Shoe Insoles: The Ultimate Buying Guide

By Josh White DPM  /  October 04, 2023 Blog Home

If you're experiencing foot pain, aiming to improve your athletic performance, or simply feeling like your shoes aren't quite cutting it in the support department, you’re probably looking for the insoles that will make things better.

But, here's the deal – insoles aren't a one size fits all solution. People have different needs, which is why there’s a myriad of over the counter options to choose from, and you can also get yourself a custom made insole. 

All this means that finding the perfect insoles can sometimes feel a bit like navigating a maze of options, and that is exactly what this guide is for: to guide you through this sea of choices.

So, kick off your old shoes and join us on this adventure to discover your perfect insoles match. We promise to keep it fun, yet informative.

What are insoles for shoes?

Insoles, also known as foot beds, are the part of the shoe located at the bottom of the inside, under the sole of the foot. They can either be attached to the shoes or removable, depending on the shoe type. 

If your shoes have removable insoles, you have the option to replace them with orthopedic insoles that offer better arch support and more cushioning. This allows you to enhance the comfort and support of your existing shoes, without buying a whole new pair.

Individual insoles are designed to fit inside your shoes and can cater to specific foot types or issues, such as plantar fasciitis, high arches, heel pain or lower back pain. Some insoles are tailored for particular shoe types or activities, like running. 

Insoles come in various materials, like gel and memory foam, which provide extra padding and support for your feet.

You have the flexibility to choose standard insoles in your size, or you can opt for custom insoles made specifically for your feet. 

Insoles serve as a practical and effective way to provide various benefits.

  • Reduce pain. According to research, insoles can help to reduce pain in the feet. On top of that, they are also very effective in alleviating ankle, knee, hip and back pain.
  • Improve posture. Insoles can help to improve posture by providing support to the arches of the feet. One research explains that in the standing position, our feet serve as vital points of contact between the body and the ground, influencing balance and posture maintenance. The report adds that researchers have developed various types of insoles to amplify somatosensory (the sensory system responsible for detecting and processing information related to the body's sensations, including touch, temperature, pain, pressure, and proprioception (awareness of body position). information from the plantar region, thereby enhancing postural stability.
  • Prevent injuries. By providing shock absorption, arch support and proper cushioning, insoles help distribute the body weight more evenly across the feet, help correct biomechanical issues, including over pronation or supination, and reduce stress on the feet, ankles, knees and back.
  • Increase athletic performance. Insoles offer more than just foot protection; by providing shock absorption and motion control, they can also enhance foot and leg function while reducing muscular fatigue. This helps improve athletic performance.
  • Improve comfort. While insoles don't physically make a shoe smaller, they fill out the empty space between your feet and the inside of the shoe. This can help to reduce friction and rubbing, which can cause blisters and other foot problems.

How do insoles work?

Insoles work by addressing the points of support on the ground and correcting any dysfunctions at the base of our body – the feet. 

Since the feet have a significant impact on our posture and how we use our joints, any dysfunction at this level can affect the entire skeleton, leading to pain not only in the feet but also in the legs, back and other areas.

The insoles are designed to correct the way our feet interact with the ground, ultimately influencing the entire skeletal system and its joints.

For optimal results, it is often recommended to wear orthopedic shoes in conjunction with shoe insoles. This combination ensures that the corrective action of the insoles is fully supported, promoting better posture and reducing discomfort throughout the body.

More specifically, insoles work by providing the following capabilities (some of which will be discussed in more detail later in the article): 

  • Optimal arch support. Designed to maintain and support the foot's natural arch, alleviating strain on the plantar fascia and reducing the risk of conditions like plantar fasciitis or heel pain.
  • Contoured heel. This feature mimics the natural contours of the heel, ensuring even pressure distribution and minimizing strain on this area.
  • Excellent shock absorption. Did you know that up to one and a half times the bodyweight passes through each foot while walking? With multiple layers of suitable cushioning foam or similar materials, insoles can absorb force and reduce stress on the foot.
  • Moisture wicking properties. Insoles with moisture wicking layers and anti bacterial properties keep feet dry, preventing unpleasant odors, chafing, blisters and unwanted foot movement within the shoe or boot.
  • Adjustability. The best shoe insoles offer varying configurations or adjustability to accommodate individuals with different foot arch heights.
  • Durability and comfort. Materials should offer exceptional comfort and withstand heavy use without fraying, curling at the edges, flattening out, or deteriorating due to wear, tear, moisture, or bacterial degradation.
  • Versatility for different shoe types. The ideal insoles should be adaptable enough to fit comfortably in various shoe types, from work boots to high heel shoes.

What are the types of insoles?

There are insoles for different purposes, ranging from simply wanting to get comfort and support in the shoes, all the way to insoles made for a specific activity, like running insoles that are geared towards energy return, shock absorption and lightweight materials, and insoles that aim to alleviate or treat specific conditions, such as Morton’s neuroma, diabetic feet and so on.

Let’s dive deeper into the different types:

  • Arch support insoles
  •  Most insoles are designed to provide varying degrees of arch support to accommodate different foot shapes, such as flat feet, high arches and everything in between. 

    The aim is to support the plantar fascia ligament, maintain a neutral foot position, and promote proper body alignment from the ground up. This helps prevent injuries and ensures correct biomechanics, benefiting various parts of the foot and reducing the risk of conditions like bunions, plantar fasciitis, heel pain and more.

