Are fancy foot beds all that they’re cracked up to be?
09 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
Last winter I did the unthinkable: I got into skiing. For years I’d rebelled against what I believed to be an insidious and corrupt pass time, populated by badly dressed and overweight city bankers, obnoxious southerners in stupid hats, and annoyingly over competent Europeans who thought they were better than me just because they could slide down a hill on a pair of parabolic planks. Unfortunately as each season went by friend after friend was plucked off their snow shoes and lured away by this poisonous pass time, with vain promises of quicker approaches and descents. “You have to learn if you want to get to the routes” they’d be told by evil skiers, bedazzling them with tales of two day approaches reduced to ten minutes of dizzy fun. Like all great pushers once they’d hired their skis, paid their lift pass, and learnt how to do a snow plough, they were hooked and you’d never see them again…well not as they were. When next you’d see them they’d have their goggles stuck on the back of their heads, panda tans, and somehow have learnt how to walk with some sense of control and dignity in a pair of boots so big and ostentatious even Judge Dredd would think twice about wearing them. The problem was - like crack cocaine - it was all or nothing – and so instead of making ski approaches to the proper big multi days routes, they’d be going for day climbs in the Argentiere basin – fighting over pathetic dribbles of ice with other impotent and sterile ex Alpinists. Big routes were out of the question (“how will I climb the Walker spur with my skis?”) and very soon climbing became mountaineering (70% walking/30% climbing), and then ski mountaineering (99% skiing with the odd bit walking!). One by one my friends had changed, making me feel like that bloke out of Invasion of the body snatchers, trying to stay awake (maybe they left a pair of skis at the end of the bed in order to make the transformation?), and it seemed that there was only myself and Ian Parnell left untransformed. Then it happened. I was at a low ebb, the weather was bad, and everyone was skiing. “Just have a little go” I thought. “Good training for future approaches” I told myself. From the moment I made my first turn that was it - I was hooked – a junky like all the rest. Sorry Ian.
So what was that long preamble all about? Well sometimes when you get into a new sport you end up learning things about the sport you’ve just left behind (don’t worry I’m going hot turkey), and in skiing everything seems to revolve around boots. It seems that skiers are fanatical about their boots, not only their design and construction, but also how they fit and how this fit can be perfected, with seemingly any problem being solvable by some clever modification of the inner or shell: “on 80 degree slopes my pants keep filling up” – get some volume reducers; “I keep falling off the button lift” – get yourself some custom fitted inners; “my neck makes a snapping noise when I crash into trees” – get some Superfeet. All this made me realise how little attention we give our climbing boots, simply putting maybe an hour into fitting on a quiet afternoon and that’s it, were as the average ski boot fitting takes about half a day and has all the drama of a formula one engine change.
Like skiing, climbing and mountaineering requires a bio-mechanically stable foot, as this allows the climber the maximum level of control, and it is this control that underpins all climbing, just as the skier must know what their edge is doing, so must the climber know that their foot will hold its edge or smear. In rock boots this is easy to determine as the thin shoe is almost a second skin, and any movement of the foot is reproduced in the boot: but in big clunky boots this fine movement will never have the same effect unless the interface – fit, lacing, foot bed - between foot and boot is highly tuned. Another factor is that this stability reduces injury: ranging from simple blisters, to muscle and tendon damage, right through to broken bones caused by a lack of boot control. Another group who also place a great deal of importance in their footwear are runners, who understand the importance of stability in relation to injury prevention. It’s been pointed out by some that for the runner the reduction of injury is of far more important than in skiing, as the skiing injury is caused by a single event – such as hitting a chair lift pylon- were as the runner’s injury is one of overuse. So a climber needs both the control and the injury prevention, making them perhaps the best group to take this type of approach most seriously…even if they don’t.
It’s said by the boot fitting pros that skimping on a good quality footbed in your boots is like building a house and not bothering with the foundations. Fitted foot beds in most boots range from good to very poor indeed, with the best providing a good level of support and longevity, and the worst being little better than a slip of foam that will degrade and fall apart very quickly. Whatever the quality of the foot bed it’s never going to as good as a second party design, as the manufacturer will not be able to provide the same level of quality and sophistication due to the fact that they are always trying to keep the cost of the boot as a whole down. You can just image how hard it would be to persuade Joe Punter that X brand boots, which cost £30 more than Y, are better because you’re paying £30 for a fancy insole. At the moment the manufacturers produce boots that are great off the shelf for most people, and leave it up to you to decide if you want to bolt on and fine tune the boot further and make that further investment.
