How to choose the right training shoe
The perfect training shoe for one client may be completely wrong for another. Corrective exercise specialist Justin Price explains a simple assessment to help clients make the right footwear choices.
With literally hundreds of different types of training shoes to choose from, all varying in amount of support, heel height, width, flexibility, shape of sole, type of material and a whole lot more, shopping for new footwear can be a very confusing and time-consuming process.
Then there are all the conflicting opinions surrounding the purchase of footwear. Some people insist you need orthotics and supportive shoes to help prevent overpronation (i.e. when the arch of the foot collapses), while others tout the benefits of minimalist and barefoot-type shoes to strengthen the foot so it doesn’t collapse.
Even as a fitness professional, with a greater understanding of physiology than the general population, all this information can be overwhelming and make you feel like you are ill-equipped to make good shoe-buying decisions. When you do bite the bullet and pick a pair, you never feel 100 per cent confident that you’ve made the right choice, and wonder whether your shoes may be to blame for your aches and pains.
No more guessing
Fortunately, you don’t need to feel so powerless when it comes to buying the right shoes. Understanding how your feet and ankles work, in conjunction with the rest of your body, can help you narrow down your shoe choices and make good decisions about footwear based on your own body characteristics.
The level of mobility in your feet and ankles is one of the biggest considerations when it comes to choosing the right footwear. The simple act of wearing shoes, especially if they are too tight, have heels or are badly designed, can restrict movement and lead to immobility of both the foot and ankle complex (Price, 2010). This immobility can be further compounded by prolonged periods of sitting (e.g. when driving, at a computer, watching television or playing video games) because your feet and ankles are inactive most of the day. So how exactly does immobility in the feet and ankles affect your footwear choices?
Everything is connected
When you are walking and/or running, you need to transfer your weight from your right leg to your left leg and vice versa. To do this correctly, your foot should ‘roll in’ from right to left (and left to right) as it makes contact with the ground (Kendall et al., 2005). As your foot rolls in (i.e. pronates), your ankle should also roll in because it needs to follow the foot. This rolling in motion of the ankle causes your lower and upper leg to roll inward as well. As you may be aware, the end of the thighbone in the upper leg forms your hip socket (where your leg attaches to your pelvis) (Gray, 1995). As such, mobility in the foot and ankle helps promote mobility in your hips. This, in turn, ensures your pelvis is positioned correctly to provide a good base of support for your spine.
This chain reaction from the foot upward helps facilitate correct body mechanics all the way through the torso and into the shoulder girdle, head and neck (Myers, 2001). Hence, if you lack mobility in the foot and ankle and decide to buy minimalist shoes that encourage movement (or any shoe with a flexible sole and no support) the stress generated by the increased movement will not be dissipated by your feet and ankles, but will instead be transferred up to the structures in the rest of your body. This can lead to pain in your knees, hips, lower back, shoulders and neck.
Therefore, knowing how to assess the mobility of your feet and ankles before you buy a pair of shoes is of the utmost importance. If your assessment reveals you have good range of motion in your feet and ankles, you can encourage these structures to get stronger by choosing and gradually adapting to minimalist and/or barefoot shoes. If you determine that you lack foot and ankle mobility, it might be better to choose more supportive shoes (and/or orthotics) in the short term, while you do corrective exercises to help loosen up those areas so you can eventually progress to less supportive shoe types in the future.
Mobility assessment for the feet and ankles: toe out torso rotations
To help you evaluate the current mobility of your feet and ankles before shopping for your next pair of shoes, try out the following easy self-assessment. This assessment, which you can help clients to perform, evaluates the ability of the foot and ankle to roll inward toward the midline of the body.
- Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and feet turned out to about 45°.
- Stand upright with both arms lifted away from the sides of the body.
- Swing both arms to the right side as you rotate your body to the right. It is fine if the left knee bends slightly as you turn, but do not slide your foot.
- Focus on the sensation you feel in your left foot and ankle as you rotate to the right. Ideally, your left foot and ankle should roll in easily to the right (i.e. collapse toward the midline of your body) as the arms and torso rotate.
- Swing both arms to the left side as you rotate your body to the left (allow the right knee to bend slightly and focus on the sensation).
- Finally, rotate back and forth from left to right until you get a feeling for how your feet and ankles move toward the midline of your body as you rotate.
- Evaluate whether there is any difference in the movement ability between the two feet/ankles and make a mental note of what you feel.
- When assessing a client, if there is no obvious visual difference in the mobility you observe between the two sides, ask them for their sensory feedback to assist with an accurate assessment.
- This assessment is best performed in bare feet on a non-slip surface such as a rubber mat.
References Gray, H. 1995. Gray’s Anatomy, New York: Barnes & Noble Books.
Kendall, F.P. et al. 2005. Muscles Testing and Function with Posture and Pain (5th Ed). Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
Myers, Thomas. Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists. Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 2001.
Price, J. 2010. The Fundamentals of Structural Assessment: Module 1. The BioMechanics Method. www.thebiomechanicsmethod.com.
- If your knee feels uncomfortable when performing this movement, simply turn your feet out less to take the stress off the knees.
- This assessment can also be used as a warm up exercise to help promote mobility of the foot and ankle before exercise and/or sports. However, it is important to warm up the foot and calf muscles first by using self-massage techniques such as rolling a tennis ball under the foot and massaging the calf muscles.
Evaluating how your feet and ankles are working (or not working, as the case may be) before heading out to the shoe store can help you make better footwear choices to eliminate pain, prevent injury and improve performance.
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Justin Price, MA
Justin is the creator of The BioMechanics Method® Corrective Exercise Trainer Certification available through Australian Fitness Network. His techniques are used in over 25 countries by specialists trained in his unique pain-relief methods and have been featured in Time magazine, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Men’s Health, and on Web MD and Discovery Health. For more information on the Corrective Exercise Trainer certification powered by Network visit www.fitnessnetwork.com.au/Education/biomechanics-method/home