A good pair of sneakers can make or break your workout. And it’s easy to go wrong. Here are the five biggest shoe mistakes people make.
1. Grabbing Whatever’s Handy
"The biggest mistake people make when they start running, jogging, or some other exercise program is just reaching into the closet and pulling out an old pair of sneakers," says Tracie Rogers, PhD, a consultant for the American Council on Exercise. An old pair of shoes may no longer have the support you need. And even more problematic, that pair of shoes might be inappropriate for the activity you choose.
2. Choosing the Right Shoe -- for the Wrong Workout
You need to choose the right type of shoe for the kind of workout you’ll be doing.
A shoe made for running is very different from a shoe made for basketball or tennis.
"Running shoes have no lateral stability built into them because you don’t move your feet laterally when you run. You’re only going forward. A running shoe is built to give you support and stability as you move your foot through the running gait cycle," says Joe Puleo, the author of Running Anatomy.
Puleo says basketball and tennis shoes both need to be stabilized laterally. That's because you move your feet side to side a lot when playing these sports. "You can’t build a running shoe that has lateral stability," he says, "and you can’t build a shoe for basketball or tennis that doesn’t have it."
Even walking shoes differ from running shoes.
Runners land more on their forefoot, while walkers have a heavier heel strike, says Catherine Cheung, a foot surgeon with the Post Street Surgery Center in San Francisco. "So for running, you want a shoe that has more cushioning on the forefoot, while walking shoes should have stiffer rubber to support the heel."
Can’t you just get a good cross-trainer and use it for everything? Maybe, maybe not.
“There’s no specificity to them -- you can’t do any one thing well,” Puleo says. “They have some lateral stability, so you can play a game of basketball with your kids occasionally. You can run a mile or two. But most of them are not very good shoes for any particular activity."
Then again, some people aren’t heavily into running, hiking, tennis, or any one sport. They go to the gym occasionally, maybe play tennis with a work buddy once in a while, or shoot a few baskets with the kids. For them, a cross-trainer might be the best choice.
"A good cross-trainer will allow you to do the treadmill, some walking on asphalt or on a track, and light jogging," says Kathleen Stone, past president of the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA). "Not mileage, of course. But I like them for people who are doing a variety of athletic endeavors casually."
To choose a good cross-trainer, Stone suggests you look for:
- A firm heel
- Good support (you shouldn’t be able to bend the shoe too easily)
- Light weight (you don’t want to add a lot of pounds to your feet)
But the APMA recommends that if you’re going to participate in a particular sport two to three times a week or more, you should choose a sport-specific shoe.
3. Loving Them Too Much
"Your workout shoes should be your workout shoes and not your running-around-town shoes," Rogers says. "You’ll break down a pair of shoes standing in them or wearing them to the mall and running errands much faster than when you’re running or exercising."
So buy yourself a pair of casual tennies for running around town, and stow your good workout shoes in the closet as soon as you get home from your run or your tennis game.
4. Loving Them Too Long
Another big mistake many people make with athletic shoes is not replacing them often enough.
"They think they should replace their workout shoes when they start looking bad," Rogers says. "But shoes start to break down while they’re still looking good. The support -- the reason you buy the shoe in the first place -- is gone, and you’ll start feeling strange aches and pains in your knees, hip, and back."
Most experts recommend that runners replace their shoes every 300 to 500 miles. If you don’t run enough to have a mile count, or running’s not your sport, you should replace your athletic shoes at least once a year.
"If you’re exercising on a casual basis, you can make your shoes last a year," Stone says. "But if you’re working out every day, 6 months is pretty much your limit."
You should also have your shoe size rechecked every year, Cheung says. "Foot size doesn’t stay the same; our feet tend to grow bigger as we age."
5. Doing It Yourself
Unless you’ve been playing your sport for a long time and have learned exactly what shoe is right for you, it’s a bad idea to just walk into a sporting goods store, try on a few pairs of shoes, and walk out with what you think is best.
Instead, go to an athletic shoe specialty store to get an expert insight on the right shoe and the best fit.
"The staff there will do a real fitting, evaluate your foot, and take a history of your athletic activities and what shoes may have worked for you before," Puleo says. "They’ll watch you walk or run on a treadmill or outside."
They’ll take three measurements -- not just one -- on the metal plate known as a Brannock Device that we’ve all seen in shoe stores.
"You need to know not just length but also width and arch length," Puleo says. "All three of those numbers together determine what size you should wear. And each shoe can be cut a little differently -- a 10 and a half isn’t a universal 10 and a half in all shoes -- so they’ll start with that number and work from there."
A good athletic shoe specialty store will also have a liberal return policy -- so ask. Some may permit you to return shoes if you’ve only worn them indoors, but not outdoors.