How to Buy a Good Pair of Sneakers

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A lack of cushioning makes canvas sneakers more appropriate for casual wear.
A lack of cushioning makes canvas sneakers more appropriate for casual wear. (Image: Sneakers image by irum from Fotolia.com)

Everyone needs a good pair of sneakers. Whether you're a highly paid athlete or you just don't want to ruin your loafers while you do yard work, sneakers are handy to have around. But when you have to sift through the zillions of styles and brands, how will you ever know which sneakers to buy? A good four-point program will guide you through an easy selection and purchasing process that will put you in the right footwear.

Know What Activity You Need Sneakers For

You can do aerobics or other gym-related fitness activities in running shoes, cross-trainers or any sneaker that provides support and cushioning. Some manufacturers have shoes specifically designed for aerobics (for example, the Reebok Freestyle), but you can do aerobics in something called an "aerobics shoe." If you're just going to the gym to lift weights, you can wear canvas shoes, hiking shoes or just about anything else, but no sandals (stubbing your bare toe is extremely painful).

Molded cleats are ideal for baseball. You can also wear running shoes or cross-trainers. But whatever you get, make sure they provide good traction.

Basketball requires basketball shoes, according to the current recreational etiquette, which dictates that you wear no other sort on the court. You must also replace them no less frequently than every six months.

Casual wear, however, is probably the most common use for sneakers. Just about any of the shoes described here can be worn around as casual footwear. Cleats, however, don't belong anywhere but on an athletic field. They ruin your floors and can be slippery on hard surfaces.

Football requires molded cleats. You can slip on wet grass and mud just by walking on it, so imagine the outcome if you're wearing the wrong shoe when a football player smashes into you. Soccer is also best played in molded cleats, but plenty of people adapt running shoes or cross-trainers for soccer as well. Again, traction is the watchword for soccer and all sports that involve running on dodgy surfaces.

Hiking "boots" have evolved from heavy, awkward origins to look more like sneakers. These are the best choice for hiking, because they provide good ankle support and traction without being too heavy. Running shoes and cross-trainers are OK, too, but they're not ideal, as they won't protect your ankles from scratchy underbrush or joint-jarring slips on uneven terrain.

Running, logically enough, requires running shoes. Most other shoes are too heavy and/or don't provide enough cushioning, wreaking havoc on your knees and ankles.

Again, it should come as no surprise that tennis shoes are best for tennis. Many people play tennis in running shoes, canvas shoes or cross-trainers, but these shoes are not ideal because they don't provide adequate support for the side-to-side movements required in tennis and other racket sports.

Walking is a pretty low-key activity, so almost any shoe with good cushioning for the soles of your feet will be sufficient. There are, however, walking shoes that are designed for the particular comfort of the walker.

Pick an Appropriate Sneaker

The basketball shoe has a leather or synthetic upper, a mid to high top, a rubber sole and lots of support for the ankles. This support can come from bizarre innovations such as air pumps and helium pockets. Basketball shoes are as much about form as they are about function, and many pro basketball players have lent their names to a particular brand of shoe. These superstar shoes are expensive but fashionable, and it's up to you to decide how flashy you want your shoes to be. A shoe without the bells and whistles or a star's name attached to it is perfectly fine for playing basketball, as long as it is well-constructed. You can get a good pair for $60 to $90, but if you want to spend more, there are limitless opportunities to do so.

The canvas shoe is of simple construction, with a canvas upper and a rubber sole. They can come in high or low tops, and a wide range of colors. The kings of the canvas shoes--and, to some, of all sneakerdom--are Converse All Stars. These are also known as "Chucks" to their fans, because they bear the signature of 1920s Converse salesman and endorser Chuck Taylor. Both Converse and Keds have been making canvas shoes since 1917, so you'll be joining a proud tradition if you choose these. You'll also be choosing not to take advantage of more than 80 years of sneaker innovation. Canvas shoes are cool and casual, but they don't provide much support or cushioning, so they're not very good for any athletic activities. In fact, they're downright awful for your arches. But one of the best things about them is that they're cheap. You can pick up a good pair for $20 to $30.

Cleats are the small spikes on the bottoms of shoes used for baseball, soccer, football and other sports that are played on grassy or muddy terrain. The shoes that bear these spikes are also called cleats, and they come in a variety of styles. Metal cleats are great for traction, but they can make a lot of noise if you wear them on hard surfaces. They chew up a car's floor mats and can do a lot of damage if they go astray and hit an opponent or a teammate. Instead, molded cleats made from hardened rubber or plastic are just as good for traction. You can get a decent pair for $40 to $70, but a lot of the soccer shoes are really ornate, and they get expensive quickly.

