For some runners, orthotics are a great investment to help correct your gait and make running more comfortable and pain-free. But they are not for everyone.
In most cases, runners only get orthotics when their feet start to hurt to the point of being unable to run properly. However, paying attention to it earlier on might just be the one thing that improves your running performance.
But using orthotics when you don’t need them can be a waste of money. It might even hurt.
So how do you know if you should get running orthotics or not? Here’s how to tell if they would benefit you and, if so, how to choose the right ones for your feet.
What are Running Orthotics?
Orthotics are also called insoles or shoe inserts. They’re specially-made devices designed to fit snugly inside your shoe and provide support for every part of your foot, They help to align your foot and add extra cushion.
Orthotics can be made from a wide range of materials. Some are made of foam or gel to provide support and stability while adding extra shock absorption. Others are created from rigid plastic or carbon fiber to guide your foot into a different position within the shoe.
Their ultimate purpose is to change your foot’s biomechanics. For this reason, they’re often prescribed by podiatrists to those who have biomechanical issues that are affecting their gait, leading to pain and injury.
It’s important to note that regular orthotics and running orthotics are slightly different. Running orthotics are designed to align the foot and keep it aligned during movement and absorb shock during the footfall.
Regular orthotics are much less robust and can be used for daily activities. It’s not recommended to run in regular orthotics, unless a podiatrist has designed them and you’ve been given the go-ahead to run in them.
How Do Running Orthotics Work?
Running orthotics has one main function: supporting your foot’s alignment. Secondary functions include improving comfort, adding extra shock-absorbing padding, and evenly distributing weight.
To provide support to the foot, running orthotics are designed to provide firm, rigid support in the arch area. This is particularly important for overpronators. The strong support under the arch stops the foot from rolling inwards, effectively reducing the chance of injury on every step.
They also help to better align the foot joint. Offering support underfoot in all the right places means the foot bones and tendons are properly aligned, so there’s no excess strain on any part.
When the various bones and tendons in their feet are misaligned, it can lead to pain as pressure is placed on various parts of the foot. This might lead to altering your gait without realizing it as you shift to reduce the pain.
When your arch is properly supported, your foot joint is aligned, and you have some extra shock absorption, you’ll most likely have a reduced risk of injury and reduced muscle fatigue during your runs.
Benefits of Using Running Orthotics
Using running orthotics comes with many benefits. Each of these is a standalone benefit, but ultimately, they all add up to a reduced risk of injury, higher comfort, and better running performance.
Reduced Foot Pain
A lot of foot pain comes from poor form, incorrect alignment, or shock from the foot landing on a hard surface. Using orthotics effectively counteracts all of those, so you can count on significantly reducing foot pain—as long as you’re using the right orthotics.
Better Foot Biomechanics
The right orthotic ensures that your foot joints are aligned. When your foot joints are properly aligned, it has a knock-on effect on the knee and hip joints. Your entire kinetic chain benefits when your feet are aligned correctly, reducing strain on each joint and improving their range of motion.
Better Running Form
Pain and poor foot biomechanics can cause you to alter your gait. Even a slight shift in how you run can ruin good running form. Even if it does alleviate your pain, running with poor form is an injury waiting to happen.
Using the right orthotic significantly improves your running form, leading to better performance but also less chance of injury.
Evenly Distributed Pressure
If you tend to get blisters on one particular part of your foot you may find that it suddenly stops happening when you’re wearing orthotics. This is because the pressure is distributed more evenly across your feet with an orthotic, reducing hot spots.
This can also help reduce the chances of developing hammer toes, bunions, or claw toes.
When Should Runners Consider Getting Orthotics?
Orthotics aren’t necessarily right for every runner. Consider investing in running orthotics if you have the following:
- Foot pain when running: This could be caused by the high impact on your feet, or an alignment problem. Orthotics should fix both.
- Persistent kinetic chain pain: Chronic pain in the knees or hips could also be a sign of foot misalignment. Orthotics can help to align the feet properly.
- Flat feet or high arches: Without the extra support, these can lead to injury very easily as the foot rolls. Orthotics provide strong support to stop this happening.
- Frequent overuse injuries: Stress fractures, shin splints, and other regular injuries could indicate poor shock absorption, alignment, or form. Orthotics can help with all three.
- Uneven wear on your outsoles: If one outsole is more worn than the other, it’s an indication that your gait is not right. Orthotics can help, but you may need a podiatrist to create a custom pair to suit your feet.
- Poor running form: If you know you have poor running form but you struggle to correct it, orthotics could be the key to fixing it once and for all.
- High body weight: Heavier runners are more susceptible to injuries from shock as they land. Orthotics can provide extra cushioning and shock absorption, which may help with this.
Running Orthotics vs. Custom Orthotics: Which Is Best?
Running orthotics are typically over-the-counter orthotics that are specifically designed for runners. Custom orthotics are molded directly from your foot, so they’re extremely personalized and can be used to run with.
They’re both good options, but what’s best for you will most likely depend on your needs. However, there are some significant differences between the two. Here’s a quick overview to choose the right one for you.
