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How To Choose the Right Insoles for Outdoor Performance

Yes, running shoes and hiking boots come with insoles.

These most-often removable pieces of thin, flexible foam are usually referred to as “factory insoles.” The simple, molded layers of foam provide some cushioning and a very minimal amount of arch or heel support; the shoe or boot itself is what’s meant to provide the majority of both shock absorption and foot support. Some factory insoles are higher quality than others, offering more cushioning and/or anti-microbial properties than others. Still, they’re minimal in terms of cushioning and support provided. When it comes to getting the most outdoor performance out of your shoe, you can do better with a specialized insole.

Why Consider an Over-the-Counter Insole?

Not everyone needs to purchase an additional over-the-counter (aka aftermarket) insole, but there are few good reasons to add a pair to your running or hiking shoes:

  • The cushioning in a factory insole breaks down over time; the shoe itself will often outlast it.
  • You suffer overuse injuries not being solved by shoes on their own.
  • Not every aspect of a shoe works for every runner or hiker; even the ones who were fitted for properly at a specialty store.
  • You’re looking to customize the fit of a pair of shoes.
  • You’re looking to add support and/or cushioning to a pair of shoes.

Some insoles are meant to add cushioning while providing a light amount of additional support, while some simply take up space within a shoe or boot that is too high-volume for a low-volume foot. Others provide targeted support to correct overpronation, or are built to counter common running or hiking injuries, like plantar fasciitis or shin splints, by offering support in specific areas of the foot. All are meant to replace the stock insole that comes with the shoes or boots that you’ve purchased, though some very minimal over-the-counter insoles can be layered on top of factory insoles for the sole purpose of taking up excessive volume within the shoe or boot.

Podiatrists occasionally recommend aftermarket insoles to correct certain pains, or they may recommend custom-built orthotics, which they may make themselves. Otherwise, the “over-the-counter” insoles intended for active use, like running and hiking, may be labeled as “Active” or “Performance,” and found at outdoor stores and specialty active footwear retailers. Drugstores tend to carry over-the-counter insoles targeting cushioning, though some may carry insoles meant for support.

Here’s a look at the different types of insoles on the market, made specifically for runners and hikers. The product should note if the insole fits best within running shoes or hiking shoes; the difference has to do with volume.

Photo: New Africa

Cushioned

Insoles meant to cushion provide additional shock absorption to running shoes. Cushioning comes in the form of gel, foam, or air—with gel tending to feel impact-absorbing, air or air pockets absorbing impact and feeling responsive, and foam feeling more springy. Running shoes already have midsoles meant to provide ample cushioning. However, they vary greatly between how much cushioning they provide and how that cushioning “rides” (some is more responsive than others).

Insoles meant to provide additional cushioning are more flexible than insoles meant to provide support.

Support

Insoles meant to provide additional support do so by aligning the heel with a deep heel cup and adding arch support. The combination of the two keeps the foot and lower leg from excessive inward rolling and overpronating, which can lead to injuries like iliotibial band syndrome and other issues.

Insoles targeting some specific injuries may feature a raised bump of sorts to relieve pressure on a certain bone in the foot, or the muscles or fascia around the targeted area.

Supportive insoles are more rigid than those meant to simply add cushioning. They vary in the amount of support they provide in the arch area (often noted as “high arch,” “medium arch,” or “low arch.”

Cushioned and Supportive

Most supportive insoles also provide additional cushioning, and some cushy insoles provide light support. Read product information to determine the right balance of cushioning versus support based on your need, knowing the properties of the shoes or boots you intend to pair them with. (Shoes are built to be cushioned and/or supportive as well.)

Partial Insoles

Some insoles run half or three-quarters the length of the shoe or boot. Others simply support your heel (heel lifts or heel cups), while others sit behind the balls of your feet. A podiatrist or knowledgeable specialty store employee will recommend these to some runners and hikers dealing with specific pains or fit issues.

Customizable Over-the-Counter Insoles

Some over-the-counter insoles are heat-moldable, providing a somewhat customizable fit (though, if you’re seeking support, keep in mind that your arch will collapse as you step onto the soft insole).

Other insoles take a scan of your foot, either with a home kit provided or in-store on a scanning machine. The information is then sent to a lab where a customized insole is built based off of the foot scan.

Gender-Specific Insoles

These options exist and take into account the differences in anatomy and gait cycles between men and women. Gender-specific insoles will be labeled as such.

All insoles will take up more volume in your shoe than the factory insoles that come with it. Make sure you try on insoles with the shoes you intend to wear them with to make sure they fit and are comfortable. If they’re at all uncomfortable, they’re bound to become unbearable during your outing, which could lead to other injuries.

Fit reminder: You will need to remove the insole that comes with the shoes you’ve purchased in order to fit any of these over-the-counter insoles. Some will require trimming to fit your specific shoes, which you can do by laying the shoe’s insole on top of the purchased insole and cutting-to-foot with regular scissors.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.