Tread Labs

A Complete Guide to Shoe Insoles and Orthotics

The Test of Time

Years ago, I started Chaco, a company that produced sturdy sandals for outdoor enthusiasts. I learned the basics of foot biomechanics and designed footwear that drew a hard line in the sand – if your arches were medium to high, you fell in love with the product and became an advocate; if your arches were low, our offering was uncomfortable.

Every other company offered a flatter footbed. We found that arch contours were a great way to differentiate ourselves from our competition. Decades later, not only are those same designs selling very well, they have created a cult following. Users are urging their friends to purchase Chaco sandals.

How Good Can You Stand It?

Most people are surprised how good it feels to wear supportive footwear. Normal shoes have very little arch support for one very good reason – everyone’s feet are different and building substantial arch support into shoes would limit the number of people the shoes would fit.

The lowest common denominator (and most common form found in shoes) is a flat footbed. These flat shoes bother nobody, but they do not provide the necessary support for all-day comfort. In most cases, it makes sense to separate the function of the shoe from the function of the shoe insole. Finding a great shoe without much arch support isn't the end of the world. We encourage people to find supportive insoles to improve the fit and function of their footwear.

In many sporting activities, good shoe insoles or orthotics can improve performance. Cyclists, skiers, tennis players, golfers, and many other sport enthusiasts experience better control, more power, and enhanced comfort with the addition of quality inserts in their shoes.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Much has been written about whether or not arch supports, shoe insoles, and orthotics are beneficial. Proponents highlight video gait analysis that clearly shows the benefits of supportive footwear. Watching slow-motion video of walkers and runners before and after using supportive inserts made a convert out of me.

Naysayers believe that orthotics are a "crutch" that make feet weaker and less adaptable. I'm not convinced. Supportive insoles are no more a crutch than eyeglasses are a crutch that prevents your eyes from getting stronger.

There are quantitative studies that show improvement with certain kinds of shoe inserts (an exhaustive list is here), but the bulk of my experience is product not clinically based. While those with white lab coats have a place in the world of quality custom orthotics, I have spent my time developing products and speaking with hikers, travelers, guides, and others who have felt the direct benefit of supportive off-the-shelf footwear.

For 20 years, I spoke directly with customers, tested products, and worked with C.Peds (Licensed Pedorthists) on footwear and footbed development. The simple fact is that most people are more comfortable with some kind of supportive footwear. The bigger challenge is providing this level of support to a population with very diverse foot shapes. It is my goal to cut through the hyperbole and give people a basic idea of the choices available for improving the fit and function of their footwear.

Basic Solutions for Improving Footwear Comfort

Read the literature of the more established insole and orthotic companies and you will start to see a common thread. Controlling pronation is the solution to many (but not all) foot problems. Pronation is the rolling in of the foot as it takes a step; overpronation is when the foot rolls too far in. Underpronation is when the foot rolls too far out. Overpronation is more common across foot types. While high arches are often correlated with underpronation (also called supination), even people with very high arches often overpronate. Firm support under the rear third of the arch is the way to limit pronation to a healthy level. Delivering this support in a way that is comfortable, long-lasting, and effective is where companies diverge. At the risk of over-simplification:

  • Most people are more comfortable with supportive shoe insoles.
  • The reason the support is comfortable is because it limits pronation.
  • There are many options available to provide this support.
  • Finding the right product can be challenging.

