What Types of Orthotics Should You Buy

Should You Buy Heat Moldable, Custom or OTC Insoles?

by Mark Paigen 6 minute read

With so many types of insoles available, figuring out which one is right for you can mean falling down a rabbit hole of research and reviews. While it’s important to learn the different types of orthotics and how to find the best insoles to meet your needs, the process doesn’t have to be complicated.

The Basics ---

  • Choosing the right pair of insoles can be confusing. Do you go with heat moldable, custom, semi-custom or over the counter? To figure out which is the best choice, you have to know the differences between each type.
  • Custom orthotics are the most expensive option and are not necessary for most people. They have also not been found to be more effective than over the counter insoles.
  • Heat moldable insoles build in the biomechanics issues that you buy insoles to correct. They are also too soft to provide enough support.
  • Semi-custom insoles offer more individualized features than generic, drugstore insoles and are significantly less expensive than custom orthotics. We recommend Tread Labs semi-custom insoles. Choose Ramble if you just want to make your footwear more comfortable, Pace if you have plantar fasciitis or other foot pain, or Dash if you are an athlete looking for higher energy return.

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What You Need To Know ---

There are lots of different types of insoles available but we'll walk you through figuring out which is best for you. 

Types of Orthotics and Insoles

 In this guide, we’ll cover:

Custom Orthotics

When some people want to solve their foot problems, their first instinct is to get the highest quality (and most expensive) option, assuming it is the best solution. But rushing out to get custom orthotics when you are dealing with foot issues isn’t necessarily the right move.

While this type of orthotic is the right choice for some people, it should not be considered the go-to option. According to Dr. Richard Braver, a sports podiatrist and Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM),  orthotics and prescription orthotics should be the last option to solve foot pain—not the first.

Another consideration? The value of the product versus the price. While custom orthotic prices fall usually within the range of $200-$800, they aren’t necessarily more effective than over-the-counter or semi-custom insoles. In fact, a  2009 study found “there is no evidence that custom orthoses are more effective than prefabricated ones.”

Heat-moldable Insoles

Heat-mold insoles provide a different way to custom fit insoles to your feet. Here’s how they work:

  1. Heat the insoles in the oven according to the directions provided. Different brands of heat-mold insoles will require different temperatures and timeframes. Some heat-mold insoles will actually have an indicator on the insoles themselves.
  2. Carefully place the insoles in your shoes. Step into your shoes and stand up straight for the amount of time noted in the instructions—usually a few minutes.
  3. Let the insoles cool so they can take the shape of your feet.

The new shape closely matches the bottom contour of your foot. Perhaps it sounds great in theory, but in practice it’s a different story. While the heat-molding process is easy enough, it is not an effective way to get the support you need.

You should be wary of purchasing heat moldable insoles for two reasons:

  1. Most people have less-than-optimal biomechanics. That is why they bought arch-support insoles in the first place. When standing, their feet are in an overpronated position. When insoles are molded to these feet, the overpronation is built into the insoles, ensuring a poor level of support.
  2. Materials that are soft enough to be molded by heat are not firm enough to provide support. If you take a pair of these heat-moldable inserts and push down on the arches, you will see how easily they deflect. Remember, firm support correctly aligns the foot for a comfortable stride. Look at a pair of custom orthotics made by a professional podiatrist or pedorthist. They may be made from a variety of materials, but they will always offer a firm level of support.

So, if they're not so great, why do heat molded insoles get good reviews? It actually comes down to footwear. 99% of the footwear sold today offers very little support. Therefore, almost everyone feels more comfortable after adding any bit of arch support, including the support that comes from heat moldable insoles.

Cushioned Insoles

Cushioned insoles offer immediate appeal—after all, extra cushioning sounds like it should mean extra comfort. But do these inserts offer the long-term foot pain relief you’re looking for?

Most often, they don’t, and in some cases, they can even exacerbate the pain you’re experiencing. The truth is, extra cushioning also means less support. Whatever cushy material the insoles are made of - gel, foam or otherwise - they’re not providing a strong foundation for your feet. If you need foot and arch support, be wary, as you definitely don’t want to exchange short-term comfort for long-term relief. 

Semi-custom Insoles

Semi-custom insoles offer the best of both worlds to people looking for relief from foot pain. Offering more individualized features than the generic, over-the-counter inserts you’ll find at the drugstore or Walmart, semi-custom insoles are also significantly less expensive than custom orthotics. 

By offering a range of insole options that address various needs and are designed for different arch heights, semi-custom insoles offer the fit and support people with foot problems need.

However, semi-custom inserts do vary greatly by manufacturer. As you’re shopping around, look for specific features, including:

  • Multiple arch height options - Insole arch height should not be one size fits all. The purpose of an orthotic insole is to support your arch properly, meaning it needs to provide full contact from one end of your arch to the other. A true semi-custom insert will offer a range of arch heights that provide a flawless fit for people with high arches, flat feet, and everything in between.
  • Medical-grade support - High-quality arch support comes from a well-constructed design. Molded arch supports should be spring-like, allowing you to walk more easily, as the insoles will flex with each step. This level of support is what makes semi-custom insoles as effective as custom orthotics.
  • Doctor approval - Insoles, whether semi-custom, over the counter, or otherwise, should not replace seeing your doctor or podiatrist if you have foot issues. However, when it comes to foot pain, doctors typically recommend firm support. When you’re looking for a semi-custom insole, make sure it offers the amount of support necessary to address your foot issues. 
  • Deep heel cups - Your foot has a fatty pad under the heel bone that helps cushion each step you take. An insole with a deep heel cup will boost your foot’s natural shock-absorption, providing for greater stability.
  • Durability and versatility - First, look for an orthotic brand that offers a lifetime guarantee. The company should stand by the durability of their product and have a clear and easy satisfaction policy. Second, find an insole that doesn’t require you to replace the entire insole after it has put in lots of hard miles in your shoe. An insole that lets you replace the top cover only will save you money in the long run. 

When you finally choose a pair of semi-custom insoles with these features, it will help relieve foot pain by: 

  • Stabilizing your steps
  • Improving your overall gait
  • Offering a comfortable, yet firm fit
  • Providing adequate arch support
  • Relieving stress points on your feet and heel
  • Correcting your foot and body alignment issues over time

How to Choose the Best Insoles

Once you know what kind of inserts you want to buy, there are still other factors to consider. You’ll want to take into account: 

  • Your foot size
  • Type of shoes in which you’ll wear them
  • Sports you play
  • Specific foot problems you’re suffering from
  • Your arch height

After you've considered all of the factors, from usage to arch height, you're ready to buy insoles. Once you get them, give your feet time to get used to them. Start out wearing them for a few hours a day and gradually increase the time you wear them. Be patient and your feet will thank you! 

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Questions? Drop us a line at hello@treadlabs.com. We're here to help.

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