- Easy to find at any sporting store
- Relatively affordable option
- Usually effective for pain relief and mild shock absorption
- May be tricky to find one that suits your foot perfectly
- Less durable and might wear out quickly
- Personalized support and alignment
- Made of more durable, high-quality materials
- Excellent for combating specific foot problems
- Not as readily accessible as running orthotics
- A more time-consuming process as they’re created
- Fairly expensive in comparison
Choosing the Right Running Orthotics for You
Whether you choose custom orthotics or over-the-counter (OTC) running orthotics, it’s important to consider your needs. This will help you to choose the right ones if you’re taking them off the shelf, or to describe to your podiatrist what you need accurately.
Factors to Consider When Choosing Running Orthotics
Consider these things in order to find an orthotic that’s going to provide you with the right support and comfort for your needs.
Your Foot Type and Arch Support Needs
Is your arch low, medium, or high? You can do a quick arch test by wetting your feet and standing on a piece of cardboard. You probably have neutral arches if you have a typical footprint with a small dry space under the arch.
Your arches are most likely low if you have an almost “solid” footprint with very little dry space under the arch. On the other hand, if you have a lot of dry space with only a small outer sliver of wet cardboard, then your arches are high.
This is important to know so you can choose the corresponding arch support. Go too low for your arches, and your foot will collapse inwards. Go too high for your arches; the orthotic will cause discomfort and chafing.
Do You Overpronate or Supinate?
This is closely related to arch type but slightly different. Consider how your foot rolls when you run. If it rolls inward, you’re an overpronator. If it rolls outward onto the outer edge, you’re a supinator.
Both overpronators and supinators may need help getting their foot joints properly aligned in order to prevent injury and improve running performance. Choosing the wrong orthotic won’t help and may even make these worse.
If your foot rolls only slightly inwards before neutralizing again, you likely don’t need extra support or alignment.
Cushioning and Shock Absorption
Extra cushioning means extra shock absorption. But it also means extra space in your shoe, so consider carefully whether or not you need a few extra mm of padding.
However, if you run on hard, unforgiving surfaces often and you experience pain and injuries consistent with jarring, choosing an insole with great shock absorption is a must.
Keep in mind that foam and gel aren’t the only shock absorbers. Custom orthotics made of carbon fiber or plastic can also effectively absorb shock on every step.
Durability of the Materials
Are you happy to replace your orthotics every few fvfmonths? Then over-the-counter ones are okay. If not, you may opt for the more expensive but vastly more durable custom orthotics.
Foam flattens, especially if you run often. Plastic and carbon fiber last much longer, so you definitely get your money’s worth.
Your budget does play a role. If you can’t afford a more expensive custom-made insole, opt for OTC ones. They may work for you! If not, they should provide enough extra help to give you some time to save up for customs.
If you’re okay with just choosing a “close-enough” set off the shelf, then there’s no issue. But if you want something more custom without going full podiatrist, consider some of the more customizable options on the market.
Tread Labs are a great option. They’re semi-customizable, allowing you to choose from three different arch heights and various top cover thicknesses. They also have options for a variety of foot conditions, as well as a range of different shoes.
Or, you can choose a less pricey insole that’s heat-moldable. This is a way of getting as close to custom support as you can. These insoles can be heated and worn immediately, allowing them to cool and harden into a shape that resembles your foot.
Tips for Running With Orthotics
New to running with orthotics? Here are our best tips to make the transition seamless and comfortable.
Choose the Right Shoes
Firstly, ensure your shoes—or those you’re shopping for—have a removable insole. You’ll need to remove this one to place the new one in the shoe.
Also, make sure the inside of the shoes have enough volume. Orthotics can be a few mm thick, and adding a few mm of foam to your shoe can bring your foot much closer to the upper than it was before.
Wear Your Orthotics for at Least a Week Before You Run
It’s a great idea to “break in” your orthotics before taking them for a proper run. Even if they’re designed for running specifically, try to wear them in your regular daily activities for about a week before you take them for a run.
This will help them to mold to your feet and begin providing the right support before you get out on the road, which can lower your chance of injury and discomfort right from the start.
Start With Shorter Runs
Don’t go for a long run or do some intense intervals the first time you wear your orthotics. It’s best to wear them for your recovery runs at first, and then graduate to wearing them during recovery runs and easy runs.
Once you can run these comfortably, you can also begin to wear them for your longer, faster sessions. This will give your feet the best chance of adapting properly.
Wear Moisture-Wicking Socks
Choosing your socks carefully will reduce your chances of chafing when your feet aren;t used to the orthotics. Any excess moisture in the shoes can increase your chance of rubbing, so moisture-wicking socks can minimize the chance of this happening.
Strengthen and Stretch Your Foot Muscles
Stretching and strengthening your foot muscles will help them to adapt more quickly to the feeling of the orthotic. While it might provide the correct support, it may still take some time and discomfort to get used to it!
Exercises like toe raises, calf raises, toe crunches, and banded stretches can help to stretch and strengthen your feet. This will make it easier for them to adapt and reduce your discomfort in the first few days of wearing the orthotic.
Listen to Your Body
Pay attention to how your feet feel in the orthotics. While some discomfort is expected in the first week or so, any excessive pain or chafing should be noted.
If the pain or chafing doesn’t improve within a week or so, it’s best to go back to your podiatrist and get them to reassess.