High-quality, hand-made shoes and boots seem a mile away from sneaker-style support.
Can insoles give that same kindness to your foot?
I love smart shoes and boots, but wearing them day-in-day-out I worry that they are going to cause me problems. Many people work in sneakers these days (and even crocs!) because they want to look after their bones. I wondered whether inserts were another answer.
I tried a range of insoles (cheap, mid-range, and higher-end) to see if quality would be a factor.
To my surprise, the result was an entirely different answer, but first I want to tell you about my experiment.
I was curious about insoles* because I wanted to know if it would improve the ‘user experience’ for when I wear dress shoes, with their flat leather inner-soles.
*There is some ambiguity as to whether the term insoles refers to the inner-sole of the shoe (i.e. part of the shoe make-up) or to inserts which are slid in. For the sake of this blog, I am talking about the removable inserts.
Through the years I have had several issues with my feet, so I thought this was a useful exercise. Specifically, I was excited to see if they would help with:
Support for high arch
When I have walked a lot with flat shoes, I have ended up with pain on the arch.
Since searching out well-shaped shoes with good arch support, and learning to rotate a variety of shoe types, I no longer have this problem. However, for work I like to wear good-quality shoes - so I wanted to pre-empt any return of the pain.
Support for ankle
I twisted my ankle badly last year (for the first time in ten years). In fact, I badly twisted the same ankle twice, a few months apart - both times while wearing (middle-of-the-range) smart low-rise boots. I have had pain around my ankles ever since.
The insoles I tested claim to reduce muscular tissue stress to treat injuries. I was eager to see if the extra support these inserts offer around the ankle would make a difference.
More balance = better knees
In my experience, bad support in the shoes has not only led to pain in my arch and ankle, but also the knees, and up as high as the side of the hips. I was hopeful inserts would help.
Dress shoes and boots don’t tend to have much arch to the inner-sole, so I thought that maybe this might take them to the next level.
I was wrong - and I will explain why at the end.
I trialed three different types of insole, all available on Amazon:
Walkhero (Amazon #1 bestseller) $15.89
Physix Gear $22.95
Powerstep Pinnacle Maxx $35.99
There was a little mix up in the request, and I had to cut Walkhero and Powerstep down a size, so, I admit, this doesn’t allow for an entirely fair comparison. However, I was able to form more important, wide-reaching, insights.
I imagined the comfortable padded inserts when I saw these online. These are not those!
These are hard plastic, with a thin foam layer on the top.
I wasn’t too disappointed though, because I get it - this way there is going to be much more support for the foot.
None of the inserts could fit into closed-lace systems. This immediately rules them out for many dress shoes.
You will encounter this issue even more so if you have a high instep (this is the term for the top of the foot).
They have very little shape to the outline - as in no ‘foot shaped’ curves down the sides. This also made them not ideal for well-shaped dress shoes.
I conducted the experiment, therefore, in Dowler Boots. These boots are an open-lace system, and naturally more spacious (I tend to use the inserts that Beckett Simonon supply with these boots, whereas I don’t use any inserts with the Balmoral closed-lace system boots). The also have a slightly less ‘curvy’ silhouette to the sole - more about that later.
On first trying out the Walkhero I first noticed that the arch seems out of place and digs into the foot a little. I loved the fact that the foam gives a little bounce as you walk.
The most expensive - Powerstep - noticeably pushed the instep uncomfortably against the roof of the boot.
The Physix seemed more comfortable. It still pushes the foot against the top of the boot a little (and this being the thinnest of the three options!).
After wearing each of the inserts for a day or two it became clear to me that there was zero difference between the Walkhero and the Powerstep. They have the same construction and they feel exactly the same to walk in, despite the price difference.
They are clearly popular with some people, but I didn’t find any benefit with either of them. In fact, I found them plain uncomfortable. This is a personal opinion, and might be because I got the wrong size (and the arch was therefore too far forward). Therefore, I decided to continue the experiment with the thinner Physix insert.
They feel a little strange when you put your shoes on, for the first minute or so, but you very soon forget it was there. Physixs also gives you slightly more flexibility than the other two brands (they feel slightly less like you are wearing ski-boots, but not sure I would wear them dancing).
My ankle pain and knees were fine during the experiment.
Nevertheless, I didn’t really feel much benefit from the inserts either. I returned to the Beckett Simonon design team to ask why. The answer surprised me.
The moment of realization
I wondered why my Beckett Simonon shoes are comfortable to me without the inserts, and without the cushioning for my arch that some other sneakers and leather shoes have.
It turns out that there is a very good reason for this. The tapered waist!
This is a traditional shoemaking technique. ‘Tapered waist’ is when the center part of the sole (the waist) is thinner than the rest of the sole.
Tapering seems like a miracle cure, but there is science behind it. What it means is that the arch is naturally supported by the extra-flexible step down from the heel to the ball of the foot.
The front part of the shoe spreads out to support the weight of the body. This means that the weight of the body is not on the arch, as it would be if you had a flat shoe.
All Beckett Simonon shoes have these aspects in their design (although some have a slightly more tapered waist than others, e.g. the Balmoral boot soles are more tapered than the Dowler).
A thick, leather sole is also a massive advantage because it stops the shoe twisting and helps stability. Both times I twisted my ankle this year I was wearing cheaper boots with a rubber sole. The strength of the steel shank which is used in the Dowler Boots might also help.
It’s a no-brainer, but I will mention anyway - the Dowler Boots also give me extra support because of their high sides made from thick leather.
Merrells, and Mizuno running shoes, were the brands that changed my life and stopped my hell with shoes - which I always put down to their well-shaped inner-soles. I now understand this better. The reason Merrells, for example, need arched insoles is because they are a flat design, with very little shape to their waist. Merrells often have high, ankle-supporting, sides. Mizuno running shoes don’t only help due to their arch either - they have a similar narrow waist / broad front to Beckett Simonon dress shoes.
The answer to my initial question - are insoles the answer to having healthy feet while wearing dress shoes? I don’t think so.
(While I might continue using the Physix Gear insert in my Dowler Cap-toe Boots, and would certainly consider using them in my farm/work boots) I have come to the decision that in future my priority will be good-quality shoes and boots, and look specifically for shoes with a leather sole and a tapered waist. No inserts needed.