between the longest toe and the end of the shoe. The toe box should have adequate room for your toes. The shoe should bend at the ball of your foot where your toes actually bend. If the heel to ball fit is off, then the break of the shoe will not match your foot and abnormal forces will develop in your foot and in the shoe. The heel should be stable and not move in and out of the shoe. Wear the shoe for at least 10 minutes in the store, and if allowed do a brief short jog outside of the store to see how it feels.

7. Check the shoe for defects. Examine the exterior of the shoe for tears, inproper stitching and other blemishes and defects. Place the shoes on a level counter and make sure the shoes line up evenly, stable, that the heel is straight, and there are no obvious defects.

8. Check the wear of your shoes regularly. Make sure you examine and replace your shoes regularly. Most running shoes last for between 350 miles and 500 miles of running. Checking and changing your shoes is one of the best ways to avoid the doctor's office. With a careful training schedule that avoids over training and doing too much, too soon, too quickly and too often, you can reduce your risk of energy markedly. Be sure to check all aspects of your shoe for wear. Make sure the outsole is not worn through. Make sure that the heel counter is not tilted in or out. Check for holes worn by the pressure of your toes.

9. Don't wear a new shoe in a race. When you go off to run a marathon, bring your old friends along. Wear shoes and socks that you've broken in thoroughly.

10. Select appropriate socks. Cotton socks are available everyewhere, but are not often appropriate for your sports activity. The best sock is often one made of synthetic fibers that wick moisture away from your feet.

Alternative Approaches to Shoes

There have been recent trends to minimalist shoes such as the Vibram 5 finger shoe and to barefoot dubbed by some the Free 0.0. Runner's world has created a forum for discussion on barefoot: Runner's World Barefoot Forum

Other Sources of Running Shoe Information

Commercial Shoe Pages