How to Select the Right Athletic Shoes

Proper-fitting sports shoes can enhance performance and prevent injuries. Follow these fitting facts when purchasing a new pair of athletic shoes.

  • If possible, purchase athletic shoes from a specialty store. The staff will provide valuable input on the type of shoe needed for your sport as well as help with proper fitting. 
  • Try on athletic shoes after a workout or run and at the end of the day. Your feet will be at their largest.
  • Wear the same type of sock that you will wear for that sport.
  • When the shoe is on your foot, you should be able to freely wiggle all of your toes.
  • The shoes should be comfortable as soon as you try them on. There is no break-in period.
  • Walk or run a few steps in your shoes. They should be comfortable.
  • Always re-lace the shoes you are trying on. You should begin at the farthest eyelets and apply even pressure as you create a crisscross lacing pattern to the top of the shoe.
  • There should be a firm grip of the shoe to your heel. Your heel should not slip as you walk or run.
  • If you participate in a sport three or more times a week, a sport-specific shoe may be necessary. 
  • Remember that after 300 to 500 miles of running or 300 hours of exercise, the cushioning material in a shoe is usually worn down and it's time to toss the shoes.​

It can be hard to choose from the many different types of athletic shoes available. There are differences in design and variations in material and weight. These differences have been developed to protect the areas of the feet that encounter the most stress in a particular athletic activity.

Athletic shoes are grouped into categories: Running, training, and walking. This includes shoes for hiking, jogging, and exercise walking. For a walking shoe, look for a comfortable soft upper (the entire part of the shoe that covers the foot), good shock absorption, smooth tread (the part of the sole that touches the ground, and a rocker sole (the entire part of the shoe that sits below the foot) that encourages the natural roll of the foot during the walking motion. The features of a good jogging shoe include cushioning, flexibility, control, and stability in the heel counter area (a hard insert used to reinforce the heel cup of a shoe and provide support), as well as lightness and good traction.

Court sports. Includes shoes for tennis, basketball, and volleyball. Most court sports require the body to move forward, backward and side-to-side. As a result, most athletic shoes used for court sports are subjected to heavy abuse. The key to finding a good court shoe is its sole.

Field sports.
Includes shoes for soccer, football, and baseball. These shoes are cleated, studded or spiked. The spike and stud formations vary from sport to sport, but generally there are replaceable or detachable cleats, spikes, or studs affixed onto nylon soles.

Track and field sport shoes. Because of the specific needs of individual runners, athletic shoe companies produce many models for various foot types, gait patterns and training styles.

Specialty sports. Includes shoes for golf, aerobic dancing, and bicycling.

Outdoor sports. Includes shoes used for recreational activities such as hunting, fishing, and boating.

Choices, choices...

The sports shoe consumer of the 1960s only had to make one choice: the all-purpose sneaker. Today's consumer must choose among hundreds of brands and styles of athletic shoes designed for every sport and activity.

You may feel overwhelmed by the choices available to you. One brand does not meet the needs of everyone, and the latest innovation or most expensive shoe with all the features may not be your best choice. The information below will help you determine the right shoe for you; the one that will help you enjoy sports and reduce your chance of injury.

Running Shoes
Conventional thinking suggests that a good running shoe should have ample cushioning to absorb shock, but there are advocates for minimalist running shoes that have with almost no cushioning. No data exist to say which type of shoe is better, but if you choose a cushioned shoe, look for overall shock absorption for the foot and good heel control. These qualities in a running shoe may help prevent shin splints, tendinitis, heel pain, stress fractures and other overuse syndromes.
Walking Shoes
If walking is your sport or your doctor's recommendation for cardiovascular conditioning, wear a lightweight shoe. Look for extra shock absorption in the heel of the shoe and especially under the ball of the foot. This will help reduce heel pain as well as burning and tenderness in the ball of the foot (metatarsalgia). A shoe with a slightly rounded sole or rocker bottom also helps to smoothly shift weight from the heel to the toes while decreasing the forces across the foot. Walking shoes have more rigidity in the front so you can roll off your toes rather than bend through them as you do with running shoes.
Aerobic Shoes
Shoes for aerobic conditioning should be lightweight to prevent foot fatigue and have extra shock absorption in the sole beneath the ball of the foot, where the most stress occurs. If possible, work out on a soft surface (e.g., a carpet).
Tennis Shoes
Tennis players need a shoe that supports the foot during quick side-to-side movements or shifts in weight. A shoe that provides stability on the inside and outside of the foot is an important choice. Flexibility in the sole beneath the ball of the foot allows repeated, quick forward movements for a fast reaction at the net. You need slightly less shock absorption in the shoe if you're playing tennis or other racquet sports. On soft courts, wear a softer soled shoe that allows better traction. On hard courts, you want a sole with greater tread.
Basketball Shoes
If basketball is your sport, choose a shoe with a thick, stiff sole. This gives extra stability when running on the court. A high-top shoe may provide added support but won't necessarily decrease the risk of ankle sprain or injury.
Cross Trainers
Cross-training shoes, or cross trainers, combine several of the above features so that you can participate in more than one sport. A good cross trainer should have the flexibility in the forefoot you need for running combined with the lateral control necessary for aerobics or tennis.
You do not necessarily need a different pair of shoes for every sport in which you participate. Generally, you should wear sport-specific shoes for sports you play more than three times a week. If you have worked out for some time injury-free, then stick with the particular shoe you have been wearing.
For special problems, you may need a special shoe. For example, if your ankles turn easily, you may need to wear a shoe with a wide heel. If you have trouble with shin splints, you may need a shoe with better shock absorption.

