One of the, if not the, most important pieces of workout gear are your shoes. After all, if there’s something wrong with your feet you struggle to exercise at all. Something as unthreatening and minor as a bunion, corn, or ingrown toenail can have you trying to avoid stepping on the sore part of your foot. And boom! Just like that you’ve altered your gait (and that’s not good).
If something is amiss with your feet, you can be pretty certain that the problem will slowly, but surely, rise to affect your knees, hips, spine, general posture or gait, causing a chain reaction of instability and improper alignment all the way through the body, and leading to muscle imbalances and pain in places that appear to have nothing to do with your feet. Your body is akin to a moving chain. From head to foot, it is linked by joints, bones and muscle. Your feet, being the foundation of this chain, can have an immense impact on your whole body.
Yes, your workout shoes matter. It’s your Cinderella moment. Time to go out and find your perfectly fitting shoe. And to make your task a little more fraught, know this, just because your shoe is perfect for one activity, does not make it perfect for another. That’s right, shoes are so specialized in making you more awesome at running, jumping, dancing, biking or hiking, that they’re not entirely interchangeable. What makes an incredible running shoe, makes for a very, very bad gym class shoe. While you could just go and buy a pair of basic running shoes and use them for everything you do, you’ll find that they aren’t ideal for some types of exercise and may even be dangerous for others. Also, some activities will wreck your running shoes in no time!
Wearing the right shoes for your workouts will make your workout easier, safer and way more comfortable.
There are two main considerations to make when choosing running shoes – your gait and how much shock absorption you need. Of course, you can also concern yourself with shoe weight, color and manufacturer but those are personal details rather than deciding factors.
Your gait describes how you run and that dictates how your foot hits the ground. If you run on the inside of your feet, you are said to be a pronator whereas if you run on the outside of your feet you are a supinator. If your foot fall is neither of the above then you are said to be neutral.
Running shoes are designed to counteract over pronation or over supination and make you run using a more neutral foot fall. To figure out whether you pronate or supinated, simply look at the wear patterns on an old pair of running shoes or look at your footprints next time you get out the shower. A good running shoe store will also be able to identify your foot fall characteristics.
Heavier and high mileage runners need a cushioning shoe designed to absorb impact. Every step you take shoots a shock load through your foot and up your leg which can result in injury. So minimizing these forces may help reduce your risk of suffering problems like sore shins and knee pain. The heavier you are the more impact there tends to be and the more cushioning you are likely to need.
Tip: Choose your running shoes according to your gait and weight and you should find you suffer fewer running related injuries and can run further and faster with less effort and in more comfort. But remember that running shoes begin to lose their supporting and shock absorbing abilities as they age and should be replaced about every 500 miles.
Hiking footwear needs to offer a combination of support and cushioning and also a degree to protection for when the going gets rough. If you’ll be out in the great outdoors facing a variety of weather conditions, it also helps if your shoes are waterproof as wet feet can get super uncomfortable very fast.
While you can get walking shoes, they do not offer any real ankle support or protection. So if you are going off the beaten track and into the wilds, boots are a better option. Boots offer ankle support and are more likely to keep your feet dry – especially if made of oiled leather, or if they boast Gortex or a similar waterproof but breathable lining.
Tip: Because hiking shoes and boots are tough, they have the potential to last a long time – but only if you look after them. Leather boots are especially hard-wearing but need to be treated with wax to keep the leather supple and water proof. Also, leather boots can take a while to break in. Swede and fabric boots are quicker to break in, but not as hard-wearing. To keep these types of boots in good shape, you need to treat them with regular coats of waterproofing spray.
While you can ride a bike wearing almost any kind of shoe, proper cycling shoes offer a number of advantages. Firstly, they are very stiff which helps save you energy. If you pedal in squashy running shoes, some of your downward effort is absorbed in the sole of the shoe, which means some of your energy is wasted. Also, cycling shoes are designed to be used with toe clips or clipless pedals. Using toe clips or clipless pedals means you don’t just push down on your pedals; you also push forward, pull backward and pull up. This makes for a much more efficient pedal stroke. So if you want to get the most out of your cycling, a pair of cycling shoes can help ensure the union between you and your bike is as solid as possible, and that will enhance your cycling performance.
