By Marilynn Preston
Tribune Media Services
     If the shoe fits, wear it. If the shoe doesn’t fit, or if it’s old, worn out, and has lost its ability to cushion and support, then do not wear it. Why? Because if you run, walk, play tennis or do other sports on athletic shoes that are past their prime, you can cause pain and injury to your feet, ankles, knees and legs.
     But buying a new pair of athletic shoes can be very confusing. There are so many styles, brands and special features. There are lightweight trainers, motion-control shoes for runners with flat feet, stability shoes, shoes with stiff forefoots, shoes with foam under the arch, and too many more variations even to discuss. Instead, let me give you some guidelines for buying new athletic shoes:
– LOOK FOR SIGNS OF WEAR. How long will a good pair of running shoes last? It depends on the person, the shoe, the wear. At most, you might get 1,000 miles per pair. If you’re hard on shoes, you may get 500 miles or less. One expert suggests runners who spend five to 10 hours a week running need to change shoes every three to six months. 
     The way to tell if yours need replacing is to set them on a flat surface and look at them from behind. Is the seam on the back no longer vertical? Are the uppers badly stretched? 
     Are the midsoles and wedges brittle? And check the soles. If there’s significantly more wear on one part of the sole than another, that’s another sign that you need to recycle your shoes and buy a new pair. 
     This is a trick question. Yes, there are consumer guides and magazine ratings that evaluate running shoes and may be helpful in general terms, but when it comes to choosing the shoe that is best for you, you must consider your own needs: How far do you run? On what kind of terrain? Do you want a shoe for several sports (cross-training) or just running? Do you pronate when you run? Or supinate? (More on that later). 
     And all of that is secondary to getting a shoe that feels totally comfortable on your foot. 
     That is vital! Yes, every new pair of shoes needs some breaking in, but if the shoe rubs or pinches or presses anywhere, don’t buy it. It’ll only get worse.
     It pays to shop for athletic shoes in a store that specializes in them. Ask for an experienced sales person and discuss your needs. Bring in your old running shoes, because the wear pattern will be helpful in selecting a new shoe. 
     If your shoes are worn down toward the outside heel and inside of the toe area, you pronate. That means you hit the ground with the outside of your heel, with your ankles rolling inward so you push off your big toe. If you pronate severely, look for a shoe that offers arch support and a solid, stable heel area. If you supinate – a less common foot motion you’ll see wear on the outside edge of the shoe. High arches? Flat feet? There are shoes for all these situations. Take your time, ask questions and don’t give up until 
you’ve found a comfortable shoe that fits your own biomechanics.
     A very common mistake is buying a shoe that’s too small. You don’t want your toes to feel squished. You want about a thumbnail of distance between the end of your longest toe and the end of the shoe. For stability, your heels should fit snugly in the shoe, well-supported and cushioned. If you have high arches, look for extra shock absorption in the heels. People with flatter feet will normally do better with shoes that are stiff in the middle and have a supportive interior liner. 
    Once you’ve chosen the right shoe for you, inspect the pair for defects before you buy them. Quality control can be slipshod even in the high-price brands, so look at the shoes from behind and make sure the upper part is aligned with the lower, that the arches are firmly in place, and both shoes flex in the same place when you press down. Also, run your hands along the seams of the shoes, checking for 
rough spots or bulges. If you find problems, don’t be shy about asking for another pair to inspect.
     Buy shoes that have breathable uppers because sweaty feet are no fun. Shop for shoes at the end of the day when your feet are most swollen. Wear the same sort of socks you will wear when you work out. Don’t buy a shoe based on media hype or brand name. Choose comfort over color every time! 
     Usually, I don’t mention athletic shoes by specific brands, but Nike has come out with a new shoe and a new philosophy of running shoe  that has caught my attention. The new shoe, heavily promoted and somewhat controversial, is the Free 5.0. It is a very lightweight, minimalist shoe designed to mimic the feeling of running barefoot. 
     For years, runners and running coaches have touted the benefits of running barefoot as a 
way to strengthen all the little muscles in the foot that typically don’t get a workout in sturdier, more protective running shoes. 
     By strengthening those muscles, the foot gets stronger, the entire leg becomes more stable, and the risk of injury goes down, explained Nike consultant Pete Stolpe, showing me a pair of Frees that had such a flexible sole, he could double them over in his hand. 
     Pete’s a competitive racewalker (I’m a non-competitive one) and he explained how the Free really lends itself to the land-on-your-heel, push-off-on-your-toe forward rolling motion of racewalking. He went on and on about the research Nike’s done to back up their belief that the Free running-barefoot technology will be the next big thing in running shoes, because the more you wear it, the stronger you get. 
     Some runners may be able to train with the shoe right out of the box, without a problem, Stolpe told me, but Nike is very cautious about that and encourages new users to start slow and ease into it, wearing the Free around the house or for short walks the first 
week or two. The Free is being promoted as a training shoe, intended to complement, not 
replace, the sturdier, more conventional running shoe that is the core of Nike’s very big business. Indeed, every pair of the Free comes with a very specific eight-week training program for runners and the pamphlet advises that if runners feel any undue pain or discomfort, they should stop immediately and seek professional advice.
     My advice is simple: Listen to your own body. If you wind up buying the Free (as I did, to the tune of $85 plus tax), put them on, go for a little walk or run, and see how you feel. 
     I felt great after my first time out (40 minutes) and intend to go for an hour my next time out. Will it strengthen my feet over time? That’s the plan. The shoe is very comfortable: light, roomy, a totally different feel from the usual structured shoe we’re all used to. It’s gotten good reviews in the sports gear press, but it’s too soon to know how well it will sell. If any of you have bought a pair, please let me know how you like them. 
(Marilynn Preston welcomes your questions and comments about fitness, nutrition, etc. Write to her in care of Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207, or send electronic mail to While she cannot respond individually, she will answer questions of general interest in her column.)