Buying athletic shoes can be one of the most harrowing shopping experiences — somewhere between the horror of swimsuit shopping and the frustration of buying jeans. There are so many options! And feet are so weird! What's a confused girl to do?
A gait test, of course. It sounds great in theory. Only problem? It doesn't work, says Ken Jung, a foot and ankle surgeon at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles.
Many running stores offer personalized shoe recommendations based on an in-store assessment. All you have to do is run on a treadmill or around a little track (or even sometimes through the parking lot) while the pro watches your feet. They then tell you things like whether or not you pronate or have high arches and then point you to a shoe to fit those needs.
"Don't believe any nonmedical assessment," he says bluntly. Most shoe salespeople, even really knowledgeable ones who've logged a lot of miles as runners, are just that: a salesperson. Only a doctor who specializes in orthopedics and sports can accurately diagnose structural issues in your feet and gait — and even then, they likely can't do it just by looking at you, Jung says.
The main issue with these types of freebie gait analyses, he says, is that they often misdiagnose normal feet as problematic. And when you treat something that isn't a problem, you can end up causing real problems, and even injury, in the long run. "Compensating for conditions you don't have is a common cause of foot pain," he says.
Take the hot-button issue of pronation. Many runners are scared into thinking they overpronate or pronate inward, necessitating a special type of corrective shoe. But pronation isn't a problem at all, Jung explains. "Pronation is a normal part of foot function," he says. "It allows the foot to absorb shock effectively, and the vast majority of people's feet do it just fine."
Another common mistake he sees is the issue of high arches. Most people who've been told by someone that they have high arches really don't, Jung says, pointing out there's a wide range of normal when it comes to arch shape. But the real issue is that many shoe salespeople recommend a shoe with a lot of arch support for people with high arches — and that is exactly what you don't want.
"Contrary to popular belief, you don't want extra arch support for arches," Jung says. "When the arch of the foot can't compress, you lose the springlike effect, and not as much energy is returned to you." Translation? Arch supports make it harder to run and make your feet weaker.
Bottom line: Unless you have pain, skip all the bells and whistles and buy a basic, neutral shoe, Jung says. And if you do have foot, ankle, hip, knee or back pain when you exercise? Seek a professional opinion. Not only can they help you pick the right type of shoe or shoe insert to help with the pain, but they can also prescribe targeted exercises and physical therapy to fix the underlying problem.
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