4 Tips You Need to Know Before Buying a Pair of Sneakers
Shell out money for a pair of mainstream sneakers and your feet—a crucial aspect of performance, comfort, and enjoyment in fitness—could pay the price.
In a market saturated with products—from racing flats and cross training shoes to cushy, supportive sneakers—picking a pair of athletic sneakers can prove daunting.
There’s a way to simplify the process. “The basic advice I give is for people to buy a shoe that they feel comfortable in,” says Pete Egoscue, co-founder of Elev8d Fitness.
If that sounds too easy, know that science suggests it’s true: A study co-authored by one of the world’s leading biomechanics experts Benno Nigg, Ph.D. in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that picking a pair of shoes based on comfort might help the body maintain its ‘preferred movement path’, reduce injury risk, and improve performance.
Comfort aside, there are a few specifications to consider a new shoe for exercise. Start here:
Look for less support.
Egoscue favors lighter, minimalistic kicks—shoes that have as close to an unsupported sole as possible. This is so that your arches (which enable movement in every direction, as well as balance and spring) can work to their full potential.
“If the foot can’t spread out and rock through its motion pattern because it’s being held with a rigid sole, there’s no reason for the muscles of the foot to do any work,” he says.
And without the arches working properly, you don’t get the plantar dorsiflexion of the ankle—flexing the foot back, heel down, toes towards the shins. The ankle is the load joint closest to the ground—and when it can’t move in a full range of motion, the communication between the eight load-bearing joints and the intricate synergistic activity of the body as a whole suffers.
“The arches make sure the foot can deal with any kind of terrain in any position and make sure that the load joint of the ankle can kinesthetically connect to the knee, hip, shoulder,” Egoscue says. When they’re restricted by a rigid sole, they can’t do their jobs.
Eschew elevated heels.
Most sneakers on sports store shelves are twice as thick in the heel as they are in the forefoot, says Golden Harper, founder of Altra Running, a company that makes shoes shaped like healthy feet.
When the heel is elevated in such a way, it alters the center of gravity on your foot strike, Egoscue explains.
“This encourages an inefficient, high-impact technique which makes it really hard to run the way your body wants to run and is meant to run,” Harper adds.
Even more: Cushioning doesn’t truly support the foot. “The more support you put around foot, the weaker your feet get,” argues Egoscue. That’s because they’re not required to do the work they’re supposed to be doing.
“Generally, people run pretty great barefoot or in foot-shaped shoes without an elevated heel,” suggests Harper.
Seek out a wider toe box.
In nearly every running shoe out there, the toes are unnaturally crowded. Mainstream shoes are not shaped like natural human feet, says Harper.
“If your toes are crowded together, you won’t absorb impact as well, your arch won’t be able to stabilize, and you will lose push off power,” says Harper. To do all of this, your big toe has to be straight, he notes.
In too-tight shoes, form slips, resulting in extra pressure on the joints, and inefficiencies that slow you down, Harper says. “Also, arches won’t work correctly so elastic energy is lost there and the body has to compensate.”
Simply buying your shoes in a wide or buying them a size up (even if they feel too big) will help allow the toes to relax perform upon landing, he notes.
“It’s an amazing feeling to have your toes contribute to your run the way they are supposed to,” Harper says. “Once you get used to it, you feel powerful, relaxed, and free—like a kid running barefoot through a beautifully manicured grass field.”
Counter shoe time with barefoot time.
If you love your supportive sneakers or don’t see yourself changing your go-to form of footwear, Egoscue suggests counteracting your laced-up time with barefoot time when you’re not working out.
Walking around without shoes allows your arches, feet, and entire body to work the way nature intended.