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We Tried It: Semi-Custom Running Shoe Insoles

Orthotics aren't cheap, but runners who need insoles can now get semi-custom running footbeds for a fraction of the price. We pit the Upstep running model and the Superfeet ME3D semi-custom insoles in a head-to-head battle—winner take all.

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Runners are no strangers to injury. Between the potential for overtraining to just plain bad luck, runners often manage their aches and pains as a third discipline entirely. It’s no surprise that running injuries often happen where the rubber literally meets the road: your feet. For many athletes with issues like plantar fasciitis, foot pain, knee pain, or even hip pain, insoles are the first line of defense against injuries, but given the varying body type of runners, sometimes stock insoles don’t do the trick. Enter custom insoles.

In the past, while custom insoles were a good solution to many ailments, they were also firmly in the realm of podiatrists, and costs could start upward of $500 for the footbeds alone—not to mention office visit and appointment costs. Recently, however, a crop of better-than-stock, semi-custom insoles started popping up as a way to save money, while still addressing the fact that our bodies (and our feet) are all quite different from each other.

In this face off, we look at two recent additions to the semi-custom running insole world: Superfeet’s ME3D system and Upstep’s running model. Both are substantially more affordable than a fully custom, podiatrist-perscribed footbed, but that’s about where the similarities end.

The Facts and Similarities

Both Superfeet and Upstep are hoping to cash in on the running market by offering something that goes above and beyond the (admittedly) subpar liners that come in most running shoes. Both brands use enormously different approaches to evaluating and insoles that you can buy without a podiatrist’s intervention. Let’s look at the quick-and-dirty figures on each and see what’s actually the same.

Superfeet ME3D Insoles Upstep Runner Insoles
Material/Construction 3D-Printed Composite Glued To Foam Multidensity Foam Sandwich
Ship Time Approximately 1 week Approximately 3-4 weeks
Measurements performed At approved speciality retailer At home
Lifespan Approximately lifespan of shoes 1-3 years
Return Policy 60 days 120 days
Weight (measured) 43g 64g
Price $150 $400 (but usually on sale for around $200)

Aside from the fact that both of these insoles fit inside shoes, there aren’t actually a ton of similarities when it comes to the specs above—different materials, construction, lifespan, weights, and delivery time. Though Upstep’s full retail price is advertised as over double the price of the Superfeet insoles, it’s very rare that you’ll find people paying much more than $200, so only the price is (typically) the same.

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Superfeet ME3D

Most runners will recognize the Superfeet brand from the insoles you’ll find in most running stores. Those come in different models, based on use and foot type. Stock Superfeet insoles can also be purchased online. One of the first big differences between the Superfeet semi-custom insoles and the Upstep versions is that the ME3D insoles must be purchased at a running shoe retailer with a Superfeet scanner. As of this writing, Superfeet has 186 approved retailers on their website—many of which are the national chain Fleet Feet. In other words, if you don’t have one of these locations near you, you can stop reading now, and just scroll down to the Upstep section (and consider them your “winner”).

On the other hand, if you do have an approved retailer near you, you’ll have to go in for a very quick foot scan that involves walking back and forth over a pad that not only senses the shape of your foot, but also your gait (to some extent). It’s not as detailed as, say, running on a treadmill, but it’s typically monitored by a shoe store employee who can help make sure the computer gets the right info that’s going on in real life.

From there, the shop will send your info off to Superfeet, and in around one week from the scan, your insoles will arrive in a nice box with your name printed on it (it’s also printed on the insole itself).

The first thing you’ll notice when they arrive is that the insoles are basically a 3D-printed composite heel and arch counter glued to one of their existing stock insoles. You’ll still have to trim the footbed—just like you would a stock footbed—to the exact cut of your running shoe (by removing the shoe’s liner, tracing around, then cutting). After that, the insoles are ready to go.

