How to use different types of insoles

How To Buy Insoles

by Mark Paigen 8 minute read

Whether you need insoles to address the foot pain you're having, you want to improve your biomechanics for better athletic performance, or maybe you just feel like your shoes aren't giving you enough support, you have plenty of options. But sometimes that's the problem. Where to start? Here's everything you need to know to pick the right insoles. 

The Basics ---

  • People need insoles for different reasons, so there's a lot of different types and styles of over-the-counter insoles available. For the vast majority of people, over-the-counter shoe inserts work well, however people with diabetes, serious biomechanical issues, or recurring injuries may need custom insoles from a podiatrist.
  • The most important thing to consider when you're buying insoles is the amount of support you need. Insoles should be firm enough so that when you press down on the arch, it doesn't collapse. If there's too much give, the insert won't give you the support you need.
  • Insoles work best when they match the contours of your feet. Insoles that are too high can hurt. Too low and there's no benefit to wearing them. Find insoles that come in various arch heights to get a close match to your foot.
  • If you're new to wearing insoles, we recommend firm support from Ramble. Have foot pain or overpronate severely? Go for extra firm support from Pace. Are you a performance athlete, have especially flat feet or destroy other insoles? Give the ultra-firm, rigid support of Dash a try.

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What You Need To Know ---

It seems like it would be easy enough to buy a pair of insoles. I mean, they sell them in the drugstore, right? But the truth is there's a little more to it that you need to consider. Because those drug store insoles aren't going to help your feet the way you expect. In fact, they really won't help at all. Get your insole purchase right the first time by knowing what to look for. 

Why Are My Shoes Uncomfortable?

Your shoes probably felt good when you put them on the first time. That maybe even be why you bought them. But spend more than a couple hours in them, especially if you're on your feet a lot, and they don't feel so comfortable anymore. In fact, you're feet are sore and your legs are tired.

It turns out, most shoes have the same problem - they're made to please as many people as possible. And while that may not seem like a bad thing, it is when it comes to giving your feet the support they need. The majority of shoes are made with minimal support which leaves your feet crying out for more.

While flat shoes probably won't cause you injury, they also won't provide you with all-day comfort. And if you're already dealing with certain foot issues like plantar fasciitis, they'll only exacerbate the pain. Luckily the simple fix is adding firm support to your shoes. 

But for first-time insole buyers, the options can be confusing. As Jamie Mieras, a Colorado podiatrist says, "There are a wide range of inserts, all the way from something to cushion your foot to something that's going to change how you land."

What's The Difference Between Shoe Inserts, Insoles And Orthotics?

Great question. "Inserts", "insoles" and "orthotics" tend to be used interchangeably. Most basically, an orthotic is any device inserted into a shoe designed to provide comfort and support for the foot. There are different types of inserts and insoles including over-the-counter shoe inserts and custom orthotics (also known as orthopedic insoles).

Over-the-Counter Shoe Inserts

Over-the-counter, or aftermarket, shoe inserts are available without having to go to your doctor or podiatrist. They come in short-length and full-length.

Short-Length Shoe Inserts

Also called "partial" shoe inserts, short-length shoe inserts come in a wide range of products with varying quality. The most common partial shoe inserts include heel cups, heel lifts, metatarsal pads and short insoles:

  • Heel cups – Often made of gel or plastic, heel cups provide shock absorption for people with heel pain. People with heel pain from plantar fasciitis should stay away from these as they don't solve the root cause of the issue and don't offer long-term relief.
  • Heel lifts – Designed to raise the height of the heel and take pressure off an injured calf muscle or strained Achilles tendon. Unless you're using these to correct leg-length discrepancies, you should use them in both shoes.
  • Metatarsal pads – Placed just behind the ball of the foot, these provide relief to people with Morton's neuroma. Many women who wear high heels swear by the extra cushioning they provide on the ball of the foot.
  • Short insoles – Short insoles come in a variety of different types but all end at the ball of the foot making them perfect for low-volume shoes like ballet flats and casual footwear.

Full-Length Insoles

Full-length insoles also come in a wide variety. The main types you'll find include: 

  • Heat-moldable insoles – These do-it-yourself insoles are heated in your oven and then molded to the contours of your feet, so you'd be forgiven for thinking they're as good as a prescription or custom orthotic. They actually build your foot's biomechanical irregularities into the structure of the insole so they'll never correct underlying problems like overpronation. Also, the materials they're made from need to be easily moldable which means they're less durable. 
  • Cushioned insoles – A one-size-fits-all product, these shoe inserts are made of various kinds of foam or gel that provide cushioning, however they give little-to-no arch support. While the cushioning may temporarily relieve pain and increase comfort, the lack of support won't address any underlying problems or properly support your arch.
  • Arch-support insoles – Insoles that properly support your arch will improve your biomechanics and correct your pronation issues. The best insoles will offer multiple arch heights and precision sizing, rather than one insole for a wide range of shoe sizes.

