IMAGE Some sports, like football and hockey, require players to wear specialized equipment. Others, such as long distance running, require very little equipment to participate. But with few exceptions, sports will require some type of footwear.

First things first. Do you need new shoes? There is an easy way to see if your shoes need to be replaced.

Look at Your Old Shoes

Once you have bought a pair of athletic shoes, how long should it be before you replace them? Many people wait until the soles of the shoes wear out before buying a new pair, but that is not a good idea. Very often, the shock absorption of running shoes or the lateral stability of cross-training and sport-specific shoes will wear out long before the soles do.

In general, you should replace athletic shoes every 350-550 miles. You also need to consider other factors, like your activity, body weight, and the type of surface you exercise on. Keep in mind that it is better to use mileage as a guide regardless of the condition of the tread. A good way to estimate how much mileage should be put on your shoes is to take 75,000 and divide it by your current weight.

Outside of mileage, are you still unsure if your shoes need to be replaced? There is an easy, visual check that you can do. Place the shoe on a flat surface, if you notice any unevenness, that is a good indication that it is time to replace the shoe. Also, look for other signs of wear, like creasing.

If you are ready for a new pair, take a moment to think about how you use your shoes, and what you want to get out of them.

Choosing Athletic Footwear

You may feel that you need a different type of shoe for each athletic activity you participate in. But is this true? Generally, no.

Unless you regularly participate in a specific sport—at least 2-3 times per week—a good cross-training shoe is usually sufficient. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, you are much better off playing football and baseball in cleats. And regular running definitely requires a specific type of shoe.

Though shoe manufacturers hype the special features of each shoe they make, sports shoes can be divided into two general categories.

  • Lateral and stop-and-go movement —Virtually all sport-specific and cross-training shoes are designed for activities that require lateral and stop-and-go movement, such as baseball, basketball, tennis , racquetball , and soccer.. To enhance performance and prevent injury, all sport-specific and cross-training shoes include a great deal of support on the sides and are flat across the sole.
  • Continuous forward motion —Unlike most other athletic activities, running is done in a continuous forward motion, requiring very little lateral movement and very little starting and stopping. In addition, running inflicts a great deal more continuous and sustained pounding on the feet than almost any other athletic activity. So, although running shoes require relatively little lateral support, they incorporate a great deal of padding underneath the feet to act as shock absorbers. In addition, most running shoes include a slightly elevated heel (to reduce the transfer of stress to the Achilles tendons), as well as a much larger toe box (to accommodate the forward motion of the foot).

What About Walking?

If you are a walker, should you buy walking shoes instead of running shoes? No need. Despite being called walking shoes, most are designed like cross-training shoes, offering lateral support while skimping on bottom padding and heel elevation. So if you walk a lot, you may actually be better off wearing a good pair of running shoes with their support for continuous forward motion and pounding.

Buyer's Guide

Fitting a shoe is a very individual process. Factors like gait, biomechanics, weight, and foot shape are highly unique. The American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine recommends finding a reputable footwear retailer for proper fit and a sports medicine podiatrist for concerns about injury or footwear. If you need a specific shoe for a specific activity, here are some additional tips:

  • Scout out the store. —Shop at stores that offer a wide variety of athletic footwear and have knowledgeable sales personnel. Do not be afraid to ask questions.
  • Put them to the test. —Try on several different shoes to find the pair that fits comfortably. Once you find the right pair, spend 5-10 minutes walking around the store in them to see if they remain comfortable. If they are non-running shoes, also try making a lot of sudden stops and starts and side-to-side movements to test their overall and lateral support. Remember, if a pair of shoes does not feel comfortable in the store, they will not feel comfortable later. So keep looking!
  • Stick with a winner. —If you have had good luck with a specific make and model shoe, stick with it.
  • Size them up. —Shop for athletic shoes at the end of the day (or, better yet, after working out) when your feet tend to be a bit larger. Try on the shoes you buy to your larger foot. When trying on athletic shoes, lace them up entirely, and wear a pair of socks similar to the type you will wear when participating in the athletic activity.

With all athletic shoes, and especially with running shoes, be certain there is at least a thumb's width from the tip of your longest toe to the front of the shoe while you are standing up.

While you should never buy athletic shoes that are uncomfortable in the store, all shoes have to be broken in to accommodate the specific shape of your feet. Therefore, never run a marathon in new running shoes. Along the same line, you should not wear new cross-training or sport-specific shoes during an entire game until you have worn them a number of times in practice.

Fancy Footwork

What should you do if you have feet that are extremely difficult to fit?

Start by seeing a podiatrist to make sure there is no serious underlying problem. If there is not, a custom made orthotic (a support made of plastic, polyurethane, or other material that can be easily molded to the shape of your feet) worn inside your shoes may prove helpful. If you have extremely wide or narrow feet, consider athletic shoes from a company that manufactures athletic shoes in a large range of widths. Or, for more difficult problems—such as misshapen or extremely sensitive feet or major differences between the size of the left and right foot—consider custom-made athletic shoes.

Now you are ready for the store. Keep in mind that you should not be swayed by the price tag. The most expensive is not always the best. Ultimately, getting the right shoe with the right fit is what you want.