How to choose insoles

Do you hike, backpack, run, ski or cycle? Then you’re a prime candidate for the extra comfort and support provided by aftermarket insoles such as those from Superfeet, SOLE and Spenco.

But wait a second, REI. Isn’t this just a scam? Aren’t stock insoles good enough?

Actually, no. The stock insoles in performance boots and shoes are typically inexpensive fillers. Most footwear manufacturers fully expect you to get aftermarket insoles to better tailor the fit, support and comfort of their footwear to your feet.

It’s true that many people pay little attention to their insoles. But if foot aches, blisters, hot spots or discomfort are part of your activities, then an aftermarket insole may be your best solution for relief.

A Quick Overview

 Aftermarket insoles are intended to:

  • Improve footwear fit to increase comfort and reduce blisters or hot spots.
  • Reduce discomfort from misalignment or foot conditions such as plantar fasciitis.
  • Relieve tired feet and improve shock absorption.

Our insole-fitting advice:

  • Choose an insole type for either comfort or support, then dial in the fit with a low-, medium- or high-volume style.
  • Select an insole profile that suits your foot profile, especially the heel cup and arch height.
  • Ensure the insole does not negatively affect your footwear fit. A thicker or thinner insole may solve the problem.
  • Remove the stock insole first. Don’t just put the new insole on top of it!

Important: Shopping for your first pair of insoles? It’s best to visit an REI store to try out several models and get specialized fit assistance.

For a closer look at your insole choices, read on.

SOLE insole

Types of Insoles

Most shoes come with a removable insole, while most sandals and flats have built-in, non-removable insoles (though some insoles are molded into a removable midsole). Removable insoles may be referred to as footbeds, inserts, arch supports or orthotics.

Aftermarket insoles are the over-the-counter orthotics discussed in this article. Their cost is typically around $40 to $50, and they fall into 2 types:

  • Comfort: Most feature gel inserts or soft foam to provide shock absorption and cushioning. May be flat or contoured.
  • Support (or “sport”): These feature a harder material for structural support and stability. Comfort is derived from the increased stability rather than direct cushioning.

Though not customized to an individual foot, these insoles come in different models and profiles to suit most foot shapes or footwear types.

Shop REI's selection of insoles.

Other options:

Custom insoles are aftermarket insoles shaped specifically for the wearer’s feet to create even pressure distribution. This may be a heat-molded DIY process at home or one molded by a specialist fitter. Expect to pay more for the latter.

Custom orthotics are for people with chronic foot issues. A podiatrist can have these made specifically for you based on a cast created of your foot. Their cost is commonly $300 to $500.

In addition, several lengths are available:

  • Full length insoles are the most common.
  • ¾ length insoles are for low-volume or tight-fitting shoes.
  • Arch support or heel cups feature gel to enhance comfort.

Why Use an Aftermarket Insole?          

There are 3 broad and overlapping reasons: fit, comfort and support.

Fit

Insoles can change footwear volume, which is the internal space of the shoe. For hiking boots, a low or narrow foot may benefit from a high-volume insole while a wide or high-volume foot is better served by a low-volume insole. For casual shoes and cycling shoes, low-volume insoles are often the best choice.

Tip: The thickness of your socks will also have a big influence on footwear fit.

A shoe that fits well in the mid- and forefoot but allows heel slippage or lift may be improved with a supportive, mid- to high-volume insole. This reduces excess volume in the rear of the shoe and stabilizes the heel of the foot, minimizing the heel slip that can cause hot spots and blisters.

For those with significant foot elongation in one or both feet when measured standing as compared to sitting, a supportive insole can help. This reduces foot elongation when weight bearing, creating a better fit and lessening the need to size up when buying footwear.

Improved fit also means the foot is better supported, which can reduce or eliminate other foot issues such as pain from plantar fasciitis and bunions—or even a tendency to roll your ankles.

Comfort

People who experience foot pain and tired feet from standing or walking on hard surfaces for extended periods may find relief from shock-absorbing insoles. These can be flat or shaped and feature gel or foam in their construction. Insole choices include full length, ¾ length or arch or heel inserts.

Tired, achy feet may also be the result of insufficient foot support inside a shoe.  If a “comfort” insole does not provide relief, or even aggravates the problem, it is an indication that the foot wants firmer support, not more cushioning.  Try a “support” style insole instead.

