Are Your Shoes True?


An under inflated air pocket can cause the runner to roll in and break the shoe down. The deformed left shoe above led to a serious running injury.

 by Bruce R. Wilk, PT., O.C.S.

As runners and triathletes, we know we need top-notch running equipment we can depend on, namely our athletic footwear. Triathletes also know the importance of checking bike wheels to make sure they’re true because we know that a loose spoke or slightly bent rim is likely to fail, ruin our performance and potentially cause serious injury.

That same reasoning applies to our running shoes. As runners, we must remember to check if our shoes are straight and true. We know that when shoes are worn past their lifespan, they lose their shock absorption and stabiliza­tion ability.

But you may not realize that manu­facturer defects such as crooked heel counters, loosely glued midsoles and under-inflated shock-absorbing pockets can limit the shoe’s ability to absorb shock and stabilize the foot, thus increasing chances for injury  even when shoes are brand new!

Combine these manufacturer defects with excessive mileage and you’re an injury waiting to happen. It’s important to know what to look for in your own shoes to prevent injury and keep you running on all cylinders.

 Rule Out Other Factors

If unusual pain crops up, make sure there are no other factors causing your running problems before blaming your shoes. Be sure you have a good stretching routine, weekly mileage has been consistent and you incorporating appropriate cross training. If everything seems in order and you’re suddenly been plagued by injuries, it’s time to take a closer look at your shoes.

I was made painfully aware of a problem with my own running shoes, a model I’d faithfully used for nearly two trouble-free years. I injured my right foot during the 1996 Florida Challenge Triathlon. Since I’m an experienced triathlete and board certified orthopedic physical therapist, I’m very careful to prepare properly before such a long triathlon. When I woke up the day after that half Ironman and was unable to walk on my right foot due to heel pain, I knew there was a mystery to solve.

While carefully examining my racing shoes, I noticed the right shoe heel counter was severely twisted inward, causing my foot to roll in. In turn, this over stretched my arch, which led to plantar fascitis. I discovered the heel counter was glued improperly. I hadn’t noticed the defect before the race, but rain at the beginning of the run caused the wet shoes to stretch and the defect to worsen. Even though I knew what to look for, I had overlooked the telltale signs of a manufacturer’s defect in my shoes.

How We Run

To understand more clearly why a defect or excessive mileage harm us, we must take a closer look at how most of us run. When we run, the foot absorbs three to five times our body weight with every heel strike. The gait cycle consists of a stance phase and a swing phase. Most, if not all, overuse injuries occur during the stance phase. The stance phase consists of heel strike, mid-stance and push-off.

At heel strike, the foot initially contacts the ground in a supinated; i.e. locked position. As the foot continues to contact the ground during mid-stance, it pronates (rolls in) to absorb shock (body weight), and becomes a mobile adaptor to the ground’s contour.

During the push-off phase, the foot supinates (rolls out) again to become a rigid lever and propels the body forward. In essence, the foot initially coils to absorb the body’s weight then recoils to propel the body onto the other foot.

The way we run varies considerably. A shoe that’s right for one person can give another blisters, strained muscles or sore joints. Twenty years ago, buying running shoes meant making sure you toe didn’t jam against the toe box.  Because today’s running shoes tend to be somewhat customized, it pays to know your feet before you shop. To select the right shoe, you’ll need to know something about your feet and how you run.

 Know Your Feet

First, find out if your arches are low, normal or high. Get your bare feet wet, then step on and off a piece of cardboard placed on a hard floor. If your foot has a low arch, nearly the entire bottom of the footprint will be on the floor and very little or virtually no arch ‘indentation” will be visible. A

high arch, on the other hand, will leave a very deep indentation as very little of the arch touches the floor. It may appear c-shaped. Normal arch prints, as you’d expect, fall somewhere between the low and high arch.

If you’re like most people, each of your feet goes through the following motions about 600 times per mile:

•    Lands on the outside back of the heel.

•    Rolls inward (pronation) and flattens out as you move forward, absorbing much of the impact.

•    Rolls through the ball and rotates back outward (Supination).

•    Pushes off.

If your foot excessively rolls in, you are a pronator. Athletes who have pronated feet tend to roll inward throughout the lower extremity. They also tend to have a more supple, shock-absorbing foot. The drawback to this type of foot is that more power will be necessary during push off. You’ll know you’re a pronator if your old shoes are deformed, tilting inward. The arch side

of the midsole will be compressed. There will be extensive wear at the out­side of the heel and at the inside of the forefoot. You may have low arches. Athletes with pronated feet need shoes, which emphasize control more than shock absorption.

If your foot excessively turns in (pigeon-toed), you are a supinator. Your feet do not absorb shock well. You’re a supinator if an old pair of shoes tilts to the outside. The outside of the midsole will be compressed and soles will be worn along the outer edges. Your arches are probably high. The outside of your foot needs to be supplied with more shock absorption by your shoe so you’ll need a shoe to compensate for this.

After you’ve determined your foot and running characteristics, seek a qualified running shoe store and call on their expertise to put you in the right shoe. They’ll know which shoes are recommended for pronators and supinators, as well as which are best for high arches or flat feet.

 Your Pre Purchase Checklist

No matter what you buy, your new shoe, when placed on a level surface, should not be biased in or out. One of the main purposes of a running shoe is to hold your feet stable. Defective or worn-out running shoes, which don’t hold your feet in a neutral position, may accentuate a pre-existing biomechanical imbalance (i.e. excessive pronation or supination). This may lead to unnecessary aches and pains and time off from our beloved sport. With this in mind, the following guidelines will help you avoid buying defective running shoes and prevent injuries.

