Everyone who has bought sports shoes for a specific sport has asked: which one is the best? Then, people look at reviews and ask other people who have the shoes for their opinion.
Do the insoles matter? Some have asked the next question: Which one is the best for me? These people will go and have their feet checked or scanned and find the appropriate shoes according to their feet scan.
However, very few have asked the question: Which pair of shoes is the best for me, with the goal I have in mind?
Let’s take running for example, mainly forward movement with minimum left-right(lateral) sway. It has impact absorption and energy storage converted intopropulsion as part of the movement. With minimum left-right (lateral)component, the shoes and insoles may not need to enhance your left-right(lateral) stability.
However, the shoes and insoles need to NOT interfere and possibly enhance your action of impact absorption, energy storage and propulsion during the run. This may seem obvious, but it also implies more/thicker support/insoles does not necessarily mean better! The support/insoles maybe hindering your foot to feel the ground and reducing your body’s ability to absorb impact, even if the support/insoles absorbs some of it, your whole body needs to work together as well, this includes the ankles, knees, hips and even your upper body.
On the note of the whole body: be wary of a “foot scan”. The shape of your feet is something you want to consider when you buy shoes, however, in most of our sports, while we are on our feet, there are also a lot of other body parts on top of it, knees, hip, etc. Hence, looking at your feet alone is not enough!
For example, if the way your legs are shaped already puts your knees outward of your feet and hips (an O-shaped leg/bow-legged or genu varum), the “foot scan” may detect that your feet are dropped/putting too much weight in the middle, and you are given insoles that supports the inside of your foot (medial arch), but that may put your knee even further outward and cause pain in your knees! The whole bodyworks together, we cannot just look at one isolated part (e.g. foot) and determine the shoes from there, we must consider the whole body, at the very least the lower body.
After looking at your whole body, don’t forget to go back and consider what your goals are: are you trying to run faster? Are you training to run faster? Are you running on grass or road? Are you playing a sport that requires side-to-side stability?
One way to view a good pair of shoes or insoles is that they should enhance your function. It does not matter how they look, where they support, or how they feel, but it should enhance your function. For example, a thin pair of insoles may support you less, but the ability to feel the ground better may be enhancing your running technique and shock absorption.
Hence, we’ve established that a good pair of shoes or insoles will enhance your function, but always go back to the original question: what’s your goal?
If your goal is to have better balance in a sport, then shoes and insoles that enhances your balance is a good pair. If your goal is to train your balance, then you need a pair of shoes/insoles that enhances your balance training, not necessarily your balance. This can mean shoes/insoles that do NOT support your balance and exaggerates your mistakes; allowing you to self-correct and improve your balance. The same goes for running: are you wanting to run better, or train to run better?
Some opinions suggest minimalist shoes and/or barefoot enhances your ability to train your running by allowing you to make mistakes and feel your running. While others suggest that technology and improvements on shoes, insoles, even tracks may improve your running speeds. This leads us to the possibility of needing 2 pairs of shoes/insoles for 2 different tasks: one pair to enhance your training, one pair for your competition or event. For running this could mean a pair of shoes/insoles you wear for your training, and another pair to wear closer to and during the competition/event. For lifters, this may mean wearing lifting shoes (i.e. with a heel raise) closer and during your event, while wearing shoes with minimum heel lift to enhance the correction/training while you correct what you need to (e.g. ankle mobility).
So how, do we test this function? There are many ways to test this, the most obvious one is: do that particular movement: if you squat better with the shoes than without, then your shoes are helping you squat – it doesn’t mean it is helping you learn how to squat; it assists you, almost like a crutch, so you may want to learn how to do it without the crutch – if that is your goal.
However, a quick and simple test we like to use is the Motor Control Screen (MCS) ; a variation of the anterior reach component of the Y-Balance Test (YBT) or the Star Excursion Balance Test (SEBT). This is one measure of your single leg function(standing leg, not pushing leg). The instructions are simple, have a measurement lined up on the floor or equipment. Stand on one foot behind the measuring line, have a box on the measuring line and push the box forward as far as you can using your other foot. Record the measurement. If you want to be more accurate, do it 3 times on each leg and record the best measurement; the further you can reach the better. Repeat the test with just your insoles (if you have one) and repeat the test with your insoles and shoes. Compare the numbers.
Few things to take note: left and right should be relatively similar, and the insoles/shoes should not decrease your reach. If wearing the insoles/shoes increases your reach that means it is enhancing your function in the anterior reach component which may mean enhancing your function in your activity, but it may mean it is acting as a “crutch” – but that may be its intention: to improve your function. If the insoles/shoes do not change things, that means it is maintaining your function and some suggests this is ideal for training/correction purposes. Correction usually involves low to no load –usually correcting a movement (e.g. squatting or running technique). However, if wearing insoles/shoes you’re able to reach less than barefoot, that means your insoles/shoes are hindering your function – not ideal unless there is a specific reason why that footwear is causing that: e.g. snowboard boots completely restricting ankle movement.
We do need to remind people that the MCS is ONE measure of single leg function; it is not comprehensive, a more comprehensive assessment can be done with your physiotherapist, trainer or coach. It does not measure your lateral (side) reaches and other function (e.g. shock absorption). If there isa significant difference between left and right, there needs to be an explanation why it is so: previous injury, mobility problems/stiffness, poor balance/control which once again your health/fitness professional will be able to determine for you.
So, what should you do now?
Grab your sports/exercise shoes and insoles and have a test and feel. Like we mentioned: nothing should make you worse, some may not make it better, that just gives you the opportunity to make yourself better!