The shoes you choose for working out can make a big difference! Not because of fashion or the way they look (though that’s fun too) – but because of functionality. The wrong shoes could impact your performance or leave you injured – but the right shoes could actually help you out.
There are a million different types of sneakers out there and a million different types of workouts, so it can be hard to know which ones to buy. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of different types of shoes, examples of each, and some guidelines for picking the right kicks.
1. BARE FEET, SOFT SOLE, MINIMAL SUPPORT, NO TRACTION
Chelsey Luger rocks her mocs. Photo courtesy Eller Bonifacio (ellerbonifacio.com).
My example: My beautiful plains-style moccasins handmade by my beautiful and talented mom.
Other examples:Nike Studio Wraps; Ballet slippers; Other styles of moccasins; or basically anything else with very minimal or no coverage.
Best for: Dancing (of course) but also pretty much any type of studio workout like yoga; pilates; barre; light weight training that doesn’t require a grip or traction to the floor; and walking or hiking around rural environments like the plains where you can avoid stepping on cacti or sharp rocks. Shoes like these are great because they are flexible and comfortable. They’re pretty much the most natural-feeling footwear available and they keep you close to the earth.
Not good for: Walking around a city. You can actually contract disgusting infectious diseases by exposing your feet to the bacteria that is abundant in urban environments. Our ancestors wore these shoes or often went barefoot because they didn’t have to worry about the same type of germs that exist today. So, keep that in mind. These shoes are also not good for super rugged terrain - unless of course you have super rugged feet and you’ve conditioned them to be comfortable on extremely rough surfaces. In that case, be my guest!
2. LOW SOLE, MINIMAL SUPPORT, SLIGHT/MEDIUM or HEAVY TRACTION
The Nike Free Bionic 1.0 is the ultimate cross-trainer. Photo courtesy Eller Bonifacio (ellerbonifcacio.com).
My example: Nike Free 1.0 Cross Bionic (my absolute favorite training sneaker of all time!)
Other examples: New Balance Minimus; Converse All Stars; Vibrams; or any other “minimal” shoe.
Best For: Functional fitness and weight training. Any fitness coach will tell you that it’s important for your feet to stay flat on the ground while lifting. DO NOT wear thick-soled running shoes for lifting weights! They will totally screw up your alignment and leave you with potential back problems and awkward form. These thinner-soled shoes are also good for other things. The combination of flexibility, traction and natural movement with this type of shoe is the reason why, for me, it is my go-to, all-purpose sneaker for any type of functional fitness. If I had to choose just one pair of sneakers for the rest of my life, it would be these.
Not good for: Hiking, basketball, or other things that require ankle support.
3. LOW/MEDIUM SOLE, MEDIUM SUPPORT, MEDIUM TRACTION
The Nike Free Trainer is a versatile sneaker that comes in tons of amazing designs. Photo courtesy Eller Bonifacio (ellerbonifacio.com).
My example: Nike Free 5.0
Other examples: Reebok CrossFit shoes; Nike Free 3.0 or 4.0; Adidas Speed Trainer
Best For: Cross training, running, functional fitness, weight training - pretty much everything listed in the previous section. There are a great transitional shoe: if you are used to wearing thick padding in your sneakers all the time but are trying to build muscle in your feet so that you’ll be comfortable in minimal shoes (which are ultimately better for you), try a pair like these in between.
Not good for:Even the light to medium level of support on these shoes can be too much when it comes to weight training or functional fitness. Too much padding can get in the way of the foot’s natural ability to move around. Just be mindful of that.
4. MEDIUM /THICK SOLE, LOTS OF CUSHION/SUPPORT, MEDIUM/HEAVY TRACTION
The Nike Air Max are a classic - stylish, comfortable, and cool. But they're a little too heavy for intense training or distance running! Photo courtesy Eller Bonifacio (ellerbonifacio.com).
My example: Nike Air Max
Other examples: Basically all running and cross training sneakers with a thick sole and lots of padding, such as Brooks, Aasics, New Balance, Nike LunarGlides; and any other brand of running shoes designed with lots of support.
Best For: In my opinion, these shoes should pretty much only be worn casually or for walking around. They’re great for that, and can be super comfy!
Not good for: Running or cross training – even though that’s how they’re marketed! Dont’ believe the hype. Humans were not designed to walk around with a ton of padding on our feet, and we only started doing so in about the 1970s when the sneaker industry was revolutionized. Studies have shown, however, that rate of injuries among athletes who wear padded shoes has not decreased since pre-technology footwear. In fact, the prevalence of overly-cushioned shoes has increased rates of injury. When we wear clunky padding on our feet, our feet are not given the opportunity to develop muscle. Thus, they become weak. These types of shoes also contribute to high rates of poor running form. Humans were designed to run on our toes - not our heels. Proper running form is toe-heel, but because these shoes are so padded, they weigh down our feet and train us to run heel-toe. Not good! I would recommend transitioning out of these sneakers if you are currently using them. A little less cushion will be uncomfortable at first but will lead to a stronger foot and ankle with continued use.
A FEW MORE NOTES:
PRICE: Sneakers are expensive! Don’t feel like you need to own 20 pairs! The only time I would say that you really *need* to buy a new shoe is if yours are totally worn down. Also, even though I’m acknowledging that different shoes are good for different things, it is possible to find a really well-rounded shoe that suits most of your needs.
FOOT CONDITIONING & MUSCLE DEVELOPMENT: As I mentioned above, be aware of your own foot strength or weakness. If you have been wearing nothing but padded running shoes for years, don’t go cold-turkey and start doing marathons in moccasins. Transition slowly out of your clunky shoes as not to injure yourself. Just like anything else, it takes a little bit of time to build those muscles. But once they’re there, it’s so worth it!
SPORTS-SPECIFIC: There are a lot of different types of shoes that I didn’t mention here because they are specific to certain sports. For example: basketball, boxing, soccer, track, football … they all have their own type of shoe specifically designed for that sport. If your sport has its own type of shoe, use that where applicable.
EVERYBODY’S DIFFERENT: We all have different feet, different bodies, different medical needs. Test out different types and figure out what’s best for you. Be sure to really listen to your body and be patient when it comes to finding proper footwear. Also, keep this in mind: a lot of doctors are quick to recommend heavily padded footwear to correct pronation or for joint comfort. Remember that this is an outdated mentality and you shouldn’t necessarily listen to the first opinion. Consider everything I mentioned about muscular development and natural movement. If you haven’t yet, read the book “Born To Run” by Christopher McDougall. One day the magical perfect pair will come to you and you will live happily ever after as I am with my Nike Free Bionics!
Chelsey Luger. Photo courtesy Eller Bonifacio.
Chelsey Luger is Anishinaabe and Lakota from North Dakota. She hopes to be a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for health and wellness. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Ideas for articles? Email her: firstname.lastname@example.org.