Most people are surprised how good it feels to wear supportive footwear. The shoes you typically buy 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?
This beginner's guide to shoe inserts will help you choose. We'll cover common terminology you’ll need to know, all the different types of insoles, inserts and orthotics available, and how to use them to make your shoes more supportive and comfortable.
Common Insole Features & Terminology
Antimicrobial – An effective treatment to help keep your shoe stink factor down. Some go by brand names, some don’t.
Gel – A semi-liquid material that is very good at mitigating the shock of heel strike. Because it tends to be heavy compared with other materials, gel is often used in small areas of an insert.
Low-Friction Top Cover – Friction creates heat, which creates problems for the feet. A low-friction top cover on your insole keeps everything running smoothly.
Metatarsal Pads / 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, metatarsal inserts belong on custom orthotics, where an experienced practitioner can position them correctly, but some people find comfort with them on over-the-counter products.
Bulk Sizing – Some support 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.
Now that you’ve got the lingo down, it’s time to figure out the right insole for you.
What Kind Of Insoles Do I Need?
It's hard to buy shoes anymore without hearing about how you can add comfort, increase stability, and reduce pain by adding shoe inserts to your footwear. Finding a great shoe without much arch support isn't the end of the world - flat shoes bother nobody, but they also don’t 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.
For many active people, good shoe insoles or orthotics can improve performance. Cyclists, skiers, tennis players, golfers, and other sport enthusiasts experience better control, more power, and enhanced comfort with the addition of quality inserts in their shoes.
But for those purchasing an insole for the first time, the options can be overwhelming.
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."
Shoe Insert, Insole, Or Orthotic – Same Difference?
Most basically, an orthotic is any device inserted into a shoe that is designed to provide comfort and support to the foot. That seems like an easy answer, but there are many different types of inserts and insoles out there.
We divide them into two main categories: over-the-counter shoe inserts and custom orthotics (also known as orthopedic insoles).
Over-the-Counter Shoe Inserts
The first category is over-the-counter or aftermarket shoe inserts. These mean exactly what their name implies. You get them after you buy your shoes. They are not prescription, and you don't need to go to a doctor or podiatrist to purchase them.
Partial Shoe Inserts
The most basic group of over-the-counter insoles are partial shoe inserts. Don't be fooled by the simple name, however. This category includes a wide range of products. And like all shoe inserts, the quality of the product varies widely. The most common partial shoe inserts include:
Heel cups– These heel supports are often made of gel but can also be made of plastic. They provide shock absorption for people with heel pain. They might provide initial comfort to the heel pain associated with plantar fasciitis, but they won't solve the root cause.
Heel lifts – These shoe inserts are designed to raise the height of the heel and take pressure off an injured calf muscle or strained Achilles tendon. Even if only one leg is sore, you should use these in both shoes. Other times they are used in one shoe to correct leg-length discrepancies. Beware: many leg-length differences actually come from biomechanical problems in the hips. See a sports medicine physician or physical therapist to see if increased mobility in the hip joints will solve your length discrepancy.
Metatarsal pads– These gel pads are placed just behind the ball of your foot, where they provide relief to people suffering from Morton's neuroma. Many women who wear high heels swear by the extra cushioning they provide on the ball of the foot.
2/3 length shoe inserts – Like their full-length counterparts outlined below, 2/3 shoe inserts come in a variety of different types. They all have their length in common, as the insert ends at the ball of the foot. These partial inserts are perfect for low-volume shoes including ballet flats and dress casual footwear.
The second type of over-the-counter shoe inserts are full-length insoles. Like their partial insert counterparts, these insoles include an extensive range of products. Here are the main types:
Heat-moldable insoles – These inserts are heated in your oven and then molded to the contours of your feet. This process gives them the aura of a prescription or orthopedic insole, but they are far from it. Because they build your foot's biomechanical irregularities into the structure of the insole, they will never correct underlying problems like overpronation. Moreover, any materials that will mold easily in your oven won't prove durable in the long run.
Cushioned insoles – These shoe inserts are made of various kinds of foam and gel to cushion your stride. Because these provide little-to-no arch support, they are a one-size-fits-all product. The foam and gel might temporarily relieve pain and increase comfort, but cushioned inserts' lack of support will not cure any underlying problems.
Arch-supporting insoles – Shoe inserts that properly support the arch will do wonders for your feet. Products like the Stride or Stride Thin provide medical-grade arch support in precision sizing – an important factor when picking insoles that fit your specific foot.
Most podiatrists agree that arch-supporting 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." Medical-grade arch support like the Stride offers firm support.
Unlike aftermarket shoe inserts, custom orthotics (also called orthopedic insoles), are inserts that have been prescribed by a doctor and constructed for your specific foot. There are two main types of custom-made shoe inserts:
Accommodative orthotics – These prescription shoe inserts are designed to provide cushion and support. They are custom-fitted for people suffering from diabetic foot ulcers or painful calluses on the bottom of their feet.
Functional orthotic –Like over-the-counter insoles, these orthotics control abnormal motion and treat foot pain and injuries. Functional orthotics are often crafted of semi-rigid materials like plastic and carbon fiber. They have strong arch support. As William R. Olson, DPM, and former President of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine (AAPSM) 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 instruct you to take an impression of your foot in a box of compressible foam. With these kits, you make your own 3D model of your foot. The problem is that it takes a professional to create a 3D model that does not build in your biomechanical problem. These "custom" orthotics may not improve function.
People with diabetes, high-performing athletes, and people with serious biomechanical issues and reoccurring injuries will often benefit from orthopedic prescription insoles. But these more expensive options might not be the best choice for everyone.
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.
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.
The reasons people turn to orthotics are as individual and unique as the people themselves. Whether you’re looking to relieve foot pain, add comfort, or enhance your sports performance, here's what you need to know before you buy.
While work dress policies have relaxed in recent years, there are still many people who, either by preference or by rule, must wear a certain type of shoe while on the job. Whatever your occupation, determining the right footwear for your job is important for ensuring your all-day comfort and support. Use these tips when you're in the market for your next pair of work shoes.