Sports happens at the feet. Athletic footwear is the most important piece of equipment athletes own.
For the most part, selecting footwear is straight forward: Football players wear football shoes, baseball players wear baseball shoes, tennis players wear tennis shoes, soccer players wear soccer boots, etc. Getting comfortable shoes of the right type puts you well on your way to non-impact injury minimization.
Where most players and parents run into trouble is not actually selecting the right shoe but rather the right size. Whether for aesthetics, comfort, or popularity, proper individual footwear is too often neglected for reasons that will likely impede an athlete’s progress.
Below are some footwear recommendations to minimize injury for different age athletes.
Pre-school Age – Most kids under six years don’t need specialized shoes. Spikes, cleats, high-tops, court shoes and the like are not terribly necessary. As long as the shoes are meant for sports (not dress) and fit well (not too big, but not so small that the toes butt up to the end of the shoes), generic shoes are perfect for this age. Let your munchkin invoke their inner spider man before their inner Lebron.
Elementary School Age – As kids get older, and bigger, it’ll be important to have shoes applicable to their playing surface, although not necessarily their sport. Certain leagues require special shoes. At older ages, for instance, baseball cleats are not allowed to be worn on the soccer field. If this is the case then you’ll need to get shoes as dictated by the team or league. If there are not league restrictions on footwear, it’s a good idea to find shoes that are applicable to the playing surface. Court shoes for the court, running shoes for the track, or basic molded boots for the field. Be careful when introducing field boots. Turf shoes belong on astro-turf and cleats belong on grass with no exceptions.
Middle & Early High School Age – By now most athletes are required to wear sport specific footwear. Frankly, this is the age that I see the most shoe choice mistakes being made. Too often this age group is the recipient of “hand-me-down” or used footwear. Used footwear loses its elasticity and if there is one thing these rapidly changing bodies need, it’s elasticity. Casual shoes should be at least one size too big to allow the foot to grow and stabilize properly. Sport shoes should fit comfortably and snugly but not so tightly that they alter the natural foot position when standing on the ground. Shoes that fit tightly when the foot is in the air are definitely too tight when playing sport. Don’t get too wrapped up in style for sport shoes – function first.
High School & Beyond – In high school many athletes are introduced to a new facet of sport - strength training and conditioning. Training shoes will usually be very different from playing/practice shoes. Unless the individual has been diagnosed with a congenital foot dysfunction requiring special footwear, training shoes should offer minimal support to allow the foot to be an integral part of training and growth. Sport shoes should fit snugly similarly to choices in previous years. Recognize that as an athlete ages, equipment becomes more specialized to not only sport but also player position and role. Appropriate footwear should be selected for appropriate positions. Certain red flags at the upper levels in sport:
- Running shoes are for running. They are not for court, field and other multi-directional sports.
- Running shoes used for regular running will last about 6-9 months at most. After this time period their running days should be retired to casual walking and garden work.
- The more support the shoe offers, the less support the foot will retain. Unless prescribed by a doctor, PT, ATC, or professional strength coach, restrictive and corrective footwear more often weakens the body’s support system from the ground up rather than helping it.
- Shoes used in the weight room should have as little support as possible without causing damage to the foot. You want your feet to be incorporated into your strength routine, not put to bed in a nice comfy shoe while the rest of your body works hard.
- Training programs involving lots of stopping, cutting, and change of direction require shoes with robust stitching and support across the foot’s longitudinal arch (the ball of the foot). Without this support, athletes will blow out the shoe more easily making ankle and knee injuries more likely.
- Do not ever wear grass cleats on artificial turf! While artificial surfaces have come a long way, they still don’t mimic natural grass surfaces and no shoe can compensate for this discrepancy. Wear turf shoes on turf.
- A properly fitting shoe should feel comfortable right out of the box. While more supportive shoes like high-tops and baseball cleats will loosen up over time, it shouldn’t take months or even weeks before your feet feel good in your shoes.
Adult Competition – If your pro-athlete days are over but you still like to challenge yourself physically and athletically, there are a few footwear changes you’ll likely make and need to be attentive to.
- First, you probably won’t get to wear athletic shoes all day like your school age years. Most dress and professional shoes are built for style, not stability or function. Transitioning from these shoes to competitive sport will require more attention during training or practice.
- Second, your whole body will require more rest after strenuous exertion and more preparation to achieve new heights. This includes your feet. If your feet and lower legs are tired, your body is tired.
- Finally, if you’re unsure about what footwear is best for you, check in with your favorite strength & conditioning coach, physical therapist, athletic trainer, or massage therapist/reflexologist. These professionals study the foot and how it integrates with body movements. They can offer great insight as you approach new athletic heights!
The ground is the first point of impact in most sport. Whatever materials you have between your body and the ground dictates how your body receives and distributes forces from this impact. Putting the proper shoes on your feet sets you up for more athletic success from your first step.