Even on the first run, we found the ME3D insoles to be quite comortable in almost any type of shoe—from big-stack trainer to lightweight model—but like most insoles they were a tight squeeze in racing flats. That’s not to say they didn’t fit or they were uncomfortable, but it’s worth being realistic about the fact that a racing flat is super low-volume typically, and some don’t even have a removable liner. Otherwise, there was no break-in period to speak of, even though our insole was quite different then what came with the shoe.

These insoles felt vastly better than the off-the-shelf Superfeet insoles—which of course are a huge improvement over what comes in the shoe. Any slight heel or foot pain we had previously was eliminated in a few runs, though we didn’t have any existing shin, knee, or hip pain that required remedy.

The only downside to the ME3Ds was that we got delamination between the 3D printed composite material and the insole itself well before the suggested expiration date of the insoles, but a little rubber glue was an easy fix, and there were no outward signs of cracking or premature wear otherwise.

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Upstep Running Insoles

Upstep’s process was entirely different than Superfeet’s—the best part being that you didn’t need to live near an authorized retailer, or even leave the comfort of your own home. After filling out a fairly quick online questionnaire, a small box filled with a weird dry foam arrived a few days later. Then, after standing on the two sides of the foam inside the box—letting our feet sink down to the ground—we sealed it back up in the included packing and mailed it back to Upstep. The actual “fitting” process probably took two minutes, tops.

On the back end, however, it took nearly three weeks from imprint to receive the insoles in the mail. Not a ton of time, but substantially more than most mail-in situations right now. And not that this is Upstep’s fault, but our imprints got lost in transit on the way out, so it was nearly four weeks before we even knew something was wrong. Upstep of course took care of it and sent us a new imprint kit, but the big delays on each end, combined with the unknown void of the missing imprint kit made the process a little frustrating in a world where you expect things ASAP.

In terms of actual performance, the Upstep run insoles felt substantially more custom, as they used our entire foot’s imprint from toe to heel—rather than Superfeet only creating a 3D print of our heel and arch. That said, the Upstep insole is very very high volume, especially when compared to most running insoles. This isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker, but it can rule out certain shoes, and certainly affect the way you need to tie your shoes with them in.

Because of the big volume change, there’s a much longer break-in period with the Upsteps than the Superfeet. Also, while our Upsteps had three different layers of foam (and thus three different densities), Superfeet claims that due to the “directional flex lines” they print on their insoles, they’re able to create a sliding scale of flexibility in five different zones. This means near-infinite “densities” in the Superfeet (but only five zones), while Upstep uses three layers of density on a full-length, virtually infinite amount of zones.

Elsewhere, the actual construction of the Upstep insoles was excellent, and we had very little wear after many many miles—as opposed to the Superfeet. And the top layer of perforated, simulated leather fabric did a great job of keeping feet cool and preventing any sliding in the shoe itself (filling the shoe a lot also helped).

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The Winner

At a glance—between the weight, the price, the delivery window, and the fact that the Superfeet’s use an actual expert (in most cases) to evaluate you as a runner—it would seem that the ME3Ds would be an easy winner. And in most cases, Superfeet is the better choice. Despite the shorter shelf life (and the delamination), Superfeet seems much more especially suited for runners, due to their in-person scan, their low shoe volume, and the brand’s experience in the running world.

Upstep, on the other hand seems more tailored and rooted in everyday orthotics, while their running model seems a little more like an afterthought. Sinking your foot into foam is a little different than walking on a scanner, in motion, while someone with running shoe experience evaluates your form. That said, the Upstep process does look at the whole foot, and they will make adjustments if something’s just not working. They have excellent customer service (though Superfeet does too), but you have to plan on a pretty lengthy process from start to finish, especially if you need changes made.

So with the caveat that unless you know for a fact that you need serious orthotics for a diagnosed issue (or you don’t live near a Superfeet retailer on the list), most runners should really look at Superfeet when it comes to semi-custom orthotics. It’s tough to ignore the issues, process time, and apparent lack of running experience with Upstep, but they’re still a less expensive solution if you’re thinking about making an appointment with the podiatrist and going full custom.

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