Last Updated on November 30, 2020 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP
My guess is that many of you have been there: you visit a running specialty store to get fitted for a new pair of shoes. While explaining the ins and outs of the latest model of Brooks or Altras, the employee whips out a pair of aftermarket insoles and puts them into the shoes you are trying on. They briefly explain the benefits of these insoles, but you’re confused. Why do you need to spend another $50 (or more) on insoles for running shoes – shouldn’t your new shoes alone be sufficient?
I’m going to start this post off with two very polarizing statements, for the sake of transparency:
1. Aftermarket insoles are most definitely, 100%, an “upsell” at a running specialty store. For just over a year, I worked for a popular running store chain. We were absolutely instructed to try and sell these insoles to everyone, whether they needed them or not. (Fun fact: I got in trouble for not upselling these enough. Because my background as an exercise physiologist let me know that no, not everyone needed them. I held my ground.) Insoles are beneficial for some people, absolutely. But do not be fooled: they are without a doubt, also an opportunity to make a larger profit on a customer. (Hey, it’s business, I get it.)
Note: I don’t believe all running stores are trying to sell you things you don’t’ need, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of honest store honors and employees truly looking out for the wellbeing of their customers. I’m just pointing out, this upsell technique does indeed happen. Again, it’s sales. It’s the point.
2. I personally DO run with these types of insoles, and I have for over 3 years now. I’d say I use them for approximately 75% of my mileage, and love them. I first started using them when I had a chronic injury (posterior tibial tendonitis) that would not go away. It likely arose from the high mileage demands of ultra running, paired with my elongating, flexible arches. They were a game changer for me.
So that said, I’ve seen the good AND the bad side of aftermarket insoles for running shoes. And I’m here to break down the good and bad, so you can make your own informed decision as to whether or not they are right for you.
Insoles for Running Shoes: Explained
Before we get to the discussion as to whether or not you need insoles in your running shoes, let’s talk about what insoles are…and what they are not.
Types of Insoles
If you google “Insoles for Running Shoes” you’ll get thousands of results. You’ll see everything from the cushioned, gel like inserts that you can buy at the drug store, to much more structured (and much more expensive) running specific inserts. You’ll also note that they come with a wide variety of claims, and a wide variety of price tags.
In this post, we’re going to discuss the latter category. These running specific insoles are typically:
- three dimensional
- designed to stabilize the foot
- designed to support abnormal movement of the foot
- reduce the movement of the arch
- typically cost between $40 – $70, and are available over the counter
They come in various arch heights and cushion types. They are also available in full foot styles, or heel cup/arch only styles.
Sock Liners vs. Insoles
“But wait…doesn’t my shoe already come with an insole?” you may be thinking. No, but that’s a common misconception. When you purchase a brand new running shoe, you will find that they come with what is known as a “sock liner” in the shoe industry. This thin, slightly cushioned piece of fabric is placed into the shoe to essentially act as a buffer between your foot and the stitching on the inside of the shoe.
If you take a sock liner out, you will notice that the inside of your shoe is indeed flat. A common misconception is that the sock liner provides arch support. But one look inside the shoe will prove that’s not true. Any arch support in a stability shoe comes in the form of:
- a stability post within the medial side of the sole of the shoe (not typically visible to the naked eye)
- a very firm section of the “upper” of the shoe under the medial arch.
But the sock liner? It provides zero support, and rarely much cushion.
Insoles vs. Orthotics
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, let’s compare insoles to orthotics. A custom orthotic is a prescribed medical device from a doctor. It is designed and molded by a professional to perfectly fit your foot, and to help alleviate specific issues you may be having with your feet. Orthotics are typically very rigid, much more so than an over the counter insole. They are also often very, very expensive (depending on what type of health insurance you have).
Do Runners Really Need Insoles?
So, what are these insoles supposed to do? Well like anything in the commercial world: claims vary wildly.
What Insoles CAN Do:
- Provide varying degrees of arch support, which can lessen the rate of overpronation
- Reduce pain associated with plantar faciitis (Lewis et al, 2015)
- Add cushion to your shoe to absorb impact, improving comfort
- Reduce forefoot pressure (Hähni, et al, 2016)
- Add height to your foot, if your shoe volume is too high and you are having fit issues.
What Insoles CANNOT Do:
While they may alleviate foot motion within your shoe, insoles cannot fix your running form or gait. If you are experiencing an injury in your feet that is due to a breakdown somewhere in the kinetic chain, insoles aren’t going to help.
If you are experiencing pain or discomfort due to improper training, or running high mileage that your body is not accustomed to, insoles will not help.
Claims that insoles in and of themselves will make you faster, more efficient, or anything else that sounds “too good to be true” are likely unfounded. There may be scientific evidence that certain shoe or insole types may provide a slight advantage in elite athletes, where fractions of seconds matter. But to us mere mortals, you are better off focusing on increasing overall fitness in order to become faster and more efficient.
