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10 Tips to Choose the Right Sneakers or Athletic Shoes

John Wooden, the acclaimed UCLA basketball coach who won 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year span, used to start each season by teaching his players the right way to put on their socks and shoes. Now, you’d think that young men would know how to do this by the time they got to college, but the point was actually to drive home a very important fact: Executing the fundamentals makes finding success in all things a lot easier.

Think of your athletic shoes as one of the fundamentals on your journey to a healthy lifestyle. If you’re building your body from the ground up, you have to start with your shoes. And, while the athletic industry may make you think that the “right” shoes are all about the “right” fashion, choosing a pair should really be about fit, performance, and injury prevention. Find the right pair every time by following these tips.

How to Buy the Right Shoe Every Time

1. Base Your Choice on Activity

Basketball shoes are designed for basketball. Tennis shoes are designed for tennis. Running shoes are designed for running, and trail running shoes are designed for trail running. Believe it or not, it’s not a ploy by the apparel industry to get you to buy more shoes.

Manufacturers design shoes to help facilitate the actions of each sport so athletes can perform better and reduce their likelihood of injury. For instance, basketball shoes are designed with a flat sole perfect for gripping the court and making quick, agile movements. They also tend to have greater support around the ankles to help prevent sprains – a common injury in the sport. Likewise, running and trail running shoes are built differently – trail running shoes tend to be heavier and sturdier, with greater grip on the soles and more support around the ankles.

It’s important to select an athletic shoe based on the exercise you plan to perform. If you’re a gym buff, consider buying a cross-trainer designed for a wider variety of activities. While it can get expensive, if you regularly split your time between several specific activities (such as court volleyball and cycling), go ahead and invest in two separate pairs of shoes – one for each. You’re less likely to injure yourself, and you may see overall enhancements in performance. Trust me – you can move better on a volleyball court with volleyball shoes than you can wearing basic cross-trainers.

2. Replace a Shoe Based on Time

One of the worst things you can do to your body is continue wearing a pair of athletic shoes well past its prime. Shoes are designed to provide support for your feet and ankles, but as the interior cushioning breaks down, your entire body suffers the effects. In fact, one of my classic indicators for when to get a new pair of running shoes is when I start getting shin splits – the wearing down places greater strain on my lower body and contributes to aches and pains in my shins, knees, and hips.

The American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine offers the following tips for deciding when to replace your shoes:

  • After roughly 300 to 500 miles of running or walking.
  • After roughly 45 to 60 hours of basketball, aerobic dance, tennis, or similar sports.
  • When there’s any noticeable wear to the mid-sole – the shoes look uneven when they’re placed on a flat surface.

Even if shoes haven’t been worn regularly, replace them after a year – this is because they may experience environmental wear even if they aren’t actually used. For instance, a shoe left outside or in a sunny spot may eventually start breaking down.

If you’re very active, you may have to replace your shoes every couple of months. This can be expensive, but if it saves you the cost of medical care down the line, it’s worth it both financially and physically.

3. Set Your Budget

Athletic shoes range in price from about $20 to well over $200. The last thing you want is to try on a pair at the store, fall in love with the fit, then get stuck with an unwelcome credit card bill.

Go ahead and set your budget before you go shopping. If you know your upper limit is $80, don’t even try on shoes that cost more than that.

The trick here is to be reasonable with your budget. When it comes to athletic shoes, to some extent, you get what you pay for. A pair of $20 shoes is not going to offer all of the support features that a pair of $60 or $100 shoes does. That said, some studies indicate that the highest-priced shoes are really no better than the less expensive options offered by the same brands.

In other words, if you’re comparing an $80 pair of Nikes to a $120 pair, you may be throwing money down the drain by going with the pricier option. Setting a budget in the $50 to $100 range is reasonable and can get you a high-quality pair of shoes. And with coupons or special discounts, you may even be able to spend less than that.

High Quality Shoe Pair

4. Get Fitted

You may have been a size 10 shoe for your entire adult life, but don’t automatically assume you’re a size 10 now. Feet grow and change over time, and factors like weight gain or weight loss, pregnancy, and lower-body injury can all contribute to changes in foot size.

