Replacement Insoles - Which Ones?

Foot fatigue, knee pain, back ache? You need a new body, sorry, you might need replacement insoles. The Butcher's Dog pokes his cold wet nose into the inside of a boot

Posted: 22 March 2002
by The Butcher

Butcher's Dog! Regular outdoor fitness tips from the canine on creatine. Cold wet nose and glossy coat guaranteed.

This Month - Feet and Pain...

Feet, pain, pain, feet. Twisted ankles, knee pain etc, etc, etc. What can you do about it?

Whenever you take a step and shift your weight forward so it comes onto your leading foot, strange bio-mechanical things happen. For one, the chances are that the weight will flatten your arch slightly which will elongate and distort other parts of your foot. The flattening of the foot is technically called 'pronation' and can have major biomechanical implications - to compensate for the flattening, the whole leg and hips may shift to compensate which can cause knee, hip and back pain.

Less seriously the constant flattening of the foot will fatigue it on long walks, but it can also cause a bunion or painful swelling behind the joint of the big toe, which again can lead to long term complications.

Note: an estimated 80 per-cent of us pronate to some extent. A truly neutral gait is very rare.

Sports Podiatrists - Orthotics

Standard insoles - come with boots but offer minimal
support to the feet. Really they're just padding.

If you have serious motion problems - you may not realise it, but the chances are that you will be suffering from painful knees or other joints, the answer is to consult a qualified sports podiatrist. He or she will examine your feet and footwear and probably video your walking or running gait to check your action.

If you do have an imblances that needs correcting, the podiatrist may well make up a set of orthotics - remedial footbeds - designed to compensate for your biomechanical faults and tailored exactly to you. These aren't cheap - usually more than £100 - but look at it as an investment in your longterm health and your activity.

Other Aftermarket Insoles

The original insoles / footbeds that came with your boots are likely to be pretty basic. Boot makers concentrate on the main construction of the boot and tend to economise on the internal trimmings, so what you end up with is an economic but basic insert that provides minimal support for the arch and allows the heel to roll around too easily. Not good.

Shock Absorbing Insoles

We've come across and used two different types of shock-absorbing insoles - Sorbothane and Noene. Both are made from dense materials that absorb energy, for example, if you drop a steel ball on a sheet of either, it'll tend to stop dead rather than bounce.

Noene insoles - thin with decent shock absorbtion
but flat so no arch support

The problem with both, we think, is that they have a disconcertingly dead feel, particularly if you're used to springy EVA-type cushioning as used in most running shoes and some boots. Some people love them, some don't, but don't make the mistake of thinking that an energy-absorbing insole will compensate fully for loss of cushioning in running shoes in particular.

A secondary problem with most of these is that the insert tends to be flat. As a result if offers little or no support to either the arch or the heel of the foot. If you insert them under an existing footbed, they can reduce the internal volume of the boot substantially, which in turn may cause new problems.

We're not saying they're useless, but be aware of the drawbacks as well as the pluses. One option with the flatter versions would be to use them instead of a volume adjuster, but like we said, the feel is a personal thing.

More Sophisticated Insoles

Over the last year we've been using two different aftermarket insoles regularly for walking and more general use. The idea is that they're a halfway house between full medically produced orthotics and more basic footbeds. Here's what we reckon. Bear in mind that the OM paws seem pretty resilient with no major biomechanical faults.

Conformable Custom Insole

Conformably insole is comfy - note pad under
heel, but more of a super deluxe standard insole
than one with biomechnical pluses

These are fitted to the feet using a strange vacuum bead based moulding process. The idea is that the foot is moulded in an ideal position which the insoles than help to maintain when walking. The company's background is in skiing, where there's less movement involved than in walking and our general conclusion is that while the insoles are comfortable and cushioned, they have limited biomechanical advantages.

They do conform nicely to the shape of your foot - a bit like a pair of light running shoe footbeds after a few runs - but the arch is still quite low. They also take up more volume than a standard footbed, meaning they can compromise the fit of your shoes. They're certainly more comfortable than a standard version and the fit to your foot means you're less likely to slide forward on descents say, but we'd rate them as more of a super deluxe replacement than a biomechanical aid.

Superfeet Green Insole

We've been using a variety of Superfeet insoles for around a year now, but the ones we'd actually suggest you bother with for walking or mountaineering use are the Green Insoles, so-called because they're green. At around £30 they're not cheap, but effectively what you're getting are a simple set of orthotics.

Our choice - the Superfeet greens are durable - that green
stuff is a hard plastic - with supportiive arch and a defined
heel well that cups the heel and ups stability

They won't compensate for major pronation or other biomechanical problems, but if you suffer from mild foot aches and minor leg pain on long walks, they could make a difference. Compared to the Conformables, these have a higher arch section with a solid, support underneath designed to prevent your foot from collapsing on landing.

The other main feature is a very defined heel cup designed to support the back of the foot firmly and minimise heel roll on landing. The high arch feels odd at first, but you soon get used to it and we now use the Superfeet routinely for both walking and running. They've proven to be very tough and the hard plastic foundation used means that the performance hasn't deteriorated so far. Nice.

We've noticed a general reduction in foot fatigue, but more impressively, friends with more significant biomechanical problems say they've experienced a huge difference. Another benefit for some is that preventing the elongation of the foot under pressure actually means they can wear smaller boots.

