NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Call them sneakers, trainers, athletic shoes or runners, sizing up the embarrassment of rubber-soled riches on offer these days can be a daunting task.
Experts say the right footwear can make or break your workout, but money will not necessarily buy insole happiness, nor will following the foot traffic to the latest, trendiest model.
"Your shoes are, from safety and comfort standpoint, the most important thing about your fitness," said Kevin Burns of the American Council on Exercise. "They are the most important success tool one can invest in."
But not all shoes fit all feet, or feats, according to Burns a Minnesota-based group fitness instructor for over 20 years.
"Newer shoes get most of marketing but may not be appropriate for you," he said. "If you've got a high arch you'll tend to require more shock absorption. I have weak ankles, so when I teach my shoes are high tops."
To find a shoe that suits your activities, fitness level and buying options, Burns said, try asking your personal trainer or exercise instructor for advice.
"Personal trainers and exercise instructors have tried and tested a number of shoes over their careers," he explained. "A sales person might be more interested in up selling you."
Cross trainers, the jack-of-all-trades of fitness footwear, are good general purpose shoes for those who vary their workouts, Burns said. But if you regularly engage in a specific activity, such as running, tennis, aerobics or basketball, choose a shoe designed specifically for that sport.
Athletic shoes have come a long way since the late 18th century, when early rubber soled shoes, called plimsolls, were so crude they had no right or left foot.
Nevertheless, Robert Yang, a sports performance coach based in Encinitas, California, believes most people still wear shoes that force their toes together, and many wear shoes too big for them.
He said shoes should conform to the exact size of your foot.
"Look on the outside (of your shoes). If there's uneven wear and tear, you have a misalignment issue."
Yang generally favors a flat, light shoe to highly constructed and cushioned ones with elevated heels.
He said separating the toes, a feature of some barefoot running shoes, increases the platform for stability.
"But you have to be careful. You can't just go out and run with a barefoot shoe."
Burns said while many runners have found success with barefoot running shoes, if someone spends time on the treadmill, a cross trainer might be a better bet.
Before you buy anything, he said, manipulate the shoe. Grab it at the heel and toe, bend it back and forth.
"It should bend near the ball of the foot because that's the natural hinge point," he said, adding the shoe should then be twisted.
"The less twist the more lateral support it will provide," he explained.
To test shock absorption, place one thumb inside the heel, the other outside, and push.
"Impact-based exercises need more cushioning," Burns explained. Non-impact exercises require less.
No shoe should rub or pinch anywhere, he said.
"The tops and toes are common areas for blisters."
Burns said some people go to the shoe store, try one shoe, test and buy.
"Try on both shoes and walk around to make sure they're comfortable," he said, "and don't just assume you're a size nine."