Every pair of shoes you buy has the same problem - they're built to fit as many people as possible. And while that may not seem like a bad thing, when it comes to giving your feet the support they need, it is. Unless you're splurging for custom footwear, the shoes you're buying come with very little arch support, which can wreak havoc on your feet.
THE BASICS ---
The footwear you buy is designed with minimal arch support so it fits the largest number of people. Adding arch support makes your shoes, and your feet, comfortable. For the vast majority of people, over-the-counter shoe inserts work well.
People with diabetes, serious biomechanical issues, recurring injuries or high-performing athletes often benefit from custom insoles prescribed by a podiatrist.
When you're buying shoe insoles, the most important factor is firm support. If you can press down on the arch, the insert isn't stable enough.
Tread Labs offers insoles with different levels of support. For a firm, flexible arch support, try Ramble. If you like your insoles firm with less flex, try Pace. And for a rigid insole, check out Dash, made with carbon fiber.
Since the shoes you're buying don't come with the arch support your feet need to be comfortable and pain-free, you need to add it in. There's a ton of different options available to suit different needs, and making sure you select the right one is really important. We'll walk you through the different types of insoles and what they're used for so you can find the best insole for you.
Shoe Insole Features & Terminology
On the road to figuring out which insole is best for your feet, you'll notice a lot of different terminology, some of which you might might not be familiar with. Don't worry, it's all easy to understand. Some words or phrases you might run into include:
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 the quality of insole and the fit to your foot.
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.
How Can I Make My Shoes More Comfortable?
We've all been there. When you finally find the right pair of shoes and you try them on only to find they don't offer much in the way of arch support. It can be pretty frustrating, but it certainly isn't the end of the world.
While flat shoes won't necessarily bother you or cause injury, they won't provide the necessary support for all-day comfort. And if you're already dealing with certain foot issues like plantar fasciitis, they'll only exacerbate the pain.
But there's an easy way to make those great shoes into the most comfortable pair you own. All it takes is a quality pair of arch support insoles or inserts. When you're thinking about what kind of insoles you need, 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 sports 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. You're hit with lots of different pitches - add comfort, increase stability, reduce pain.
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?
Most basically, an orthotic is any device inserted into a shoe that is designed to provide comfort and support for the foot. That seems like an easy answer, but there are many different types of inserts and insoles out there.
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 and you don't need to go to a doctor or podiatrist to purchase them. These types of inserts come in a short-length and a full-length.
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 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 or truly support your arch.
Arch-supporting insoles – Shoe inserts that properly support the arch will do wonders for your feet. Medical-grade arch support that matches the contours of your feet will improve your biomechanics and correct any pronation issues you may have. 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-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."
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.
What Kind Of 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.
What do you want an insole to do for you? Perhaps your feet feel worn out and you just want them to be more comfortable. Or you're looking to get relief from the pain of plantar fasciitis. Maybe you're an athlete who wants to improve your performance with better biomechanics. 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.
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.
Mark has always believed exceptional footwear can change lives. He's been in the footwear industry for over 30 years, working with podiatrists, pedorthists, foot care experts, and footwear makers. Mark started Chaco sandals in 1989 and developed a game-changing sport sandal that delivered comfort and durability. After Chaco sold in 2009, Mark ultimately started Tread Labs to continue transforming people's footwear so they can walk better, feel better, live better.