    Some high quality arch support insoles that are heat molded are also suitable for diabetics due to their ability to provide a snug, personalized fit that accommodates any deformities on the underside of the foot.

    Additionally, these insoles are a recommended option for people who suffer from discomfort in the ball of the foot, or metatarsal pain. They prove to be highly effective for enhancing the comfort and support of boots, making them well suited for both work and hiking boots, where a combination of moderate arch support and substantial cushioning can significantly improve the overall experience.

  • Cushioning insoles
  •  This feature focuses on delivering cloud-like comfort by incorporating materials that offer excellent shock absorption and even distribution of impact forces along the foot during walking.

    This type of insole can be effective for individuals who have bony protrusions in areas like the metatarsal heads or the heel, where the natural fat padding has diminished over time. It can also be beneficial for relieving fatigue and discomfort in the feet that demand extra cushioning beyond what standard shoe inserts provide.

    When they are made from hypoallergenic and non-toxic foam, these insoles can also be a good choice for diabetics, eliminating potential irritation.

    In addition, insoles can be made from either soft or rigid materials, each serving a specific purpose. 

    Soft materials provide energy return, shock dispersion and pressure relief, while rigid materials offer enhanced control and durability. Many orthopedic insoles use a combination of soft and hard materials to achieve optimal effectiveness.

  • Orthotic insoles
  •  Think of orthotics as technologically advanced insoles.

    Orthotics represent a substantial leap forward, offering a range of benefits beyond traditional insoles. These specialized devices deliver superior arch support, precise control over foot motion, effective foot stabilization, and an enhanced foot contour compared to standard insoles.

    The application of orthotics extends across a diverse spectrum of foot related concerns, making them an invaluable solution for addressing various painful foot conditions, as well as tackling challenges related to gait and balance issues, discomfort in the legs and knees, and even alleviating back pain.

    You can choose from two basic types of insoles: custom made devices and standard options, also referred to as over the counter insoles. 

    Seeing as custom made orthotic insoles tend to be more costly than their standard counterparts, and require a health professional’s assessment and prescription, it is a good idea to give over the counter insoles a try first, before considering the investment in expensive custom made insoles.

    How do you know which insoles you need?

    The insole you buy should be compatible with your needs and purpose. 

    Here is everything you should know when choosing your insoles.

  • Top Cover
  •  The top cover is the layer that comes into direct contact with the foot. Modern technologies are employed to create surfaces that inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi, minimize odor and wick away moisture from the foot. This promotes a healthy foot environment, which is particularly beneficial for individuals with sensitive feet due to conditions like diabetes or neuropathy. 

    Some insoles even come with fur lining to keep feet cozy and warm in boots.

  • Rearfoot support
  •  Rearfoot constructions vary, but for most people, a cupped heel design is preferred as it provides stability and cushioning to the fat pad, reducing heel pain and discomfort.

  • Forefoot support
  •  Insoles with metatarsal support in the front of the foot, behind the toes, are excellent for conditions like metatarsalgia. 

    These insoles have thick cushioning in the forefoot area to deflect stress from painful areas and provide shock absorption.

  • Thickness 
  • The thickness of the insole depends on the shoe type and whether the footbed can be removed or not. 

    Thinner insoles are used for shoes with little or no extra depth, ensuring a comfortable fit. In shoes with removable footbeds, thicker orthotic insoles can be accommodated, offering increased cushioning.

  • Length 
  • Orthotic insoles come in two main categories: full length and ¾ length. 

    Full length insoles extend from the heel to the end of the toes, while ¾ length insoles typically extend to the ball of the foot area. 

    The choice between the two depends on whether the shoe has a removable footbed or not. Pumps or ballet flats, for example, require shorter orthotic insoles due to limited space.

    On top of all that, it’s crucial to have accurate measurements when purchasing the appropriate insole that suits both your shoe and your requirements.

    Here’s how you can find your insole measurement:

    1. Take your favorite, best fitting pair of shoes.
    2. Using a flexible tape measure, push the end that is marked with the 0 right into the tip of the toe on the inside of your shoe.
    3. Laying the tape flat, run it all the way to the inside of the heel, laying it flat against the bottom of the shoe. This measurement is your true insole length in inches.
    4. If the size ends up between half sizes, round up to the nearest ½ inch, e.g. 7.25 inches will be rounded up to 7.5 inches.

    Should you wear insoles all the time?

    For optimal results, it's best to keep your insoles on as long as you're on your feet, even when you switch to your slippers when you’re at home.

    If you're using new insoles, it might be best to introduce them gradually. Start by wearing them for a few hours each day and slowly increase your shoe insert duration, until your feet feel comfortable wearing them throughout the entire day. Keep in mind that it may take up to 6 weeks for some individuals to fully adjust to the new insoles.

    The bottom line - are insoles worth it?

    Yes, definitely!

    Shoe insoles offer not only pain relief for foot, ankle and leg issues, but also a wide range of benefits focused on aligning the feet into a healthy position when standing, running and walking. 

    By providing proper support and alignment, insoles can improve overall foot health, reduce discomfort, and enhance the efficiency of your movement.

    Keep in mind that top notch and efficient insoles are crafted from premium materials with excellent shock absorption capabilities. They work by preventing shock forces from traveling to the legs and back, while also offering cushioning to soften every step and ensure optimal foot protection.

    Whether you're dealing with specific foot problems and are looking for insoles for plantar fasciitis, or any other foot condition, or if you’re simply aiming to improve your foot posture and comfort, investing in quality insoles can make a significant difference in your daily activities and overall well being.