Design Features

Sport shoes vary in materials and design as well as how they are made. Look inside the shoe before you decide to buy. This will help you select a shoe that fits both your foot and your sport.

Special features in construction give comfort to the wearer as well as help prevent injury:

  • A slip-lasted shoe is made by sewing together the upper like a moccasin and then gluing it to the sole. This lasting method makes for a lightweight and flexible shoe with no torsional rigidity.
  • A board-lasted shoe has the "upper" leather or canvas sewn to a cardboard-like material. A person with flat feet (pes planus) feels more support and finds improved control in this type of shoe.
  • A combination-lasted shoe combines advantages of both other shoes. It is slip-lasted in the front and board-lasted in the back. These shoes give good heel control but remain flexible in the front under the ball of the foot. They are good for a wide variety of foot types.

Shoe Fit

The best designed shoes in the world will not do their job if they do not fit properly. You can avoid foot problems by finding a shoe store that employs a pedorthist or professional shoe fitter and/or following these guidelines:

  • Don't go just by size. Have your feet measured.
  • Visit the shoe store at the end of a workout when your feet are largest.
  • Wear the socks you normally wear when working out.
  • Fit the shoe to the largest foot.
  • Make sure the shoe provides at least one thumb's breadth of space from the longest toe to the end of the toe box.
  • If you have bunions or hammertoes, find a shoe with a wide toe box (the front of the shoe that contains the toes). You should be able to fully extend your toes when you're standing, and shoes should be comfortable from the moment you put them on. They will not stretch out.
  • Women who have big or wide feet should consider buying men's or boys' shoes, which are cut wider for the same length. 

When Foot Problems Develop

If you begin to develop foot or ankle problems, simple adjustments in the shoes sometimes can relieve the symptoms. Many of these simple devices are available without prescription.
  • A heel cup provides an effective way to alleviate pain beneath the heel (e.g, plantar fasciitis). Made of plastic or rubber, the heel cup is designed to give support around the heel while providing relief of pressure beneath the tender spot.
  • An arch support (orthosis) can help treat pain in the arch of the foot. Made of many types of materials, arch supports can be placed in a shoe after removing the insole (the removable inner sole) that comes with the shoe.
  • A metatarsal pad can help relieve pain beneath the ball of the great toe (sesamoiditis) or beneath the ball of the other toes (metatarsalgia). Made of a felt material or firm rubber, the pad has adhesive on its flat side. Fixed to the insole behind the tender area (closer to the heel or further from the toes), the pad shares pressure normally placed on the ball of the foot. This relieves pressure beneath the tender spot.

Custom Arch Supports

Many problems in the feet respond to stretching and conditioning, choosing a different shoe, and simple over-the-counter shoe modifications. However, chronic (long-term) and complicated problems of the feet may require specially designed orthoses (inserts) made of materials that concentrate relief on a particular area while supporting other areas. Severe flat foot, high arches, shin splints, Achilles tendinitis, and turf toe are a few of these conditions.

To obtain the best relief for such problems, see a foot and ankle orthopaedic surgeon, a doctor who specializes in treating problems of the foot and ankle. Pedorthists and orthotists are trained to make and modify inserts and fulfill the surgeon's prescription. Working with these professionals will ensure you get the right shoe for the best possible treatment.
The American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society (AOFAS) offers information on this site as an educational service. The content of FootCareMD, including text, images and graphics, is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnoses or treatments. If you need medical advice, use the "Find a Surgeon​​" tool at the top of this page or contact your primary doctor.