Common Insole Features and Terminology

  • Custom Fit – Just because it's custom doesn't mean that it's correct. Orthotics made by an experienced provider can help those with foot complexities. Custom-fit orthotics that rely on do-it-yourself imprints are a risky path to take.
  • Antimicrobial – A treatment to keep your shoes from becoming hazardous waste. These treatments are effective and help keep the stink factor down. Some are branded (Xstatic); some are not.
  • Gel – A semi-liquid material that is very good at mitigating the shock of heel strike. Gel tends to be heavy compared with other materials and is often used in small areas of an insert.
  • Low-Friction Top Cover – Simple concept but very important. Friction creates heat and heat creates problems for the feet. The best insole surface for your feet has low friction. The foot is best held in place with a great fitting shoe with appropriate contours, not a textured surface.
  • Metatarsal Pads/Met Pads/Met Raises – The metatarsals are the bones that fan out from your ankle to the ball of your feet. In most cases, supporting these bones is crucial. Generally, met raises belong on custom orthotics, where an experienced practitioner can position them correctly, but some people find comfort with them on generic products.
  • Bulk Sizing – Some insoles come in every size (8, 9, 10…), some span a couple of sizes (8-9.5, 10-11.5), and some of the least-expensive insoles come one size fits all. Generally the more sizes offered, the better.
  • Trimmable or Trim-to-Fit – All shoes, and all feet, are not created equal. Sometimes a great fitting shoe insole is too long or too wide for a particular shoe. Most insoles (and all custom orthotics) can be trimmed in the front to fit into a particular shoe.

Shoe Insole and Orthotic Categories

In order to make sense of the hundreds of products available, I have created categories to keep things organized. Here is a chart to help you better understand the pros and cons of the various products. Many companies sell products into multiple categories.

I have deliberately omitted shoe insoles that are outside the mainstream of biomechanical thought. If you are looking to balance your chakras or receive magnetic therapy, you will have to look elsewhere. There will undoubtedly be products that I have missed; I invite you to correct any omissions in the comment section below.

A complete guide to shoe insoles and orthotics
 

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Conclusion – Comfort and Performance Requires Supportive Footwear

There is a huge array of product out there, with testimonials flying in every direction. For legitimate long-term comfort, pain relief, or increased performance in sports activities, pick products from the Firmer Arch Supports, Medical Grade Arch Supports, or Dispensed Custom Orthotics categories. Products from these categories will deliver true biomechanical support and in many cases will enhance performance. If there is anything we can do to help you get the right product underfoot, please call (781.435.0662) or email (hello@treadlabs.com). Making feet comfortable is what we do.

6 comments

Jul 27, 2016 • Posted by Ashton

Wow, this is very helpful! I actually bookmarked it so I can read again when the time comes for me to find a new pair of shoes!

Jul 13, 2016 • Posted by Kody Loveless

Thanks for the advice. I have very high arches and have noticed that my feet are hurting more and more lately. I have always tried to wear shoes with good supports but I guess that is not enough. I will have to try for a custom fit arch support. I will avoid the “do it yourself kind” and I will go to a doctor and have them do it.

http://www.hagerpando.ca/orthotics.html

Apr 09, 2016 • Posted by Arch Support Insoles

It is good to see that someone has taken the time to provide such detailed, comprehensive information about the different types of orthotics and shoe insoles for everyone who might need them. Thanks for sharing!

Mar 09, 2016 • Posted by wesley

I really like how the article explained the function of every type of orthotic insole. I assume that every person could find the right fit for them with the use of a list such as the one listed. I think that the best one would for me would be a custom fit because of my high arch in the heel.

Jan 15, 2016 • Posted by Stewart Boomer

I loved your analogy of the crutch – insoles have been a huge help to me, and I completely agree that they haven’t made my feet weaker in any way (plus I wear glasses, so I appreciated the comparison). It’s good to know there are people out there trying to make a difference for those of us with foot pain. Keep sharing! http://www.fostershoes.ca/en/contact_us.html

May 04, 2015 • Posted by Gary Jacobson

Great job.

I have pretty bad feet according to the experts, and have tried just about every category of foot bed you describe. Now I rely on super high tech dispensed custom orthotics that fit in most of my shoes, but I find cycling shoes to not be friendly with inserts, and surely not my orthotics due to volume issues.

Not sure about what attributes besides being low profile is necessary for a foot support to work well in a cycling shoe. Time to try Tread Labs. It may not make sense to go custom for foot help to improve comfort when cycling.

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