Some sports (football and hockey immediately come to mind) require players to wear specialized equipment. Others, such as long distance running, require very little equipment to participate. But with few exceptions, all sports require some type of footwear.

Choosing Athletic Footwear

Athletic shoe manufacturers would have you believe that you need a different type of shoe for each sport/athletic activity. But is this true? Generally, no.

Unless you regularly participate in a specific sport—at least two to three times per week—a good cross-training shoe is usually sufficient. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, you're much better off playing football and baseball in cleats. And regular ]]>running]]> definitely requires a specific type of shoe.

Though shoe manufacturers hype the special features of each shoe they make, sports shoes can be divided into two general categories.

  • Lateral and stop-and-go movement . Virtually all sport-specific and cross-training shoes are designed for activities that require lateral and stop-and-go movement, such as baseball, basketball, ]]>tennis]]> , ]]>racquetball]]> , and ]]>soccer]]> —but not running. To enhance performance and prevent injury, all sport-specific and cross-training shoes include a great deal of support on the sides and are flat across the sole.
  • Continuous forward motion . Unlike most other athletic activities, running is done in a continuous forward motion, requiring very little lateral movement and very little starting and stopping. In addition, running inflicts a great deal more continuous and sustained pounding on the feet than almost any other athletic activity.
    So, although running shoes require relatively little lateral support, they incorporate a great deal of padding underneath the feet to act as shock absorbers. In addition, most running shoes include a slightly elevated heel (to reduce the transfer of stress to the Achilles tendons) as well as a much larger toe box (to accommodate the forward motion of the foot).

What About Walking?

If you're a walker, should you buy walking shoes instead of running shoes? No need. Despite being called "walking" shoes, most are designed like cross-training shoes, offering lateral support while skimping on bottom padding and heel elevation. So if you walk a lot, you're actually better off wearing a good pair of running shoes with their support for continuous forward motion and pounding.

Buyer's Guide

Here are some specific tips on buying sports shoes:

  • Scouting out the store . Shop at stores that offer a wide variety of athletic footwear and have knowledgeable sales personnel. Don't be afraid to ask questions.
  • Putting 'em to the test . Try on several different shoes to find the pair that fits comfortably. Once you find the right pair, spend five to ten minutes walking around the store in them to see if they remain comfortable. If they're nonrunning shoes, also try making a lot of sudden stops and starts and side-to-side movements to test their overall and lateral support.
    Remember, if a pair of shoes doesn't feel comfortable in the store, they won't feel comfortable later. So keep looking!
  • Stick with a winner . If you've had good luck with a specific make and model shoe, stick with it.
  • Sizing 'em up . Shop for athletic shoes at the end of the day (or, better yet, after working out) when your feet tend to be a bit larger. "Size" the shoes you buy to your larger foot. When trying on athletic shoes, lace them up entirely, and wear a pair of socks similar to the type you'll wear when participating in the athletic activity.

With all athletic shoes, and especially with running shoes, be certain there's at least a thumb's width from the tip of your longest toe to the front of the shoe (test this while standing up).

While you should never buy athletic shoes that are uncomfortable in the store, all shoes have to be "broken in" to accommodate the specific shape of your feet. Therefore, never run a marathon in new running shoes. Along the same line, you shouldn't wear new cross-training or sport-specific shoes during an entire game until you've worn them a number of times in practice.

Paying up

Don't skimp on the quality of the shoes you buy, but don't go overboard either.

When Do You Need New Shoes?

Once you've bought a pair of athletic shoes, how long should it be before you replace them? Many people wait until the soles of the shoes wear out before buying a new pair, but that's not a good idea. Very often, the shock absorption of running shoes or the lateral stability of cross-training and sport-specific shoes will wear out long before the soles do.

Use the following measures as a guide:

  • Replace running shoes every 350 to 550 miles . If you run an average of 10 miles per week, replace your running shoes every 8 to12 months.
  • Replace cross-trainers and sport-specific shoes every 60 to 70 hours of activity . This includes only the time you're actually playing—huddles, time-outs, and sitting on the bench between innings don't count. And for you duffers, golf shoes should last about 100 to 125 rounds of golf. Unless you use a motorized cart, in which case, your shoes may last forever.
  • Visual check . There's also an easy, visual check by which you can gauge whether your sport shoes need to be replaced. Dr. John Giurini, chief of podiatry at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center explains, "Place the shoe on a flat surface, and look at the heel counter, which is the back bottom of the shoe. If it's tilting because one side is wearing faster than the other, that's a good indication that it's time to replace the shoe.

Fancy Footwork

What should you do if you have feet that are extremely difficult to fit?

Start by seeing a podiatrist to make sure there's no serious underlying problem. If there isn't, a custom made orthotic (a support made of plastic, polyurethane, or other material that can be easily molded to the shape of your feet) worn inside your shoes may prove helpful. If you have extremely wide or narrow feet, consider athletic shoes from a company like New Balance, which manufactures athletic shoes in a large range of widths. Or, for more difficult problems—such as misshapen or extremely sensitive feet or major differences between the size of the left and right foot—consider custom-made athletic shoes.