A footbed helps to stabilize the foot – simple as that. This means stopping your foot from rolling and sliding within the boot, one of the causes of toe strike and heal instability. What people tend to do when they feel this happening in their boots is to clamp down on the laces, hoping to lock the foot in. This tends to result in reduced circulation to the feet - making them cold and num, puts too much pressure on delicate tendons and muscles – which can lead to injury, and basically make the boot feel pretty uncomfortable. Often this is done when want control over comfort, say when climbing, maybe putting up with some foot movement when walking in and out from a climb. In most cases movement still occurs even when the boot is locked down, as the bones can still move beneath the skin (grab your foot and try it), meaning that you’re just making more problems for yourself. One of the causes of this – apart from a boot which is wildly too big, is that most insoles are of a diving board design, meaning they are relatively flat, allowing the foot to slide up and down it. Most second party designs are more finely shaped – especially those that are custom fitted to your feet, supporting the structure of the foot much better. Another factor is that supporting the feet more affectively means that they tend not to splay out so much (more common as you grow older and your foot structure relaxes), meaning peoples feet appear to shorten and grow narrower when using better insoles. This not only reduces movement, and all the problems associated with it, but it also helps to reduce foot fatigue, since the muscles and tendons have less work to do to maintain balance. Once the foot is stable and excess movement taken out, any movement of the foot will be reproduced more closely in the boot – important when climbing. One traditional market for footbeds has been for those who have a problem with pronating feet (70% of us pronote), which means your feet role outwards, usually signalled by soles that are unequally worn. This can be reduced by the use of better supportive insoles – bridging the gap between fitted insoles and expensive custom orthopaedic inserts. It’s also worth mentioning that many people claim that non foot related problems can be traced back to poor foot stability, including problem knees, backs and hips, and it’s pretty obvious that good foot posture will transfer into better body posture. And lastly a good quality insoles will also in many cases extend not only the life of your feet – but also your boots, as they will make wear more equal (perhaps being offset by the fact that the more comfortable the boot, the more you’ll wear them!).
At the moment if you’re in the market for something better to stand on you’ve got three main options.
Firstly you can buy an off the shelf specialist insole, with the most common brand on the market coming from Superfeet – who’ve done a good job at making inroads into the outdoor world from skiing. This type of high end insole is as good as you’ll get without paying a lot more money and you can rest assure that the design has been pored over by many very clever people whose sole (sorry) job is making insoles that work. These will help to correct foot problems and generally greatly improve the fit of any boot they are used with – as long as they are matched to the available volume of the boot. Buying this type of insole is simple, and is often just a case of buying the right size, trimming them down and fitting. Some insoles also come with a guarantee, meaning if you think they are a waste of time then you can get your money back.
The second option lies somewhere between off the shelf and custom fitting, and can be found in the form of the self mouldable SOLE footbeds, which are custom fitted by you at home. To do this you buy the correct sized insoles and then place them in the oven for two minutes at 200°F/90°C, then place them in your boots, put them on, and then stand for two minutes while the material moulds to your feet. Although you could image that there would be many hazards with this process, not least barbecued feet, the SOLE design works very well, leaving you with an excellent result.
The last option is to get a pair of professionally fitted custom insoles, whose shape matches that of your feet perfectly. This means buying your insoles for a specialist shop, be it an outdoor or ski retailer, which isn’t a bad thing as specialist boot fitters generally have a vast amount of experience that they can apply to your feet, and so maximise the fit of both the insole and the boots themselves. The experienced footwear technician (fancy name for a shop assistant) will have seen more feet then a foot fetishist with broadband, and will be the best person to advise you on what will be best for you – and although they won’t be certified corporatist, their advice will be free, and a good starting point (most good shops will be able to recommend a corporatist if you need one). Getting a custom insole is quick and painless, and involves taking a foot-shaped insole blank and using heat to mould it to your foot, either by pressing your foot down onto it or by pressing the blank up against your foot. Once the impression is taken the technician builds a foundation beneath it using foam or cork so that it will sit flat in the bottom of the boot. Then the completed footbed is then trimmed and fitted into the boot, replacing the stock insole. COST A good quality off the peg insole will cost you around £30, with the SOLE models costing around £35. The most expensive option is the custom insole, which will cost between £50 and £70. The price of all the insole types can be offset by the fact that they can be transferred between all your shoes, with an expected lifespan being around 5 years if not worn in your everyday shoes. If you’re a training demon then using these insoles in your running shoes will also pay dividends, further offsetting the cost – oh yes, and you can use them for skiing. Personally I recommend these soles for this use alone, as I believe they really help to reduce training injuries, which can be very costly in time to recover from. Which ones are best? Well if you weigh up cost and benefits off all the insoles, I think that for most people the SOLE design is probably the best at the moment, but I’d save any judgment until a professional has had a look at both you boots, feet, and heard your problems.
The big question is in reality do you really need to bother, after all people have been using off the peg boots for decades without much complaint? Well for the majority of people they would probably be none the wiser, and to be frank for years I thought these things were just a gimmick, sold too hypochondriacs and skiers with too much money. People told me how good they were but I just thought they would say that, after all they’d look pretty daft after spending all the money on a bit of foam and plastic. The change came when I was looking at improving the fit of a pair of Scarpa Alphas I had. They were oversized for climbing in cold conditions, meaning the fit wasn’t ideal, so I got a pair of custom fitted Cum’fortable footbeds. Once fitted I noticed a general improvement in fit, as they now supported my whole foot, and held it in check better within the boot. I liked them so much I began swapping them between all my boots, finding that non custom insoles now felt clunky and unsupportive. The first time I realised how good they really were, was when I started using them when I went running, sticking them in a pair of New Balance shoes. After about an hour one leg began to feel fatigued – with the calf and foot feeling tired, while the other felt strong, the sense of strength loss increasing as I went on, until eventually I stopped and walked home. On getting home I took off the shoes to take out the insoles and found to my surprise that I’d only put in one insole – which had been on the strong foot. I realised then that it would be impossible to evaluate this type of footbed, as the performance benefit – walking further, climbing with more control etc – would go unnoticed (like all great design), that was unless you only wore one!