Prevent Foot, Knee, and Heel Pain from Soccer Cleats 

The standard fit of soccer cleats doesn’t make any orthopedic sense (see this article on podiatrists whose patients play soccer) and yet, it’s the norm. If you play soccer in cleats, you probably know they can be pretty uncomfortable. However, when I was a new soccer mom, the first time I went shopping for cleats for my kids, I was stunned by the stiffness and narrow shape of the shoe. The uppers were stiff, synthetic leather and the sole plate was hard plastic with a thin, flat insole. I sucked it up and after twisting many a pair, I settled on some Nike cleats that I generally find are the least stiff of all the brands. Fast forward through 5 years of soccer playing, and my kids started complaining of knee and heel pain, enough to knock them out of sports for weeks at a time. 

I wish I had paid more attention to the cleat fit issue from the beginning because now I realize what I should have done from the start to help the cleats fit better. It should be standard soccer education along with “what is a shin guard?” Here is a list of the things I learned to do to help the cleat fit as much as possible:

Replace Insoles with OTC Orthotic Inserts

Far and away, the best thing you can do to make your cleats fit more comfortably is to replace the soccer cleat insoles with orthotics. Out of the box insoles on cleats are minimal drop with minimal padding. If you follow some principles behind minimalist footwear, it would seem like this is a good thing. However, the stiffness of the shoe and rigidity of the soleplate probably negates this. 

Instead, the insole should provide some of the shock absorption and protection that you will need from both the impacts and the rigidity of the cleat. There are a couple of OTC orthotic inserts that are often mentioned as fitting well in cleats: Currex CleatPros and Superfeet Carbon. We tried a couple of different Superfeet and found the Everyday Superfeet Insole (Green) to have the deepest heel cup and the most cushion for shock absorption. 

  • Tip #1: Orthotics and insoles are FSA/HSA eligible. (They can feel expensive, but then again, the visits to the orthopedists or podiatrists cost even more. We’re skipping those type of doctor visits in the future. Plus, they will just tell you to buy orthotics, too!)
  • Tip #2: When selecting orthotics, pay attention to:
    • the level of arch support, 
    • depth of heel cup, and 
    • the thickness of the insole to determine if it’s the right orthotic for you.
  • Tip #3: it’s easier to try orthotics in your cleats if it comes with a removable insole. However, it’s also possible to scrape out any glued on, out of the box insoles and slide in your orthotic inserts. See pic below.
soccer cleat insoles removed for orthotics
Glued on insoles removed from Firm Ground Nike Cleats

Stretch and Soften the Uppers

Stuff a compression or regular tennis ball or shoe-tree as far into the shoe as it can go. We were able to get into the lower toe area and leave it in for awhile. This can help resolve the squished pinky toe feeling to some degree and give a little more room in the toe box. This is player preference, but there’s a balance to be had between ball feel and painful toes.

Add Heel Lift or Heel Cup

Sometimes the orthotic insert isn’t enough shock absorption particularly on the heel. You can add a gel heel lift which increases the drop on the cleat, which is usually zero drop (i.e. completely flat). Sever’s and plantar fasciitis are common heel injuries that occur with cleat-wearing athletes. In both diagnoses, contributing factors include tight calf muscles, irritated heel pad, or muscles that just haven’t caught up in growth with the bones. A heel lift reduces the stretch on the calf muscle and heel cups can provide more shock absorption and support for the heel strike during activity. We ended up with the heel lift which I stuck to the shoe underneath the insert. Heel cups can sometimes be hard to get used to – my kids kept feeling like the cup was going to come out of the shoe, but they are also a popular option. 

Wear Cushioned Soccer Socks

Some soccer socks don’t come with extra cushioning, but many do. Cushioned socks just add that one more layer of shock absorption and some protection against blistering in cleats. 

Twist Before First Wear

I’m sure the boot guy does it for the pros. By that I mean, break in soccer shoes for fit and comfort.  On an episode of Amazon’s All or Nothing: Manchester United, the camera shows the boot room for the team and there’s an equipment guy giving all kinds of TLC to each of the players’ cleats. Wow, until my son turns pro, it’ll have to be his poor mom. Wring the cleat multiple times and knead the uppers until the shoes feel like they give more easily. Yeah, you could also let your kid break them in on the field, but then they may have a blister or two – depends on how much of a helicopter parent you are! 

Resources

Podiatrists weigh in on the problem with soccer cleats and offer advice:

Products we’ve used:

Common pains from soccer:

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