FORGET FOR A MOMENT the flimsy Dr. Scholl's Air Pillos your grandmother used to tame her golf-ball-size bunions: Corrective shoe inserts have evolved into serious equipment. Footwear manufacturers' mass-market attempts at fit are limited to a length-and-width approach, but our feet come in three unique dimensions. Add the fact that roughly 70 percent of athletes have a minor foot malady (high arch, forefoot varus, etc.) and you glimpse a miserable picture: thousands of active adults suffering stoically through shinsplints, knee pain, stress fractures, and yes, bunions, all thanks to ill-fitting shoes. Luckily, the aftermarket-insole business has stepped in, designing a slew of new inserts to meet the demands of outdoor sports, ranging from $8 off-the-shelf cushions you cut to fit inside your shoes to $500 orthotics prescribed by an orthopedist. Hoping to eliminate confusion, and to help you find the perfect fit, we've broken down the four major insert types to let you know what's available, what you need, and how to shoehorn it into your sportand your budget.
$8-$24Dr. Scholl's, Spenco, Sorbothane, Sof Sole, VasqueA relatively flat insert with foam cushioning material, no heel cup, and a limited amount of arch support.A replacement for your cheap original insole that provides more cushioning and can help perfect a shoe's fit by taking up excess space.People who just can't part with a favorite, worn-out pair of sneakers, or who just want a tighter fit.These insoles will do nothing to eliminate arch problems.Preform Footbeds
$20-$90Fastech Labs, Superfeet, Montrail, Foot Fitness, Footworx, SpencoA footbed with three-dimensional support, including a solid heel cup and a firm, rising arch.The cup keeps your heel in place and absorbs shock; the rising midsole supports your arch. Can be made for specific activities, like cycling, running, and skiing.Athletes in all sports looking for a first line of defense against minor foot pain, shinsplints, and back pain.They're mass-produced like shoes, so they might fail to address your specific needs.Custom Molded Insoles
$55-$235Superfeet, Foot Fitness, Fastech, Labs, Rocket 7Like preforms but built with moldable material such as cork and carbon fiber; constructed in the store by a trained fitter using a toaster oven (really).A custom-tailored insole that mates perfectly with the specific cant of your arch, heel, and ball and secures your foot in the neutral position.Frustrated runners who still experience pain (hot spots, plantar fasciitis) after trying preforms; cyclists and skiers looking for a performance enhancing fit.Quality can vary depending on the experience and knowledge of the shop's custom fitter.Orthotics
$250-$500N/A: prescribed by orthopedists and podiatrists and assembled in a labA footbed fashioned by a licensed doctor who is affiliated (ideally) with a professional association (e.g. the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine).A damn expensive footbed that ensures (no matter what kind of foot you have) it will eliminate your fitting problems and capture your foot in a neutral position.Those with large disposable incomes or a four-star medicine plan who can't find comfort any other way; athletes who make their money competing.Unless you've actually got two left feet, there shouldn't be any.
Four Common Foot Problems, Deciphered
Most likely, your feet don't rest in a perfectly neutral position, causing a variety of minorand commonproblems. Rudimentary self-inspection for the first two problems is easy if not pretty: Closely examine the insole of a well-worn pair of running shoes. For forefoot varus and valgus, you'll need to consult a podiatrist to find out where you stand.
Fallen arch: Imprint covers the entire sole. Your fate: Discomfort in the middle of your sole (as well as potentially aching knees and hips) and excessive pronation (ankles roll to the inside).
High arch: There's barely an imprint between the heel and ball of foot. Your fate: Trouble with shock absorption, leading to knee pain and shinsplints; numbness in fourth and fifth toes.
Rigid forefoot varus: The foot will rest much deeper on the inside, as the foot is canted in that direction. Your fate: Strains and soreness on the inside of the leg; inefficient, "figure eight" cycling pedal stroke.
Rigid forefoot valgus: Weight of the forefoot is concentrated on the outside of the foot, causing a deeper outside impact. Your fate: Kinetic chain problems for cyclists, and potential strains and soreness on the outside of the leg for runners and hikers.