•    Check the shoes right out of the box. Put the shoes on a flat surface and hold the top of the shoe while rocking it in and out. Shoes should remain even and shouldn’t roll. If they are new and roll, they won’t stop your foot from rolling from side to side, and may buckle during use, causing an injury.

•    Is the heel counter straight? The small stitched rectangular area in the back of the shoe should be straight and sturdy when you hold both shoes at eye level.

•    Be sure the shoe’s midsole is securely glued into the uppers. To test, hold the shoe and try to separate the uppers from the midsole. If a brand new shoe pulls apart at all, it’s got a defect.

•    The upper should be glued straight into the sole.

•    Eyelets should be even.

•    Air pockets and gel pockets must be evenly inflated. If they’re too soft they collapse and cause your foot to excessively roll in.

•    Watch how the shoe is wearing throughout its entire life.

 High Defects, But Low Returns

Recently, along with a local television investigative reporter, I went to four different sporting goods stores. I randomly chose many pairs of shoes, all of them different brands and styles. From this impromptu sampling, we found a 30-50% defective rate among shoes we examined.

Despite this high rate of defective footwear, it seems most flaws go undetected by the end users- runners like you and me. Marty Gilmore, manager of Orlando’s Track Shack

quotes an industry standard of 2%defective shoes and Amy Mandel, who owns Tampa’s Feet First, indicates about 1% of the shoes they sell are returned for defects. Owner Tim Eldridge of the Athletic Shoe Factory, also in Tampa is consistent with the others, noting “a small percentage come back with defects”.

Yet, as a board certified physical therapist with three other therapists in my office, there’s not a week that goes by where a patient doesn’t come in with a running injury at least partially relat­ed to a shoe with a manufacturer’s defect. Clearly, the consumer is going to have to pay closer attention to avoid shoe-related problems.

Of the stores we checked out, most had a very proactive return policy on defective shoes. Meg Bruch, owner of Running Wild in Fort Lauderdale, says that if a customer returns a shoe that is defective, awe take it back, no questions asked”.

“We visually check all of our shoes right out of the box,” says Bruch. “We also check them on the customer to be sure they’re receiving proper support.”

John Huseby, Manager of Footworks in South Miami, also says his store looks for defective shoes. “Often, people will say ‘my heel hurts,” explains Huseby. “We immediately put the shoe up on a flat surface to check if visually for defective heel counters. If there is anything obvious, we replace the shoe on the spot.

“We try to match the proper shoe to the individual’s needs,” adds Huseby. “At Footworks, we don’t let our customers pick just any shoe from our stock. We help educate them as to which choice will be their best.”

 Protect Yourself

The hands-on service from running-oriented “tech shops” may be your best protection against shoe problems. When you buy from the same people year after year, they get to know you and your running needs and treat you like a valued customer. That same service is tougher to find in mega-stores. Amy Mandel is typical of the personal approach: “We get the client whatever they want. Every company we deal with stands behind their shoes. We take them back, no questions asked,” echoes Track Shack’s Gilmore. “We work with customers because we specialize in expertise. We try to get it right the first time.”

And Tim Eldridge points out a little extra time in the store can ward off a possible return trip. “Problems occur when people just run in and pick up a shoe without trying them on. We try to prevent problems ahead of time by letting people run around outside on the sidewalk in the shoes before they buy them.”

 Date Your Shoes

Remember, a good running shoe lasts 300-500 miles. Your mileage could be less if your shoe gets wet, either from consistent running in hot, humid environment getting caught in one typical monsoon rains. The average 30-mile-a-week runner with normal wear and tear can expect to have a shoe life of about 10-15 weeks.

Put a date somewhere on your shoes so that you’re sure to know how long you’ve been using them to prevent running on worn out sneakers. Be sure to periodically check your shoes for signs of premature wear, as shoes that are out of alignment can no longer keep your foot and leg in a neutral position.

If a shoe tilts inward it will have a tendency to cause your foot to pronate more than nec­essary throughout the stance phase. This could lead to injuries such as shin splints, patellar tendonitis at the knee, and iliotibial friction syndrome in the thigh region.

If a shoe tilts out, it may prevent pronation and prolong supination. This may lead to stress fractures in the foot and leg as well as anterior knee pain. Either way, the results may be disastrous to your training program.

 Invest In An Extra Pair

Long distance runners and triathletes know that mileage increases dramatically while they’re training for a peak race. However, it’s not unusual for manufacturers to suddenly discontinue shoe models and you’ll find your trusty shoe is unavailable for the big race.

Therefore, it makes sense to buy an extra pair before a long training program. Bruch says that at Running Wild, they ask customers to bring in their old pair of running shoes so that they can analyze features the customer liked and be sure that their new pair of shoes has those same features.

“Often, the shoe manufacturer changes the features of the shoe, but they keep the same style and model name,” says Bruch. “We want to make sure that the customer isn’t injured by a shoe which doesn’t have the features he or she needs.”

Then, check the shoes for defects. If they’re good, put 40 to 50 dry miles on the shoes and stash them in the closet. They’ll be broken in, but fresh for the big race.

By the way, a more expensive shoe is not necessarily a better-built shoe. I’ve had many patients come in with injuries due to manufacturer’s defects, even in the most expensive designer brand running shoes.

As for me and my defective running shoes, I was treated by my partner for a couple of weeks and, six weeks later, with another pair of shoes, I was able to complete the New York City Marathon with no heel pain.


Bruce R. Wilk is a board certified physical therapist and director of Orthopedic Rehabilitation Specialists. His office is located at 8720 North Kendall Drive, Miami, Florida. He may be reached at (305) 595-9425.

This article appeared in Florida Sports Magazine on Page 24 November 1997