Most podiatrists agree that arch-support insoles are key to providing comfort and preventing injury. But you can't go halfway with your support. As podiatrist Jamie Mieras says, "If you can press down the arch, it's not stable enough." 

Custom Orthotics (Orthopedic Insoles)

Unlike over-the-counter shoe inserts, custom orthotics (also called orthopedic insoles), are prescribed by a doctor and constructed for your feet. There are two types of custom shoe inserts:

  • Accommodative orthotics – Designed to provide cushion and support, these prescription insoles are custom-fitted for people suffering from diabetic foot ulcers or painful calluses on the bottom of their feet.
  • Functional orthotics – Like over-the-counter insoles, these orthotics control abnormal motion and treat foot pain and injuries. Often crafted of semi-rigid materials like plastic and carbon fiber, they provide firm arch support. As William R. Olson, DPM writes, “The purpose of the functional orthotic is to accurately and precisely position the foot throughout the gait cycle so as to promote proper function.”

Beware of mail-order custom orthotics that have you to take an impression of your foot in a box of compressible foam. You're essentially making a 3D model of your foot with these kits, however it takes a podiatrist or pedorthist to successfully create a 3D model that does not build in your biomechanical problem. 

What Kind Of Insoles Should I Buy?

Which Insoles Do I Need?

Now that you know about all the different types of insoles available to you, it's time to sort out which one is best suited to your needs. Should you buy an over-the-counter insole or do you need to see a podiatrist to get a custom orthotic?

When it comes to custom orthotics, you want to be sure you really need them as they're quite expensive and not typically covered by health insurance. Who should be getting custom orthotics? People with diabetes, high-performing athletes, and people with serious biomechanical issues and reoccurring injuries.

While research has proven that shoe inserts can prevent injuries, scientists have not found a significant difference between over-the-counter shoe inserts versus custom orthotics. For many people, after-market insoles like Tread Labs work just as well as orthopedic insoles for a fraction of the price.

That said, deciding which over-the-counter insole is best for you can be made easy by asking yourself the right questions.

  • What do you want an insole to do for you? Maybe your feet feel worn out and you just want them to have more energy. Or you want relief from the pain of plantar fasciitis. Or you're a runner, cyclistskiertennis player, or golfer who wants better control, more power, and improved comfort. Determining what you need the insole to do will help you select the right one.
  • What type of shoes will you be wearing your insoles in? You'll need different types of insoles for different types of shoes - full-length insoles with thicker top covers won't work in low-volume dress shoes and thin insoles will leave your running sneakers too roomy. Make sure you get the right insole for the right shoe.
  • What is your arch height? Over-the-counter insoles that are one-size-fits-all won't do your feet much good. Your feet are unique, and to work well, your insoles need to fit them like a glove. Find an insole that comes in various arch heights so you can match the insole to the contours of your arch. That semi-custom fit will give you the best results.

What Features Should I Look For In An Insole?

You'll come across a lot of different terminology when you're buying insoles, but the words to pay the most attention to are "antimicrobial treatment", "low-friction top covers", "arch height options" and "trimmable." At a minimum, these are the features your insoles should offer.

Here's what they all mean:

  • Anti-microbial – A treatment that's used to help keep your shoe stink factor down. Some go by brand names, some don’t, but you'll want it regardless.
  • Low-Friction Top Covers – Friction creates heat, heat creates moisture, moisture creates lots of problems for your feet, including blisters. You'll want low-friction top covers on your insoles to keep everything running smoothly.
  • Arch Height Options – The whole reason you're looking for insoles is because you want better arch support, so insoles that only come in one arch height don't make sense. Look for insoles that are available in multiple arch heights so you can get a semi-custom fit.
  • Trimmable or Trim-to-Fit – Most insoles (and all custom orthotics) can be trimmed in the front to fit into a particular shoe so there's no bunching up at the front.
  • Bulk Sizing – Some insoles cover a range of sizes (for example, 8-9.5) while others cover a whole size (8-8.5). Some of the least expensive options are one size fits all. Generally, the more sizes offered, the better the quality of insole and the fit to your foot.
  • Gel – Some insoles use this semi-liquid material to help mitigate the shock of heel strike. While it's great at absorbing the shock, it's heavy compared with other materials so it's used sparingly. 
  • Metatarsal Pads / Raises – Metatarsal bones are the ones that fan out from your ankle to the ball of your feet. They need support too, but you need to make sure you get the proper placement. If you have forefoot pain and aren't sure where to place your metatarsal pads, see a podiatrist for guidance.

The Bottom Line

There is a huge array of insoles and orthotics available, with testimonials flying in every direction. If you’re looking for an economical solution that’s available over the counter, stick with firm, medical grade arch supports. You’ll get true biomechanical support, long-term comfort, pain relief, or enhanced performance in your favorite sports.  

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