Louis Garneau Thermo Insoles
Personally, we're a big proponent of after-market insoles. We believe that most people will experience greater foot comfort if they replace their stock cycling shoe insole, typically a microscopically-thin piece of plastic with some fabric on top, with something that offers greater support. Might as well put our bias up front before delving into the specifics of the Louis Garneau Thermo Hot insoles.
Our feet have made demands that, to date, only custom insoles have met. Before we started experimenting with customs many years ago, our feet would get painful hot spots on long rides, we'd have to choose between shoes feeling too loose or feeling too tight, and no matter what we did, a few of our left toes would go numb, starting with the big toe and working down the row, somewhere around the 60-mile point on any long ride or race.
Our feet have high arches, so pressing hard on the down stroke seemed to flex the foot when it was on top of a stock two-dimensional insole. This action apparently loaded the ball of the foot with more pressure. It also meant that our feet moved around in the shoe as the flexing made the shoe feel loose. As a result of this movement, we would tighten and tighten the straps on our shoes until our feet were just about screaming when we weren't pedaling. We also experienced similar issues when wearing alpine ski boots and stiff plastic-uppered inline skates.
Custom insoles solved our problems. It also explained why we couldn't wear Chuck Taylor's comfortably and our predilection for Birkenstocks. Our custom insoles look like an inverse image of our feet, a three-dimensional map of the contours of our dogs, with a big block under the arch. Having an insole that rises to meet the arches in our feet and is almost cut away under certain sections of the balls of our feet has resulted in shoes fitting without being tight or loose, our toes rarely go numb, and we only get hot spots on particularly hot long, hard days. Ultimately, the insoles meet our feet to create a stable platform onto which we can push hard with the load evenly distributed over the length of our feet. Our knees track better during the pedal stroke; almost no noticeable inward cant during the down stroke. Having these curvy soles making contact with the entire length of our feet felt a little weird at first, but nowadays we can't imagine life without them.
We're so convinced that the insoles make a difference that not only do we have custom insoles in all our cycling shoes, but we've been experimenting with aftermarket insoles in all of our other shoes as well. Every boot, shoe, and sneaker that has a removable insole has had the stock version removed and an aftermarket version inserted in its place.
Most have some sort of cloth top layer on top of a stiff-but-compressible foam second layer, sometimes called "memory foam." That second layer compresses not over one ride, but many, and after several days of daily use, you can see divots appearing under where the ball of your foot rests as well as under the tips of your toes and your heels. Most also have a moderate three-dimensional arch. Many have some kind of stiffer material or bubble under the arch and mid-foot. This is a metatarsal pad and it's supposed to relieve mid-foot pressure. Just about all have some kind of rounded heel cup, too.
It might seem backwards to put a stiff insole in a stiff shoe. Many folks like the idea of having a little cush between their feet and their shoes. To us, it's akin to riding a spongy saddle. If you're not riding, or riding very easily, a cushy saddle can be comfortable to sit on for a short while. If you're riding hard, a firm saddle is both more comfortable and more efficient. We've also found this true for standing-around footwear. If you have to stand eight hours on a spongy shoe, your muscles get tired from constantly micro-adjusting. If you stand eight hours on a firm shoe that has good arch support, you'll feel less fatigue at the end of the day.
Some cycling shoe companies have been selling slightly more sophisticated insoles with their shoes the past few years. In this realm, we put Bontrager, Louis Garneau, Mavic, Specialized, and a few others. While we think manufacturers should sell more than a just fabric-covered sheet of plastic as their insole, we understand the rationale behind it. A minimal no-arch insole makes it easier for a shoe to fit more feet than an insole with an arch, especially when people are trying on the shoe. And the added cost of selling shoes with insoles might not translate into increased sales if people aren't riding enough to notice a problem or if those liable to have a need are likely to toss the insoles for something aftermarket anyway.
We think Garneau is the first cycling shoe company to design a home-moldable after-market insole. Their Thermo insole comes in two flavors, Thermo Hot and Thermo Cool. Both are largely the same. There is a cloth Ergofeel top layer that is bonded to a stiff EVA foam platform. The arch and heel cup is made of moldable "red glass," some kind of woven plastic that gets soft when heated and hardens as it cools. And there is a moldable mid-foot EVA bubble for metatarsal support. The difference between the Cool and Hot is that Thermo Cool is ventilated through the front of the platform, the Thermo Hot is not. We went with the Thermo Hot because we're not used to any venting through our insole and our shoes only have a tiny vent before the cleat anyways.
Each insole is designed to fit a fairly wide range of sizes. They accomplish this by having molded lines on the bottom of the insole that you can use as a guide for cutting down the insoles. You can also pull out the stock insole in your cycling shoe and trace it against the bottom of the Garneau insole and cut where necessary.
Start by heating your oven to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Our oven doesn't allow for a setting so low, so we turned it on the lowest setting and waited for the "preheated" alarm to go off. Then we put the insoles on a cookie sheet and arranged them so the thermometer sticker was near the oven window. We checked the insoles every four minutes to see how the heating was progressing. After 20 minutes the middle circle on the thermometer sticker was darkening and the insoles looked pretty soft and flat, so we took them out, shoved them in our shoes, put our socked feet in the shoes and tightened the shoes. We stood on them for ten minutes and then sat down for another five. At this point they seemed cool enough that they probably were molded. What is cool enough? When the insoles felt as if they were only a bit warmer than our feet.
Right away, there was one benefit to this insole to our customs. Our heel was lower in the shoe, which meant our heel felt better locked into the heel cup. The divots for our toes, balls, and heels were already appearing before we even started riding in the insoles. If nothing else, we figure these divots mean more of our feet are contacting the insole than with the thin plastic sheet-type insoles. As such, already we're at an advantage to them as the pressure we load onto our feet during the pedal stroke will be spread over a greater area.
We could also tell that the arch wasn't as high as we're used to. For most people, the arch provided by the Garneau insoles is probably more than enough. The insole, when soft and shoved in a shoe and then has a foot placed on top, first fills up space at the bottom of the shoe. Then, the foot pressure forms the insole somewhat by flattening certain areas with pressure from foot bones and maybe even letting the material come up on the sides a bit.
Upon our first ride, our concern was that the arch wasn't high enough for our feet and that while riding with these insoles would further flatten high-pressure areas, they wouldn't go down enough for our foot to get low to meet the insoles' arch. It didn't. On easy rides, the insoles were reasonably comfortable, but on hard rides, there wasn't enough support for our feet.
That written, we actually like the Louis Garneau Thermo Hot insoles. Compared to the stock insole in most cycling shoes, these are a huge improvement. In terms of an inexpensive after-market insole, these certainly offer a fit that nicely fills up space between both the insole and the shoe and the insole and the foot. People with high arches probably won't be satisfied, but even for these people, this is a step in the right direction.