Go with running shoes if you mostly jog or walk, since they’re engineered for heel-to-toe motion. Why not walking shoes? “Running sneakers cater to a wider range of foot types and are built to last longer,” says Megan Leahy, a doctor of podiatric medicine at the Illinois Bone & Joint Institute, in Chicago.
Go with cross-trainers if your routine includes an activity like aerobics, weight training, or kickboxing (basically any exercise on a hard surface that involves side-to-side movement).
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What’s Your Foot Type?
“Runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, and early-onset arthritis are just a few problems that arise from exercising in the wrong sneakers,” says Louis Pack, a podiatrist in Greensboro, Georgia, and the author of The Arthritis Revolution ($24, lulu.com). In contrast, shoes designed to compensate for the impact of your feet can prevent injuries and improve structural alignment and performance. To determine your foot type: Have a podiatrist examine you, or get an idea yourself by looking at the soles of a pair of worn-in flats. “The wear patterns show where you’re putting pressure when you walk,” says Pack. Compare the red areas on the shoes at right to see which matches your own.
1. Top Outer Edge Worn
You’re a supinator (or underpronator). Supinators’ feet tend to have high arches and roll outward. You need:Cushioning (also referred to, confusingly, as neutral ) sneakers for shock absorption.
2. Evenly Worn
You’re neutral and have an average gait with equal weight distribution across the foot. You need:Stability or moderate-stability sneakers, which offer a balance of cushioning and support.
3. Top Inner Edge Worn
You’re a pronator, which means your feet roll inward. Flat arches or low arches are common. You need:Motion-control or high-stability sneakers to keep your feet better aligned with your legs.
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If You’re a Supinator...
Look for: Soft midsoles (the layer between the mesh upper and the treads), since this type of foot doesn’t provide enough shock absorption on its own. That means the shoes’ soles will tend to be more flexible. You can also usually spot them by the shape of the sole: “A cushioned shoe cuts in at the arch, resembling a kidney bean,” says Leahy.
Shoes for running: Extra rubber built into the sole means a smoother, bouncier gait.
Shoes for cross-training: Make lightning-quick pivots, thanks to flexible grooves in the sole.
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If You’re Neutral...
Look for: Cushioning with a good dose of stability—in other words, a lightweight shoe that bends just to the ball of the foot. That said, “in many cases, this foot type has the most freedom and can wear whichever sneakers feel best at the store,” says Steven Raikin, M.D., the director of foot and ankle services at Rothman Institute Orthopaedics, in Philadelphia.
Shoes for cross-training: These crazy soles act like a Slinky, putting an extra spring in your step.
Shoes for running: This innovative design reduces heel slippage and instep strain.
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If You’re a Pronator...
Look for: Shoes that are a contrasting color (often gray) near the arch. This indicates the presence of a dense material that provides reinforcement to keep the arches from collapsing. The shoes tend to be fairly stiff and will flex only near the toe area. The added support can sometimes give these sneakers a boxy appearance, says Luke Rowe, a vice president of the sneaker retailer Fleet Feet.
Shoes for cross training: A wide toe box allows for comfortable lateral movement.
Shoes for running: Stabilizing roll bars help protect arches.
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3 Questions About Athletic Shoes
What If Your Feet Get Sweaty and Blistered?
Invest in smarter athletic socks (like the ones pictured from Balega International, from $10, balegasports.com) and get rid of your basic white ones. “When shopping, look at the fabric, size, and seams—not necessarily the amount of cushioning,” says Fleet Feet’s Luke Rowe. Bypass 100 percent cotton and reach for a moisture-management material, like Coolmax, which will wick away irritating sweat. (These synthetic blends are sold under other names, too, including Dri-Fit, ClimaCool, and Drynamix.) Pick a sock that comes in a range of sizes (say, from extra small to extra large) as opposed to a one-size-fits-all style (“sizes 6 to 11”) for less blister-inducing slippage. And, finally, look for seamless construction, which eliminates chafing and irritation, especially around the toe area.
What’s Up With Those Funky Shoes That Look Like Gloves for Feet?
They’re designed for barefoot running, a new movement that tries to replicate the unshod experience using barely-there shoes. This practice, which borrows from indigenous peoples who don’t have the luxury of the latest Nikes, supposedly strengthens the foot muscles and allows the feet to move more naturally. But is it safe? “If you didn’t grow up running on bare feet, it’s extremely risky, resulting in everything from stress fractures to arthritis,” warns John Brummer, DPM, a spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association, in New York City. Feet not only need protection from hard, uneven surfaces but also require customized support for their unique structure.
How Can You Tell If You Need New Sneakers?
Keep an eye on the shoe’s midsole—the cushiony layer between the treads and the mesh upper, says the Illinois Bone & Joint Institute’s Megan Leahy. When you notice deep-set wrinkles there (like a squashed marshmallow), it’s time to say good-bye.