Smart Shopping: Athletic Shoes

Getting Started l Types l Features

Some sports require lots of expensive equipment, but all you need for running or walking is a good pair of shoes. Thanks to modern materials and sophisticated design, most of the running and walking shoes we tested performed well overall. But no matter the model, when selecting a shoe, the bottom line is fit.



GETTING STARTED

Our test panelists logged more than 2,240 miles while evaluating two dozen models of running shoes and almost as many pairs of walking shoes. Besides pounding the pavement, we tested the shoes in our labs. We checked whether the front of the shoe flexed enough to let you push off easily with the ball of your foot. And we measured stability (control of ankle motion), shock absorption at the forefoot and heel (where the impact is greatest), and breathability (the ability to dissipate moisture). Weight also matters. The lighter the shoe, the better-as long as cushioning and stability don't suffer.

Where you shop should depend in large part on your experience. Most running and walking shoes are bought at department, discount, specialty athletic, sporting-goods, and family-footwear stores. You'll probably pay more at a footwear store that caters to serious runners, but you're more likely to find a seasoned sales clerk who can answer your questions and help you to get the right model for your gait and type of workout.

Analyze your gait
The running and walking shoes we tested are for people whose feet don't require corrective measures. But manufacturers also offer models for special needs. If your feet pronate (roll inward) excessively, a stabilizing or motion-control shoe might minimize the problem. And if your feet don't pronate enough, a cushioning shoe that emphasizes shock absorption might be best. Overpronators typically have a low arch, underpronators, a high arch, and neutral runners fall somewhere in between. If you have well-worn running shoes, take them with you when you shop. Their wear pattern might help an experienced sales clerk to analyze your gait and recommend the right shoe.

Get a good fit to stay fit
The first rule of shopping for athletic shoes is that fit counts more than anything else. A bad choice can cause discomfort and fatigue, or even painful foot and joint problems. Your feet tend to swell toward the end of the day, so shop late in the afternoon, and wear the kind of socks you'll be wearing for running or walking. Feel around the inside for seams, bumps, and rough spots. Running and walking shoes should feel good right out of the box, without being broken in.

Take a test run
Buying shoes without trying them out is like buying a car without test-driving it. Jog or walk a little in the store, and ask if you can take the shoes once around the block. Better yet, ask whether you can buy the shoes, walk or run briefly on a treadmill at home or at a gym, and return them if they don't feel right.

Think twice about orthotics
If your feet become sore from running or walking, you might be tempted to try orthotics-custom-made shoe inserts that take the place of insoles. But orthotics can be expensive and might reduce a shoe's cushioning. Consider whether your problem could be solved with new shoes or a different category of shoe (cushioning, neutral, or stability).

TYPES

You can move comfortably in just about any shoe that fits correctly, including walking, running or cross-training shoes, all of which provide cushioning and stability. But different sports make different demands on shoes. The type of athletic shoe for you depends on what you plan to do when you lace up. Below we walk you through your choices.

Running shoes
Running shoes and walking shoes might look similar, but there are important differences. Running shoes must provide extra cushioning, because the feet can land with a force 1½ to 3 times the runner's body weight. They must also provide easy flexing at the ball of the foot and enough stability to control pronation. And the outsoles must be durable and provide better traction on pavement or dirt.

Walking shoes
These are best for people who walk for fitness or who want a casual shoe for everyday walking. The best walking shoes we tested provide good cushioning. And their flexible soles, designed for the relatively low impact of walking, allow the foot to roll easily from heel to toe.

Cross-trainers
Cross-trainers are all-purpose shoes that provide a compromise between walking and tennis or other court shoes. They can be a money-saving alternative to several pairs of specialized shoes for people who pursue a variety of activities, but they don't provide enough flexibility and cushioning for running or other high-impact sports.

Sports-specific shoes
Some athletic shoes are highly specialized. For example, the higher tops of basketball shoes are designed to provide ankle support to ease the effects of abrupt starts and stops, jumps, and lateral moves while playing. Golf shoes and baseball shoes have cleats for traction on turf. Choosing the right shoes for the job will help you go the distance.

FEATURES

Part of the cushioning in a walking shoe comes from the squishy material in the midsole. Part also comes from your foot's ability to roll inward and thus reduce the impact on bones and joints. A shoe that combines both kinds of cushioning while providing adequate stability is, well, a step ahead of shoes that don't. If the shoe is also lightweight, flexible, and breathable, so much the better. Here are the running shoe features to consider.

The sole
Three layers comprise the sole. The bottom layer, or outsole, is generally made of carbon rubber for durability. It's segmented for flexibility and grooved for traction. The squishy middle layer, or midsole, provides most of the cushioning. It's usually made of shock-absorbing foam and might incorporate gel or air sacs and plastic torsion supports. The layer directly underfoot, the insole or sock liner, provides some additional shock absorption and arch support. It's removable and washable in all the running shoes we tested and in many walking shoes

The upper
This is the body of the shoe, the part above the sole. The toe box--the forward part of the upper--should be roomy enough to let your toes spread and leave a half-inch space ahead of your longest toe. The heel counter at the rear should keep your heel from slipping excessively. These days, the uppers on most running shoes are made of synthetics, though some walking shoes still use leather. The more your feet sweat, the more you'll appreciate the breathability of mesh.

Lacing
Fabric, plastic, or metal speed-lacing loops make tightening easier. Extra top eyelets provide a snug fit at the ankle. Flat laces are less likely to loosen or come untied than round ones.

Style
If you're on your feet a lot all day long, you might want shoes that combine the comfort and support of a walking shoe with something dressy enough for the office. Unfortunately the dressier walking shoes we tested didn't perform as well, overall, as the ones that look like sneaks.

Reflectors
If you jog or walk at dawn or dusk, reflective tabs on the uppers can provide extra safety by reflecting cars' headlights. Most of the reflectors on the shoes we tested were skimpy, but sporting goods stores offer supplementary reflectors and reflective clothing.

Copyright © 2006-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction in whole or in part without written permission.

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