Cross-trainers are usually made with leather or synthetic uppers, rubber soles and low or mid tops. They are intended to be useful for a wide variety of activities, such as running, aerobics or weightlifting. Their detractors say they're actually not useful for anything, because they're too heavy for running and don't provide sufficient support for other sports. If you're hardcore into running, tennis or activities of that ilk, you should probably buy shoes designed specifically for the activity. If, however, you like to dabble in a lot of things, cross-trainers will see you through all of them well enough. A decent pair of cross-trainers will run you anywhere from $40 to $70, and some high-end ones go for up to around $130.

Hiking shoes, also known as trail shoes or hiking boots, are characterized by sturdy construction, high tops and darker colors than most other athletic shoes (that way, they won't show dirt as much). These are designed to give you good traction on uneven surfaces, to protect you from scrapes and twists on uneven surfaces and to look rugged. A good pair will usually cost around $60 to $80. But you can, of course, find them cheaper and more expensive.

Running shoes are usually made with a leather or synthetic upper, low tops and cushioned rubber soles. The main things you want from a running shoe are good padding between you and the cold, hard ground, lightweight construction and front-to-back support. Every athletic-shoe store or online shoe source will have a section devoted to running shoes, and these will all be designed with the runner's needs in mind. You don't want to skimp on running shoes, and you should replace them every three months if you use them a lot, because you need good cushioning between you and the ground to avoid running-related traumas. You can get a good pair for $60 to $90.

Tennis shoes can look a bit odd, because they often have extensive molding on the sides. They must provide side-to-side support, due to the tendency to move laterally in tennis and other racket sports. They have leather or synthetic uppers, low tops and rubber soles. The lower-end models tend to look a bit like running shoes or walking shoes, and they provide less support. As with running shoes, you should probably spend upward of $60 if you want to get a good pair, and you can spend a lot more if you want all the bells and whistles.

Walking shoes are designed for comfort and overall support, and you can get a variety of features to suit your needs. Motion-control shoes have rigid construction, and they keep you from pronating (bending in at the ankle when you walk). Stability shoes are more flexible but still provide good support. Race-walking shoes are lighter and more flexible. If, however, you're looking for something for casual wear and the occasional romantic stroll, just pick the one that looks good to you--and, most importantly, feels the most comfortable. A good standard walking shoe can be had for $40 to $70, while motion-control, stability or race-walking shoes tend to be more in the $80 to $100 range.

Find a Good Place to Buy Sneakers

If you want the best selection and the most knowledgeable staff, go to a store that specializes in sneakers and other athletic gear. If you want the lowest prices, go to one of those big "warehouse-style" shoe places that have high turnover and lots of bargains. Shoe stores will often advertise their specials in the newspaper or elsewhere, so you can see where the styles and brands you want are available for the best prices.

Another sneakier option is to try on shoes in a shoe store, then buy them online. Go to a shoe store to find the brand, style and size of shoe that you want. Then look online to see if you can get a better deal. Remember to write down the model number before you leave the store so you can be sure you get the exact same shoe you tried on.

A final option is to throw caution to the wind and simply buy shoes online without trying them on. This is risky, but it might work out if you're simply replacing a worn-out pair of shoes with the exact same kind--or if you find that size 9 1/2 shoes from a certain manufacturer always fit you.

Make Sure the Sneakers Fit Properly

Many sports injuries occur unnecessarily for two reasons: You use the wrong shoe for the activity, or your shoes don't fit properly. Remember that your shoe size, whatever you ordinarily think it is, should not completely dictate what shoes you wear. A size 10 shoe from one manufacturer might fit you perfectly, while another size 10 will be too small. What's most important is how the shoe feels on your foot.

It's best to try on shoes late in the day, because your feet swell over the course of a day. Wear socks of the same thickness as those you'll wear during your shoe's intended activity. Remember to check for width, too. If you have an extra-wide foot, get wide shoes. In North American sizing, shoe width is indicated by a letter or letters after the number (D, E and EEE are extra-wide sizes). Don't buy a shoe that's too long to make up for it being too narrow. It may eventually stretch to fit your foot, but your foot will be spilling out over the sides of the soles. Don't simply get a shoe that's half a size off because they don't have your actual size. You'll feel it in the morning. Ask the sales clerk to order you a pair in your size.

Once you have both shoes on, lace them up and see how they feel. There should be about 1/2 inch between your longest toe and the end of the shoe. You can tell by pushing down on the front of the shoe with your thumb to see what's air and what's toe. If you feel pain, you've hit toe. Walk around a bit or try running a few steps and jumping. The shoes should feel comfortable right away. Never mind what you may have heard about "breaking in" shoes; sneakers are designed for comfort, and if they're not working for you right off the bat, they're not the shoes for you. If there's room for your toe, your heel doesn't slip around and the shoes feel good, they are good candidates for your new pair. If they fit right, you'll know instantly.

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