Tip: If you intend to stop and take in the sights during your bike ride, you might want to carry alternative footwear, as cycling shoes are not ideal for walking.
Basketball, squash, badminton, tennis and volleyball are all good ways to get and stay fit but the demands of these sports means that a pair of running shoes is not really your best choice of footwear.
Court sports involve a lot of explosive lateral or side-to-side movements which means a relatively thick-soled running shoe would be unstable and that could lead to injury. Not only that, the soles of running shoes are not designed for side to side movements and too much lateral movement could cause the sole to come away from the body of the shoe.
Court sports shoes are supportive, are designed to move in all directions and have non-marking soles so you won’t make a mess of the playing surface. While there are different shoes for each court sport, they have similar properties and you could, for example, wear tennis shoes for other court-based sports.
Field sports such as soccer, football and rugby are typically played on grass or artificial turf so grip and support are of paramount performance. That means that field sports shoes usually have studs or cleats, with the exact design and configuration depending on the regulations of the sport in question and the surface on which you are playing.
Contact is not uncommon in field sport, so the studs/cleats must be free of sharp edges to minimize the risk of injury.
GROUP EXERCISE CLASS
A pair of running shoes may seem okay for group exercise classes but as running shoes are designed for forward movements and group exercise classes often involve sideways movements, they are not as ideal as they may appear.
The thick soles or running shoes can be a trip hazard when moving side to side and the sole may be damaged by lateral movement. Also, in running shoes, the placement of the shock-absorbing material is designed for landing on your heel whereas group exercises classes, especially those that are dance or martial arts based, involve a lot of forefoot impact.
If group exercise is your thing, look for shoes that offer lateral support, and combine flexibility with support and shock absorbency. Minimalist-style exercise shoes are a good option although they may not offer enough cushioning for some heavier exercisers.
Look around most gyms and you’ll see a wide variety of footwear being worn; from trainers to tennis shoes to sandals to nothing. For many recreational exercisers, footwear for strength training is not really a big concern but if you are serious about pumping iron, your shoes can help make a small but noteworthy difference to your workouts.
If you are lifting heavy weights in shoes that have good shock absorbing properties, you may find that you are less stable than you should be. This is especially the case for running shoes with very squashy soles. If you are trying to squat, deadlift, press or clean the heaviest weights you can, the one thing you don’t want is your feet to be wobbling around!
Proper weightlifting shoes have no shock absorbing qualities but instead just offer lots and lots of support. Some have straps across the mid-foot to further enhance stability and many are manufactured using a wooden heel block designed not to compress.
On the downside, weightlifting shoes are not really suitable for any other kind of workout activity so if you intend to jog on a treadmill or use a rowing machine, you may need to take two pairs of shoes to the gym with you.
Weightlifting shoes are very hard-wearing and should last you for years which is a good thing as they can be expensive. However, if you want a solid base from which to lift heavy weights, they can make a lot of difference.
CAN ONE SHOE DO IT ALL?
Cross training shoes are designed to try and be a “Jack of all trades” (but master of none) that you can use for a variety of activities. They tend to be firmer than running shoes, more shock-absorbing than weightlifting shoes and offer at least some of the lateral support normally associated with court sports shoes. Of course, trying to make a shoe that is the footwear equivalent of the Swiss Army knife means that a cross trainer is not going to work perfectly in all scenarios but merely be adequate.
An alternative to cross trainers are minimalist exercise shoes. Ironically, these completely un-engineered shoes are good for a wide range of activities including strength training, running, cycling and group exercise classes although some heavier exercisers may suffer because of the complete lack of cushioning.
If you like a little of a variety in your activities, cross training shoes or minimalist shoes may very well be suitable for your needs. However, if you want to practice any of these activities at anything other than a very basic level, you would be better served wearing shoes especially designed for the job. And remember, always match your socks with your chosen shoes because even the best-performing shoe can be super uncomfortable when paired with the wrong type of sock.