Cold feet can occur when participating in snow sports. Insoles designed to reduce heat loss and provide insulation are available, as are battery-operated heated insoles.

Plantar fasciiitis

Support         

Supportive insoles are best for people who suffer from structural misalignment, have foot conditions such as plantar fasciitis or need motion control.  Virtually anyone, however, can benefit from this inexpensive form of “preventative maintenance.”

Because the feet are the foundation of the body’s biomechanical support system, foot misalignment can manifest as not only foot pain, but discomfort in the ankles, knees, hip, back, neck or head.

Plantar fasciitis is a common and painful condition resulting from tears in the plantar fascia—a band of connective tissue which connects the heel to the forefoot.  Medical professionals routinely recommend the use of a supportive insole as part of the treatment protocol for this condition.

Motion control refers to a shoe or insole design that moderates a tendency for the feet to either supinate (roll out) or over pronate (excessive rolling in) when walking or running.  The use of supportive insoles increases foot stability and reduces the chance of injury.

Side view of pronation ("rolling in" motion of foot), neutral position and supination ("rolling out" motion of foot) show how this affects foot posture. Insoles help to moderate excessive gait tendencies.

People who have low or collapsed arches often ask for “arch support” insoles.  What is really needed, though, is “foot support” which helps stimulate the arch muscles to be engaged and active.  A supportive insole stabilizes the heel and distributes pressure across the base of the foot, instead of concentrating pressure into the arch area. Direct arch support is actually uncomfortable for many people since it inhibits the normal flexing of the foot.

Choosing the Right Insole

Given the wide selection of insoles that are available, it’s best to seek the assistance of an experienced REI footwear specialist—especially if this is your first pair of aftermarket insoles.  Here is typically how he or she will help outfit you:

By alignment or foot issues:

  • Do you currently experience any foot discomfort or pain?
  • Have you been referred by a medical practitioner to get insoles?
  • Are you an overpronator?

If yes to any of the above, choose a support insole.

By activity type:

Do you participate in outdoor activities and seek improved fit and stability? Choose a support insole.

Do you stand or walk on hard surfaces for long periods and feel pain in the ball or heel of the foot? Try a comfort insole first and, if that does not provide relief, go to a support style.

By foot profile:

  • Is your heel narrow or wide, bony or fleshy?
  • Is your arch height notably low or high?
  • Is your arch length long or short in relation to overall foot length?

If yes to any of these, it’s best to try out different models in store. Insoles vary in heel and arch dimensions, and an REI footwear specialist can assess your feet to see which type works best.

By footwear type:

Is it a high-volume active style like a hiking boot, ski boot or running shoe?

Is it a low-volume active style like a cycling shoe, in-line skate boot or ski skate boot?

In general, a high-volume insole best suits a high-volume boot; a low-volume insole is needed for a low-volume shoe.

Stand and Test   

Once you’ve narrowed the options to a few models, it is time to test them out.

Stand on an insole—on its own, not in a shoe—and lift up your other foot so you are balancing on the foot that is on the insole.  Do you feel steady or do you wobble around? How does the pressure feel under your foot?  Is there too much pressure under your arch, or does the pressure feel like it is in the right or wrong place?  How does it fit around your heel?  Is your heel cupped and supported nicely in the insole (good!), or is your heel fatty tissue forming a muffin top outside the heel cup (bad!)?

If you are standing on a heat moldable insole, the pressure will change once the molding instructions have been followed.

Repeat this process on different models.  When you have one that feels “right” outside of the shoe, try it inside your shoe.  Now you are assessing the fit as well as the feel and support. Has any heel lift been minimized?  Or have you been elevated out of the shoe heel cup and the heel lift is now greater?  Do you feel stable in the shoe?  Has the insole taken up too much volume and the shoe is too tight or is your foot moving around and you need a thicker insole?

A footwear specialist can guide you through this process.

Life Expectancy and Maintenance

Aftermarket insoles do not last forever. Their useful life is generally considered to be 12 months for daily or regular use. This may be extended to several years if you have a pair in footwear that sees only occasional or seasonal use. Tips:

Sweaty or wet feet? Remove insoles regularly to allow moisture trapped between the insole and shoe to dry out.

If needed, wash insoles by hand with a mild detergent or sports detergent and air dry before re-inserting.

Periodically remove and inspect insoles for signs of deterioration and replace as needed.

Shop REI's selection of insoles.

All illustrations in this article courtesy of Superfeet.