Ask a store clerk to size you before you start trying on shoes, and if you tend to get foot pain, ask for an analysis of your arch type (normal, flat, or high) and get a recommendation for shoe support based on your foot’s natural movement. Knowing your size and arch pattern can help you make smarter decisions about the shoes you try on and purchase.

Also, keep in mind that some brands run small or large. Just because you wear a 10 in Nike doesn’t mean you need a 10 in Reebok. Give yourself flexibility to size up or down based on need.

In the same light, it’s not unusual for each foot to be a different size. If your left foot is bigger than your right foot by a half or full size, simply buy shoes based on the larger of the two. If one foot is bigger than the other by more than a full size, you need to buy mismatched shoes, so talk to the store clerk about options to avoid having to buy two different pairs.

5. Avoid Shopping Based on Brand

It doesn’t matter if you love Under Armour more than any other athletic brand in the world – it might not offer the right shoe for your foot, your fit, or your sport. When shopping for athletic shoes, commit to trying on several different brands. You might be surprised to learn that the shoe that fits you best is actually from a brand you’ve never tried before.

6. Shop Late in the Day

As the day wears on, your feet swell. By shopping for shoes later in the day, your feet are going to be at their largest – so shop then. It’s better to buy a shoe that’s slightly too large than one that’s slightly too small. And, because feet swell during exercise, an evening shopping trip is more likely to mimic your foot size when you workout.

7. Wear Your Own Socks

When you try on shoes, wear the socks you plan to wear while exercising. First off, you never know what the sample socks are going to be like at the store. They could be big, bulky wool socks, or they could be extra thin booties. If they’re not like the socks you wear when you work out, they could negatively affect the shoe size you purchase.

Furthermore, they could prevent you from noticing problems. If you always wear low-cut booties when running, but you try your shoes on with a high-cut crew sock, you might not notice if a shoe is rubbing the back of your ankle uncomfortably. Simply wear your athletic socks to the store, or bring a pair with you to slip on before you start trying on shoes.

8. Leave Yourself Some Wiggle Room

If you’ve ever forced yourself to exercise in shoes that are too tight, you know just how painful it can be. I once played a whole game of basketball in shoes that were two sizes too small. It was not a good thing.

The rule of thumb when selecting shoes comes down to, well, the “rule of thumb.” You should have about a thumb’s width of space at the end of the toe box beyond your longest toe. In my case, this means past my second toe. This extra space is necessary to accommodate the spreading that occurs when you land during exercise, and also to accommodate any swelling that might take place.

Leave Foot Wiggle Room

9. Give Yourself Time to Try on Lots of Shoes

When I go athletic shoe shopping, I know I’m going to try on almost every pair I can find in my budget, size, and activity. Since I’m a woman with size 11 feet – a pretty limiting factor – this typically means about five or six pairs of shoes. If you have many more options than I do, you may not have time to try every single pair, but it’s still a good idea to try at least five.

If your current shoes are worn out, just about any pair is going to feel good, but when you actively compare several different models you can identify the most comfortable option. You also might be surprised to learn that the most expensive shoe actually may not be the best-feeling, or the brand you’ve been wearing forever is no longer a good fit.

10. Check the Return Policy

Before heading home with your new kicks, check the store’s return policy. Some specialty retailers are incredibly accommodating, giving customers up to 30 days to return shoes, even if they’ve been worn. If the store you’re visiting doesn’t offer this type of return policy, you might want to make a note of the shoe’s model number, and head to a different retailer. It would be terrible to return home to find that your new shoes hurt or don’t offer the necessary support, without any option to return them.

Final Word

While fashion shouldn’t be a factor when selecting the right athletic shoes, there’s no shame in admitting that it matters. If you’re set on buying a pair of shoes in a particular color scheme, ask the store clerk if the model you love is available according to your preferences. Sometimes athletic stores don’t carry every colorway there is, but they can order the one you want and have it delivered to the location for free.

Do you have any tips for choosing the best athletic shoes?

Laura Williams
Laura Williams holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and enjoys breaking up her day by running her dogs, hitting the gym, and watching TV. Having been in charge of her own finances since the early age of 12, she knows how to save and when to spend, and she loves sharing these tips with others. Laura ditched her career as a fitness center manager for the relative freedom of home-based writing and editing work. She stays busy by working on her own website, GirlsGoneSporty, a website designed to help the sporty woman live the sporty life.

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