Walk into any running store worth its short shorts and you'll see a wall of specialty insoles promising to stabilize, boost efficiency, and possibly even alleviate your aches and injuries. Some shops launch into their sales pitch for the insert — comfort, efficiency, injury prevention — as soon as a runner slips on a comfy new shoe. But after you've already agreed to drop $120 or more on new trainers, is another $40 purchase really necessary?
The need for running insoles is far from universal, says Simon Bartold, a podiatrist and owner of Bartold Biomechanics. "No one knows what is right for the entire running population." Many stores simply have a policy of pushing insoles because it's an additional sale, he adds.
One of the biggest hooks for needing insoles is that your feet pronate, probably too much or too little, and a new footbed is the cure. "A 1973 study had one useful theory on pronation that was somehow cast in stone," says Bartold. "Now you go into a running store and you are bogged down with the term pronation."
Pronation is a natural part of the running stride, and there's no starting point to say exactly what degree is overpronating, says Bartold, who is also a consultant for Asics. "It's specific to each individual and their form."
That's why jumping on a treadmill at your local shoe store for a gait analysis and hearing that you pronate or supinate should never scare you into buying inserts to stick in your brand new shoes. In fact, that's the last thing you should do. "Never walk out of a running store with a new pair of shoes and a pair of insoles," advises Brian Shelton, owner of Foothills Running in Cookeville, Tennessee. "You want to have shoes that work with your gait and comfort needs, then add insoles later. If not, you won't know whether or not the experience is from the shoe or the insole."
And that's the sentiment echoed by insole maker Superfeet. "If you do have any discomfort, pain, or issues with performance, that's when orthotics provide an opportunity to give a more personalized fit inside a shoe," says Ellen Harwick, Superfeet marketing manager.
A running specialty store owner like Shelton admits that a high school cross-country runner working his first part-time job and watching your feet as you run does not constitute as a professional gait analysis. What's more, that point of view only captures about 20 percent of your body's movement as you run, says Shelton. The other 80 percent — glute strength, core stability, posture, cadence — all go missing when the focus is on the feet, but those are the largest players when it comes to injuries and the reasons why you actually would benefit from a pair of insoles.
Research is mixed on the benefits of insoles. Several studies show they can decrease chronic pain from excessive pronation, stress forces on the foot, and lower-leg injuries. But others have found no reduction in injuries or increased comfort. One study on stride efficiency found that the insoles performed well for walking, but showed little effect at high running speeds. The researchers suggested there could possibly be better energy return with a stiffer insole, but that's yet to be tested.
A big reason the research is so frustratingly varied is because so are feet. That's why it is important for each runner to be "an experiment of one," says Shelton. For some, insoles may be a Band-Aid that provides relief during a temporary running injury. Or they may be a cure for someone else's chronic gait complication. "If an insole or orthotic gives you the most comfortable feel during your next long run, go ahead and use them," he says. "But if you are running fine without them and you have a pair of shoes that provide support and stability, then there is no reason to add insoles."
Most important: Even if insoles alleviate pain, they can't necessarily solve underlying or chronic problems that created the pain in the first place, adds Bartold. "Runners get injured because they have a flaw in the way they train, not because of a shoe, so the key to figuring out what's creating the problem is to look at a bigger picture." Rather than talking to retailers to solve running woes, consult a physiotherapist, podiatrist, or biomechanist, he says, "someone focused on global movement."
Let’s go back to that initial in-store shoe testing. You can head off the need for insoles altogether by focusing on how you feel in a shoe and what feels good when you run, says Shelton. The shoes that best matches your feet and stride, regardless of a pronation diagnosis or impromptu gait analysis, are the shoes that'll help you fun faster with the fewest injuries, says Bartold. "There is scientific evidence that proves that the single most important thing is comfort, and comfort equals performance to a certain degree." So if your new shoes feel perfect, wear them out the door without giving insoles a second thought. And if you find yourself in pain miles down the road, consult a running expert before ordering inserts.