Cushioned insoles for shoes are a big business these days. Also known as inserts, these insoles are used to give your feet extra padding, especially for those of us who spend the majority of our time standing. The past decade has seen an explosion of sales and product offerings from simple flat padded inserts to quasi-orthotics. But the question remains, do cushioned insoles actually work and are they worth the money?
That’s a good question, because some high-end inserts cost more than the shoes they are put in! Frankly, the answer is at best a qualified maybe. More often than not, the answer is simply, no. In fact, often, cushioned insoles do more harm than good.
Cushioned Insoles Usually Don’t Fit Well in Shoes
Whether you buy the quarter-inch padded inserts, the gel insoles, or the deluxe $10/pair whole-foot composite material insoles specifically made for sports or work (funny, they look identical to me), the directions always say the same thing. Cut them down to your shoe size, remove the existing insole, and replace with your new cushioned insoles.
Sounds good on paper. But have you ever tried to remove the insole from your shoe? Chances are it won’t work. That’s because it is glued in. Actually, the insole does a lot more than make the inside of your shoe look pretty. It is what holds the whole thing together. The edges of the upper attach to the insole.
A shoe without an insole isn’t going to last much longer. I should know. I’ve worn through the insoles on more than one pair of shoes. Since my feet stopped growing when I was 15 (size 9 1/2 EEE, I usually have to buy 12’s for the width), I have worn out several pairs of shoes in pretty much every way possible.
What most people refer to as the insole is actually called a sock liner and is almost always under a centimeter thick. That doesn’t free up a lot of space inside the shoe. And it is also glued in.
So, failing to remove the insole, most people just stick the insert into their shoes as-is. When they put their shoes on, they may feel that the shoe feels tighter and loosen the laces a little. For a casual wearer, who is going to have them on for the duration of a workout, maybe an hour or two, or is simply going to be sitting down, that may be okay.
But for construction, manufacturing, and retail workers on their feet all day, it is going to lead to more pain, not less. Gravity does some horrible things to the body. Over decades, it makes us shorter as our spines compress. Muscles (and other parts :)) sag. Even over the course of several hours, gravity simply outmatches the heart. The longer you stand, especially if you are only standing and not walking around, the more blood pools in your lower extremities, causing them to swell. A study of nurses once found that a person’s feet can swell by as much as a half a shoe size in 12 hours of standing.
So those shoes that are now a little tight are going to get even tighter at the end of the day. And tight shoes hurt. Just ask any kid.
Cushioned Insoles Are Usually the Wrong Shape for Your Foot
A very popular feature of cushioned insoles is arch-support. In fact, arch supports were doing good business even before the cushioned insole industry caught on. Now, some people legitimately need extra arch support; those people should go see a qualified orthopedic doctor to get properly sized. For the rest of us, all arch support really does is make our shoes fit worse.
Outside of maybe identical twins, have you ever seen two people who were the same exact size? I haven’t. Everybody is different. That includes our feet and the arches in them. Your arch may be higher or lower than the next person, or a little further up or down the foot.If there are so many variations one people’s arches, why are all arch supports the same size?
I like to joke that I have Flintstone feet and my footprints look barely human. My arches don’t even line up with the support on those cushioned insoles!
Enter Dr. Scholl’s Custom Fit Orthotics and the FootMapping kiosks. Walk into any Walmart and in the pharmacy section (they try to add credibility by putting it near health related goods instead of the shoe section) there are those giant scales that are supposed to tell you your individual foot shape and recommend a “custom” orthotic insert. Sounds good, right?
Well, not actually. First, those kiosks can only do a two-dimensional scan of your foot pressure. It really has no clue how high your arch is. It comes up with an educated guess based on pressure on other areas. But it can be wrong. And getting it wrong means too much or two little support and paid.
Second, how do you create a custom orthotic insert for $50? By mass-producing them. Not very custom if it’s mass-produced, is it? Those inserts are about as custom as the shoes you are putting them in. It turns out, there are just 18 varieties of those “custom” insoles. That is saying there are only 18 different types of feet. What are the chances that 6+ billion people fit neatly in 18 different foot archetypes?
Cushioned Insoles Actually Make Your Foot Work Harder
I’m a piney, from my head down to my hiney! I grew up on the edge of the Pine Barrens, a great pitch pine forest in southern NJ. People who live in the Pines are typically called piney’s and have a reputation similar to those from places like the Ozarks or West Virginia. One of the big things we are known for is our propensity to go around barefoot. Growing up, if I wasn’t in school, church, or at the store, I was probably barefoot. My feet were so tough that my callouses had callouses. And the only time I ever experienced any kind of foot pain is if I stubbed a toe. How I miss those days!
In recent years, there has been a growing movement of barefoot running. It makes sense. Human beings didn’t evolve with shoes on our feet. We were barefoot. Later on, early humans invented moccasins, but they provided some protection from sharp things on the ground, they didn’t provide and cushioning.
Medical science has been discovering that the simple act of wearing a shoe changes the way you walk. Your stride changes, you land on a different part of your foot, and use different muscles. You are changing the way the human body adapted over millions of years to bipedal locomotion. And it results in additional wear and tear on your body, especially the part taking the brunt of the impact: your feet. This results in more injuries and more fatigue.
When you add extra cushioning it gets worse. A 1991 study found that expensive running shoes with added cushioning resulted in more injuries than cheaper shoes without it. So, more cushioning is worse for your feet. So why would anyone purposely add more cushioning?
Alternatives to cushioned insoles
Instead of going out and spending $10-$50 an a pair of cushioned insoles, try some other remedies instead. They will work better and are cheaper to boot!
Before exercising or starting a shift that leaves you standing, do some basic stretches. In the construction industry, there is a movement to add stretching to the morning safety meeting. Stretching muscles makes you less stiff and actually decreases injuries in the event of an accident! To reduce future foot, ankle, and knee pain, you will want to stretch out the muscles in your leg, primarily the calf and quad. This guide from the Mayo Clinic shows proper stretching techniques for those muscle groups and more
Walking around a bit will accomplish two important things. It will help keep those leg muscles loose and will help keep your blood pumping, especially in the legs where its been pooling from gravity.
If you are having a lot of trouble with swelling and the pain associated with it, you could try support hose. Support hose are basically stockings that put pressure on your feet and ankles to limit your circulatory system’s ability to leave fluids behind at the bottom of their journey around your body. You can get them at most drug stores for a few dollars.
Raise you feet
Why fight gravity when you can make it work for you. When you get a break, prop your feet up. The higher the better. Well, above your heart anyway. I’m not sure doing a handstand will provide a better result. A common recommendation for diabetics and people who work on their feet is to spend an hour a day with the feet propped up on the armrest of a couch. Gravity will do the work and drain the fluids from your feet.
Do you suffer from foot pain? What are your feelings on cushioned inserts?