Disadvantages? Slightly higher volume than standard insoles plus if you're one of the rare minority who don't pronate then they may not be suitable for you. Superfeet retailers should be able to advise. Finally, if you do have major problems, they're not a substitute for properly designed orthotics, though Superfeet do offer a custom-made option at a limited number of outlets. See the web site for more details.

Volume Adjusters

KSB Volume Adjusters - no biomechanical advantage
but can make a big difference to fit by reducing the internal
volume of the boot.

Not to be confused with insoles, volume adjusters are intended to change the internal volume of a boot and are flat, dense, non-compressible foam worn under a footbed. They can improve the foot of a boot for those with low volume feet and may help avoid heel blisters by stopping foot movement generally and moving the heel upwards to a more tapered section of the boot.

Other Foot Hints

Ankles if you have weak ankles, the key to stability is a good, supportive heel section. High ankles will feel supportive and, in extreme situations might even be able to prevent your ankle from turning physically, but real stability comes from lower down.

Socks Thick socks may impove fit and comfort initially, but as they pack down, they'll actually allow your feet to move around too much and can cause instability. Better to wear thinner socks with cushioning in the right places.

Fit If you do use orthotics or insoles, take them along when you buy boots and always try footwear in the afternoon when your feet have swollen slightly.

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Discuss this story


Superfeet now do custom footbeds - look a bit like their green things, but personalized by heating them up and moulding to your feet by the vacuum bag process.

Cotswold Outdoor in South Cerney have just had the machine installed. Not sure on the cost, as I got mine cheap whilst the staff were being trained (very thorough training too).

However, they seem to do the trick for me (over-pronation), so will make me more efficient in me new alphas. May also help with my sore knees.

Posted: 22/03/2002 at 15:35

Not sure about this one.

'Neutral gait is very rare'? B*ll*cks! I have neutral gait, my housemate has neutral gate, his girlfriend has neutral gait... c.50% of the population have neutral gait. Pronation is fundemental to the function of the foot. It's how the ankle rocks outward slighty every step (and nowt to do with foot-flattening).

Heel rolling is natural and should be maintained at all costs. Basically, we spent two million years running around barefoot and a lot of the world's population still does. Foot wear only hinders our naturally efficient gait (check out African distance runners), though of course the protection from rocks, thorns, water, dog poo, strange looks etc. is more than worth it.

The 'flattening' of the foot is a superb piece of evolutionary design. As the foot strikes some energy is stored in the 'plantar fascia' running along the sole of the foot drawing it flat and taught. A fascia is like a large tendon and it acts like a big rubber band. When you toe off the stored energy is re-released 'pushing' you fowards. Nice.

The plantar fascia can hurt - plantar fascitis - when strained by over use, typically because it's just been subjected to loadings way out side what it's used to, eg. mountain walking after a months' break. It's quite common and with rest and ibuprofen will rapidly subside. If it doesn't a physio can strap up your sole so the plantar fascia is kept slack with the strapping taking the load until your foot heals.

One quarterish of the population do indeed 'over-pronate'. It can sometimes cause pains from strains in the ankle and knee as it inhibits the correct action of the tibia and fibia and the knee joint, but such pain is rare. But the usual source of pain is indeed from excessive foot flattening - straining the plantar fascia beyond its 'design' limits. See your local friendly podiatrist. You can find them in the Yellow Pages. 'Motion Control' trainers made by the likes of Asics and New Balance are also a good idea if you're a runner.

Under pronantion occurs to about 20% of the population (100-80 (from the article) =20). It's not a problem and usually occurs to light people who put so little force through their feet it has no effect. These people (if they ever even discover that they under-pronate) should just wear normal shoes and forget about it.

How do you know what kind of pronation you have? Easy. Wet your feet and then stand on a piece of paper and look at you foot prints. If most of your soles touch the ground you over pronante. If your foot prints narrow to about half the overall width of your foot at the middle you are normal. If your foot barely (or not at all) touchs the ground between ball and heel you under pronate.

If you have weak ankles don't try using stiff high boots to protect them. Strengthen them. Do single leg knee bends. Stand vertically bare foot on one leg, face forward and sink and then rise by bending your knee. You'll notice that your knee and ankle wobble like anything. Your muscles - and the part of the brain controlling them - will become more trained in supporting and stabilising your joints. Repeat until fatigued and do every other day. (This exactly the same as using 'free' weights as opposed to fixed machines down t'gym - you can't shift as much iron but it's better for your joints.)

Posted: 24/03/2002 at 21:26

Insoles? Forget them all, especially 'Superfeet' types. I mean for God's sake our feet have evolved to walk on flat surfaces, so why in hell's name would you want to stick these things in there and mess up two million years worth of adaption? At £30 a shot Superfeet are just out to take your money. All their sales guff - and all their staff 'training' - is make believe.

Another point is that forces involved in walking just aren't high enough to cause serious joint/soft tissue damage, unless you're overweight or carrying heavy loads. Only when running - which triples the forces - will such problems usually become apparent.

You may have noticed but this winds me up. So does fleecing poor consumers in general. No wonder I was sacked!

Posted: 24/03/2002 at 21:26

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