Claims from running store employees saying that you NEED these insoles, even if you have experienced no issues before, are also unfounded. Do your research, and come back for them later if you like, but do not be pressured into buying insoles (unless, of course, they are comfortable and you want them).
Related post: 5 Running Shoe Mistakes You Could Be Making Right Now
Who Can Skip Insoles
If you are not currently experiencing any sort of foot pain or discomfort, you can skip the insoles.
Here’s another very important factor to keep in mind: overpronation is not inherently bad. In one research study, the foot position (foot inversion to eversion) was quantified for novice runners at the start of the experiment. Running injuries among participants were tracked for 1 year. The results showed that injury frequency among participants was lowest for those with a foot position between 7 and 10° pronated. This group had significantly less injuries than all other groups. This result shows that a pronated (everted) foot position is, if anything, an advantage with respect to running injuries. Consequently, it is difficult to find supporting evidence that foot pronation (eversion) is a strong predictor of running injuries. (Neilson et al, 2014)
In other words, if you have flat feet, or are overpronating, but you are NOT experiencing any injuries or discomfort, do not let a running store employee (or otherwise) convince you that you need stability shoes and/or insoles.
Who Can (potentially) Benefit From Insoles
While there are no guarantees, runners with the following issues may benefit from wearing insoles:
- Those who blister due to foot movement within a shoe
- Those looking for arch support, either for comfort or overpronation
- Those who don’t need a full on stability shoe, but want a little extra support
- Those suffering from plantar faciitis
- Those looking for extra cushion
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am one who did suffer from discomfort associated with overpronation. When standing, I have a moderate arch, not traditionally “flat” feet. However, my arches are very flexible, and when I run, they do elongate, causing my foot to overpronate. That movement was causing chronic pain for my posterior tibial tendon. For me, an insert that slowed down and lessened the rate of pronation by supporting my arch, helped ease and eventually eliminate my pain.
Ultimately, Comfort Matters
There is a lot of science surrounding the idea of runner’s preferred movement path being the best movement path for that individual runner. In other words, the body is going to do what makes most sense for each individual body, and in most cases – that’s the correct path or form for that person. For that reason, we tend to gravitate towards what feels best with our preferred movement pattern.
Research shows that shoe conditions that are more comfortable are associated with a lower movement-related injury frequency than shoe conditions that are less comfortable. (Nigg et al, 2015). Further, shoe conditions that are comfortable are associated with less oxygen consumption than shoe conditions that are less comfortable (Luo et al, 2009)
Point being? If you are unsure if insoles are right for you, but they FEEL good, it most likely won’t hurt to give them a try.
What to Know About Using Insoles in Your Running Shoes
If you’ve decided to give insoles a try in your next pair of running shoes, here’s a few things to know:
Insoles typically come in various shoe sizes, and often, arch sizes. Generally, they will come in a size range, and will need to be trimmed to fit in your shoe.
Pro tip: when trimming your insoles, leave some space (about 1-2 mm, or the depth of a coin) between the end of your insole and the tip of your shoe. This will leave enough space for the necessary, natural movement of the insole with each step.
Sport or “Need” Specific
There are various models of insoles based on your specific needs. Some are designed for comfort, while others are designed for pain management. Some have a lower profile to fit in a racing flat, while others are thicker to withstand the needs of longer distances. Not all insoles are created equal, so definitely refer to the packaging and discuss your specific needs with a running store employee, if you choose to purchase insoles.
You Can Move Them Between Shoes
You can absolutely move your insoles between shoes, if you want to. I’ll move mine between my road and trail shoes, depending on which pair I reach for based on my run.
Insoles Last A Long Time
Varying brands of insoles have varying life expectancies and guarantees. Typically, I find I can get at least 1,000 miles or more (about the lifetime of 2-3 pairs of shoes) before I feel them breaking down to the point of needing to be replaced. It definitely makes the $50+ cost easier to swallow.
Recently, I’ve switched from Superfeet to Tread-Labs which claim they have a “million mile” guarantee – the molded plastic arches are guaranteed for life. The top, cushioned layer easily Velcro’s on and off and can be replaced for only $15, versus $65 for the entire pair of insoles.
Just like a new style of shoes, you may experience discomfort if you try to run too many miles, too soon, in a new pair of insoles. Start with shorter runs until your feet become used to the insoles, and gradually build up your mileage from there.
Final Thoughts on Insoles for Running Shoes:
I hope this post has helped you understand what the benefits of insoles for running shoes are, and also helped you understand that not every runner necessarily NEEDS them. As mentioned above, if you they feel good on your feet, and you have the extra money to spare? It certainly can’t hurt to give them a try. But understand that insoles are simply another tool in a runner’s toolbox. They are not a substitute for proper training, or if you are experiencing pain, a substitute for a diagnosis and plan of action from a medical professional.