Selecting a pair of athletic shoes requires an understanding of the mechanics and physiology of the feet. The basic elements of sports shoes are discussed, and guidelines for selecting shoes for specific sports are provided.

There is a science to launching a rocket, a science to building a computer, and even a science to planting a garden. But the next time you are in a shoe shop or sporting goods store looking for sneakers, you may find that it helps to know a bit about the science of athletic shoes and your feet.

It’s no joke. Today, selecting the right athletic shoes for the right activity means knowing about how your foot reacts to specific activities. This requires understanding something about the mechanics and physiology of your feet. Like other sciences, the technology of shoes has changed.


Foot Mechanics

There’s been little change, however, in the way the human foot responds to its various demands. Like a moving car or airplane, your feet have a twisting and turning force called torque. But, just as cars move differently in space than airplanes, so does each individual set of feet. It’s a good idea to know the mechanics of your feet before you buy athletic shoes. In fact, there are even a few simple “scientific experiments” that you can do to help you find out.

Pronate, meaning to bend inward, refers to the natural motion of stepping, which provides shock absorption and adaptation to different terrain. A foot normally hits the ground first with the outside of the heel and then rolls inward when the weight is shifted to the front of the foot.

Overpronators tend to roll the front of their feet too far inward, which can cause knee or arch pain, Achilles tendinitis, and shin splints.

Supinators, those who tend to walk on the outside of their feet with their ankles angling outward as they step, place most of their weight on the outside of their feet and do not have the rolling-in motion.

The Arch Test

One way to find out how your foot hits the ground is to pick up an old pair of your sneakers and check where they are most worn out. If you can see clearly that they are very worn at the ball of the foot and tilt toward the inside, you are probably an overpronator. If the entire length of the outside of the shoe is worn, you’re likely a supinator.

To help prevent arch problems, you can also find out how high or low your arch is. Overpronators tend to have flat or low arches; supinators usually have higher arches. Here’s an experiment to find out which you are: Wet your bare feet and step onto a piece of paper to leave your foot’s impression. If you see a full footprint, you probably have little or no arch. If there is just an outline of a foot, you probably have a high arch.

Once you’ve determined the scientific facts about your feet, you’re better prepared to go shoe shopping after you’ve learned some more of the vocabularly of shoe science.

The Basic Elements

Podiatrists and orthopedists look for three basic elements in a good shoe: flexibility for all the various moves a foot will make, stability for protection from surprise turns, and cushioning for good shock absorption and general comfort. But certain sports such as biking or hiking need more or less of these elements, so be sure to ask before you buy. Get to know these anatomical parts of a shoe:

* Toe box: This is the part that protects your toes but also provides enough room for wiggling.

* Upper: This is the material the shoe is made of. Usually this is leather, canvas, or synthetic, but it is recommended that you get a material that allows ventilation.

* Ankle collar: This padding cushions and protects your ankle.

* Padded tongue: This flap protects your foot from the pressure of the laces.

* Heel counter: A hard cup that circles the heel and keeps it centered in the shoe and stable.

* Insole: This pad inside the shoe provides cushioning, arch support, and absorbency.

* Outsole: This is the very bottom of the shoe. It provides protection, traction, and shock absorption.

Space-Age Technology

Shoe science provides options for every foot the feet of heavy people, flat-footed people, high-arched people, heel strikers, runners who supinate, runners who pronate, walkers, hikers, people with wide feet, narrow feet, and more.

Take a look, for example, at the bottom of almost any athletic shoe: You might see honeycombs, coils, or pouches of air. Other special features of some of today’s athletic shoes include inflatable sides, tongues, and collars, as well as pockets of compressed gas in the soles.

What’s Your Sport?

The science of selecting shoes really comes in when you match a shoe with your sport. Here’s a rundown of what you should look for it you are involved in particular activities:

* Aerobics: Shoes whith firm heel counters, wrapped outsoles for stability, and plenty of shock absorption.

* Biking: Look for a stiff sole. Many feature holes in the soles to help in the evaporation of perspiration.

* Hiking: Look for lightweight shoes that flex at the ball of the foot and have arch support. Also important is a good heel counter for stability on uneven ground.

* Racquet sports: Good arch support, heel cup, heel counter, heel cushioning and flat, hard, square-edged soles for all-around support during rapid movement around the court.

* Running: the shoes should curve up slightly at the front and back, have a firm heel counter with a slightly elevated heel, and sharp-edged side and back soles for stability. Running shoes should be light and flexible.

* Basketball: A good heel counter, good lateral support for moves sideways and quick stops, and good cushioning.

* Softball: Firm soles with sharp edges, cleats, and long tongue flaps that tie or Velcro down.

* Volleyball: Look for lightweight, flexible shoes that are cushioned in the midfoot region.

* Walking: Look for a roomy toe box, flexibility, good cushioning, good heel and arch support, a light weight, and a breathable upper.

And if you are a cross-trainer, someone who does aerobics, plays basketball and jogs all in the same day (and you don’t want to take off your shoes), there are shoes for you, too. Select flexible, lightweight shoes with lateral supports.