Getting maximum performance from inserts and orthotics can cost a lot of time and money, especially if one does not get them right the first time. But the potential benefits are worth it. Based on my research and experience, inserts and orthotics can:
— Improve the fit and comfort of footwear especially when putting in a lot of trail miles.
— Take up excess space in the boot or shoe, especially for skinny-footed people; keeps the foot in place to prevent sore spots and blisters.
— Provide a more stable footbed which helps prevent stumbling or falling which in turn prevents sprained ankles and knees or worse.
— Prevent the foot from elongating and widening as we move (a problem as we age) which helps to reduce foot fatigue, since the muscles and tendons have less work to do to maintain balance.
— Support the body’s natural movements, which in turn provides more efficiency and endurance.
— If competing, quality inserts or orthotics will likely provide an edge in performance for the reasons given above; world-class athletes commonly use customized orthotics.
— Provide cushioning and arch support to absorb shock; a flexible rather than a rigid arch support will absorb some shock and prevent injuries.
— Improve posture and prevents long term knee, hip and back problems; corrects body alignment problems which have the potential to reduce knee, lower back and hip pain.
— Correct a large number of painful foot problems (e.g. Plantar Fasciitis); avoid future foot problems.
— Correct or reduce the consequences of foot and leg abnormalities.
— Provide additional support and stability when used in worn out shoes (i.e., get more wear from favorite footgear).
The above claims assume quality inserts and orthotics. Actually achieving these benefits can take considerable experimentation and expense and there are no guarantees. Furthermore, given the subtle and sometimes subjective nature of these devices, it will not always be easy to know when maximum benefits are being obtained. To complicate the situation further, hiking comfort and performance in this area is many faceted. Inserts and orthotics are only one part of the equation. Others parts are walking style and technique, pack weight, chosen footwear, use of poles and physical conditioning—to name most of the elements in hiking comfort and performance. If one is making changes in more than of these elements, it will not be easy to separate out cause and effect when significant improvements are noted. Even with all of these complications, the potential benefits, taken as a group, are great for the serious hiker and backpacker.
For an in-depth examination of this topic, click on this article: Orthotics and Inserts for Wilderness Travel—An In Depth Analysis.