Sports Equipment to Protect Foot and Ankles
Feet and ankles are probably the most vulnerable and often-injured body parts among athletes. When you stop and think about it, it makes pretty good sense why.
- The pressure. The weight of your entire body rests upon the feet and ankles. And when your feet strike the ground after a sprinting step—or full leap—the impact force can be equivalent to several times your own body weight.
- The flexibility. While feet must be tough enough to absorb all that weight, force, and pressure, they must also be exceedingly nimble. You need to be able to stop, pivot, cut, and change directions in a split second.
There are, of course, many strategies you can employ to reduce your risk, including pacing yourself, stretching, and taking regular breaks. One area we’d like to focus on here, though, is your equipment.
Are You Wearing the Right Shoes for Your Sport?
There is a tendency among some people to treat all athletic shoes as interchangeable. This might especially be the case if you tend to wear athletic shoes every day simply as casual shoes. (The marketing gurus call it “athleisure” these days.)
While it’s certainly convenient to play basketball or tennis in the same shoes you wear to school or work, it’s not optimal for your foot health.
Sport-specific shoes are made for a reason. For example, consider your typical basketball shoe:
- Most have a high-top style with a collar that extends over the ankles. That’s not just for style—those high tops provide stability and support for the ankles, which are at heightened risk from all the cutting, pivoting, and jumping involved in the sport. Forwards especially benefit from this added protection; guards who rely on speed and explosiveness might choose lower tops to give them more flexibility, but at the cost of less protection.
- The midsoles and outsoles of basketball shoes tend to be relatively heavy and bulky for an athletic shoe, since the game puts so much stress on the feet. With as much running and jumping players perform—on a hard-court surface, no less—the added cushioning and support is especially important.
On the completely opposite end of the spectrum, consider running shoes. The sports are totally different, and therefore so are the shoes!
Unlike basketball players, runners don’t need to jump or shift directions constantly. And while basketball players need to be explosive and frequently alternative between full speed, walking, and resting, running is all about maintaining a constant, sustainable pace.
As a result, running shoes are much lighter and more flexible than basketball shoes. They don’t need quite as much cushioning as a basketball shoe, and the lower weight is more important than protective bulk in an endurance sport. The tops are cut much lower, since there’s no side-to-side motion to defend against.
Playing basketball in a running shoe would put your ankles constantly at risk, and your feet would probably be totally sore before the end of the first half. On the flip-side, a pair of basketball shoes would be a terrible choice for a 10-mile jog—they’d slow you down, wear you out, and probably wouldn’t give you the range of motion you needed to maintain good form.
This same logic applies to sports that require more specialized footgear—for example, cleats. The shape, style, and even tread pattern on a pair of football cleats is going to look a lot different from cleats for soccer, baseball, rugby, or lacrosse. Wearing the wrong pair of cleats for your sport is at best risky, and quite possibly against the rules of your league (since they can pose a danger not only to the wearer, but other players as well).
Now, we’re not saying you need to go out and buy your kids basketball shoes if their gym class is doing a 2-week unit on basketball. But if you’re joining a league (even a rec league) or playing a sport casually once a week or more (running, pickup basketball, tennis with friends, etc.) we strongly encourage you to pick up a pair of sport-specific shoes.
Do Your Shoes Actually Fit Properly?
Of course, a good pair of sport-specific shoes isn’t going to do you much good if they don’t fit. And when it comes to athletic shoes, “fit” can mean a couple of different things.
Most obviously, your shoes need to actually fit your feet properly—comfortable to wear, firm-but-not-tight in the heel (so they don’t slide but also don’t pinch), half an inch or so of wiggle room for the toes, etc. But also for some activities—notably running—your shoes should also consider the way you run.
To be more specific: your pronation matters.
What is pronation?
Basically, when running, most people strike the ground first with the outside edge of the heel. As you move through the stride, your foot rolls inward so that, by the end, you’re pushing off along the inside edge, near the big toe.
But not everybody pronates the same amount, and often the variation is related to arch height. More flat-footed individuals tend to roll too much (overpronate), while high-arched individuals generally roll too little (underpronate). Just a few degrees one way or the other can make a huge difference when it comes to finding the best pair of shoes to reduce your injury risk!
People who underpronate or have a more neutral stride might only need to concern themselves with finding a shoe with good cushioning that doesn’t “get in the way” of their stride. On the other hand, overpronators are going to need more direct arch support—or even full-blown motion control shoes—to stop the arch from collapsing and the ankle from rolling too severely.
Here are some suggestions on finding the right fit:
- Before dropping a bunch of money on a pair of running shoes, have someone analyze your gait. We can do this for you; some specialty running stores may also be able to point you in the right direction.
- Go shoe shopping later in the afternoon or evening. The reason you should do this is that feet tend to swell over the course of the day. So, if you shop late in the day, you’ll ensure that your shoes will still fit after swelling a bit after the course of play.
- Wear appropriate athletic socks of the same material and thickness as the ones you’d be wearing when you play. Again, this is to ensure you get a proper and comfortable fit.
- Your shoe should feel comfortable as it comes. You should never have to “break in” a shoe for it to feel right.
Do You Need Additional Equipment for Your Feet?
For most athletes, a great pair of shoes—right sport, good fit, in good shape—is going to be more the sufficient equipment. But some might benefit from a little more assistance, particularly if they have a history of injuries, or they have some additional structural defects with their feet.
For example, kids and athletes who have suffered at least one previous ankle sprain can often benefit substantially from wearing a semi-rigid ankle brace specifically designed for sports. These braces often lace up and are thin and flexible enough to limit motion restriction, while still offering enough support to significantly reduce sprain risk.
Another example? Custom orthotics. These devices are worn inside the shoes as insoles, and increase the level of cushioning and support for the soles. More than that, though, an athletic orthotic can even alter gait patterns so that you’re more balanced and biomechanically efficient. This doesn’t just reduce the risk of injury, but also makes you better at your sport—faster, more durable, able to generate greater power and explosiveness, etc.
Comprehensive Athletic Foot Care
Not sure what to do with all this new information? Don’t worry.
The Kansas Foot Center is happy to help you find the best shoes and gear for your sport. Stopping in for a checkup before the season can help you determine if you need orthotics and braces, figure out what shoes to buy, and even begin conditioning stretches and exercises to prepare your feet for more vigorous play.
And if you do get hurt, we’re there for you too, with advanced treatment options for athletic foot and ankle injuries (including MLS laser therapy, a system used by the pros to get them back in action quickly).
To book an appointment with us at our Wichita office, give us a call today at (866) 222-5177.