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How to Buy the Right Athletic Shoe

Because you can't run in Stan Smiths.
Model Agyness Deyn somehow looks perfect after running the London Marathon in 2011. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Model Agyness Deyn somehow looks perfect after running the London Marathon in 2011. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

In our latest column, "Ask a Fashionista," you can solicit our strongly held opinions on everything from how to wear a midi skirt without looking like a tree stump to whether a certain retail CEO should go ahead and resign already.

Q: I want to start working out more this year, like running, weight-lifting, maybe taking some zumba classes. How do I know what shoes are best for my varied workouts? —Laynie, Houston, TX

A: There has been so much talk about sneakers recently—the shoe trend was everywhere this year from the runway to the street—that you almost forget most of those shoes aren't right for actual exercise. For getting the heart-rate up or seriously hitting the pavement, you need athletic shoes with the right cushioning and support, and not necessarily the trendiest color palette. Wearing the right shoe is crucial to successful workouts where you can really push yourself without risking any injury. Here are some essential tips to keep in mind as you shop.

1. Replace often.

Many people don't realize how often running shoes need to be replaced, which is a hassle considering they don't come that cheap (often around $100), but otherwise you will pay for it health-wise. If the soles of the shoes are visibly worn or you can't feel the bounce in the cushioning, it's time to get a new pair. Runners can gauge by distance, with experts recommending that shoes be retired every 200 to 300 miles. 

2. Don't underestimate the size of your feet. 

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Not only do feet expand throughout a day of normal walking, peaking around 4:00pm, but they expand even more during exercise, especially running. Running shoes need to be about a full size larger than your normal shoes in order to accommodate swelling and stretched out toes. 

3. Know how you are going to be exercising.

Ideally, you need a different kind of shoe for every type of workout. The main distinctions are found between running shoes, which are designed for only forward-backward movement, and cross-training or sport-specific shoes, which are designed for side-to-side movement. On a basketball court, for example, feet are constantly turning, twisting and shuffling, which is why you need shoes that are both supportive and flexible. If you are not ready to commit to such a wide range of shoes quite yet, try to address the needs of the majority of your workouts. For running, weightlifting and dancing as mentioned in the question above, consider running shoes that are very cushioned and have a sturdy sole for back and forth movement. Be careful when considering shoes marketed for 'cross training.' That category has shifted into casual daily use shoes that are often not suitable for varied strenuous exercise. 

4. Understand your foot type.

Everyone's arches are slightly different, but they generally fit into three major categories—flat, neutral and high. An easy way to test your feet is to step on a thin layer of water (maybe in a shallow pan) and step on a thick piece of paper (like a grocery bag). If the imprint's arch is half the width of your foot, you are neutral. If the imprint's arch is almost the same width of your foot, you are flat. If the imprint's arch is very thin or interrupted, meaning you only leave a mark on the heel and ball of the foot, you have a high arch. 

The arch affects how the foot strikes the ground while running and there are different kinds of shoes to balance out the differences. Neutral arches, as you would expect, do not need to be corrected by running shoes: just look for neutral, cushioned shoes. Flat feet usually roll inwards while running and need motion control or stability shoes that move the weight of body back towards the outside of the foot. High arch feet do the opposite—those people run almost completely on the outside of the foot—and need flexible neutral shoes with soft midsoles that help absorb and disseminate shock. 

5. And finally...always give shoes a test drive.

Before you commit to buying anything in the store or to keeping something you bought online, try the shoes on with the socks you would be using and jog around. Comfort is key and they aren't going to feel better the more you use them. Make sure your feet have room to swell but are secure enough they aren't wiggling around. A test drive is the best way to ensure you've found the right balance of cushioning, structure and flexibility for your feet and your future workouts.