Your Best Foot Forward

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A local expert helps navigate the often-complicated world of athletic shoes

If you’re like me, no purchasing decision is easy these days. What’s supposed to be a simple transaction can turn into hours of scrolling through customer reviews, which then leads to a Google search and all of those catchy blogs people write about products. (Aren’t those addicting?) Next thing you know, two hours have passed and not only have you still not made a decision, but you are likely even more confused than when you started.

This scenario played out recently for me as I searched for new athletic shoes. My current pair was worn out after about a year of heavy use in daily HIIT (high-intensity interval training) classes. I felt overwhelmed by my options, and realized that I wasn’t alone. Conversations about what kind of shoes to buy often surrounded me at the gym.

I tracked down Perry Mundy, a certified pedorthist for Virginia Sport and Spine Institute, to see if he could share some shoe insight. A pedorthist is a healthcare professional specifically trained in comprehensive foot care using therapeutic foot wear and supportive orthotic devices for the foot.

He was upfront that his answer to my question, “What kind of shoes do I need?” might be disappointing at first.

“One of my teachers in college said, ‘The answer to every question is, it depends. But if you ever answer that on a test it’s wrong’,” Mundy recalls. “The right shoe completely depends on the individual and that individual’s activity. There are a wide range of variables that are specific to each person.”

But he acknowledges there is a lot of information to sort through regarding athletic shoes. Here, we asked him a few of the top questions.

How important is fixing a shoe issue to overall health?

Feel like your foot is slipping from side to side during that CrossFit workout?

Notice substantial arch aches during those early morning runs? This is not the time to channel those popular fitness mantras such as “no pain, no gain.”

“The foot is the foundation of the house, everything else is up the line,” Mundy says.

The pain in your calves, knees, even hips, could be due to an improperly fitting shoe or, in some cases, a structural problem with your body, such as leg length inequality. If one leg is even just a tiny bit longer than the other, that foot will not pronate properly in your shoes. Your doctor may recommend you to a certified pedorthist to see if a special shoe insert could help.

Mundy typically stops his evaluation “at about hip level,” so if you have shoulder pain for example, you probably don’t need to blame your shoes.

What exactly is pronation?
“Pronation is our natural ability to absorb shock, an inward rotation of the foot that occurs very quickly, every time we step,” Mundy explains.

When he says quickly, he means quickly—300 microseconds is all it takes. But it’s a crucial split second of time for our bodies.

“Pronation is necessary, we have to do it to absorb shock the right way, if not, something else in our bodies will,” says Mundy, adding that abnormal amounts of pronation (either overpronating or underpronating) can cause a wide range of difficulties.

What about all of those words you see describing shoes?
While there is a lengthy shoe vocabulary companies like to use when describing their shoes, Mundy says running shoes can generally be classified into three categories: control, stability and neutral. You will see these words written out in the description of the shoe either on the box or online.

A control shoe is a very strong “posted” shoe, with a variety of different materials intended to decelerate the speed of excessive pronation in the foot.

A stability shoe is less “controlling” and can include mild to moderate levels of “posting” but could also include neutral shoes based on how they function with the foot. “Some shoe companies are moving to ‘dynamic posts’ in response to increased research on how the foot behaves during running,” Mundy says.

A neutral shoe is just that, a shoe without additional materials for controlling pronation. “They are cushioned to aid in shock absorption. This is a large category that is not limited to running shoes but functionally includes sport-specific shoes like tennis, basketball, volleyball, crosstraining and even CrossFit-style shoes.”

What are some signs I’m in the wrong shoe?
Let’s say you are at a shoe store—or maybe you even ordered some shoes online to try out at home. First and foremost, Mundy says the top test of the “right” shoe is pretty simple: “What is the most comfortable? When our feet hit the ground and we have pain, we have a problem.”

Next, he recommends the pinch test.

While standing up, pinch the inside of the shoe near the toe box to see how much space there is.

“See how much of your foot, your pinky toe, is hanging off the edge of the shoe. If you are sliding off the outer edge of it in the store, don’t buy it. Because in a few weeks of use, your foot is definitely going to be off the edge.”

Finally, check what he calls dynamic alignment. March in place for a bit, stop, and unlock your knees: “If your knees are over top of your second toes, that’s where they need to be. If they are not, you need to look for something else.”

Is there a good “universal” shoe out there?
“Some shoes can cross over, some cannot,” explains Mundy. “Again, it depends on what you are trying to do.”

Take running shoes for example. Trail running is very different from road running. Distance running is different than sprinting.

“Can you play basketball in a running shoe?
I wouldn’t recommend it due to the lateral motion. But you could run in a basketball shoe if need be,” says Mundy.

Cross-training shoes may come the closest to being a “universal” shoe and have become a popular category because they can do a little bit of everything.

Mundy recommends looking at four components for cross-training shoes: durability, versatility, specificity and price.

“You want a shoe to hold up to the demands you place on it (durability), to be able to do multiple activities (versatility), contain components that help your foot do its job better (specificity) and you don’t want to break the bank when buying the shoe (price),” Mundy says. “Finding the correct shoe is a fairly daunting task so soliciting professionals to help with these characteristics will help guide you towards the correct shoe choice for your specific activity.”

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