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 insoles into shoes would limit the number of people the shoes would fit.
So what kind of shoe inserts do you need? In this post, we'll cover arch supports, shoe insoles and orthotics to help you find the right solutions for your feet.
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. But 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.
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 arch support insoles. Finding a great shoe without much arch support isn't the end of the world. We encourage people to find supportive shoe inserts with arch support 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.
Much has been written about whether or not arch supports, shoe insoles, or 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.
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:
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.
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 (email@example.com). Making feet comfortable is what we do.
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