This holiday season, running/training shoes are undoubtedly going to be a big purchase for many of us. But which ones should we get? Does it matter? Let's find out!
When it comes to shoes for training, there is (literally and figuratively) no “one size fits all” pair of shoes. The most common types of shoes people use for workouts are running shoes, cross trainers, and weightlifting shoes. Shoes act as support and this structured support can sometimes get in the way of proper movement if not used for the intended activity. Just as you would not go on a run in your weightlifting shoes, you probably shouldn’t do heavy squats in your running shoes. But how much does it actually matter?
So which type of shoe is best? Which shoes should be worn when? Picking a shoe is highly individualized and comes down to personal preference and each individual’s biomechanics. Everyone is built differently, so our shoe selection should reflect that. Below is a roadmap, highlighting the benefits and drawbacks of each type of shoe, to use as a guide when choosing a pair.
Running shoes have a cushy sole to allow for increased force absorption. This is great for repetitive movements like running. But when you are weightlifting, you want to use that force, not lose it. Running shoes make you lose that force, instead of allowing you to transfer that force into lifting the weight. All the cushion essentially absorbs the force needed to drive out of the bottom of a heavy squat. One study that analyzed squatting on a foam pad (the pad being comparable to the mechanics of a running shoe) found a 7-10% decrease in force output, as well as a decline in form and technique.
A cushy insole also blunts foot proprioception. Proprioception refers to the awareness of the position and movement of the body. Try doing a lunge in your running shoes and then take your shoes off and try doing a lunge barefoot. Odds are that doing them barefoot was much easier. This could be due to ankle instability, attributable to the shoes or mere muscle weakness, but it could also be due to the inability of your toes and feet to perceive where they are in space because of the support of the running shoe.
While weightlifting shoes (discussed next) also blunt proprioception with their high heel elevation, they are able to provide many advantages for technique, stability, and force output.
Weightlifting shoes are unique in that they have an elevated heel. What is the goal of an elevated heel? “The primary goal of an elevated heel is to achieve ample squat depth with an upright torso” (Boly 2017).
Weightlifting shoes can be beneficial for people with the following limitations:
Struggling to reach appropriate squat depth
Struggling to maintain an upright torso through the squat
Limited ankle mobility (Rocking forward on the toes in a squat)
Knees caving inward during a squat
Weightlifting shoes allow for a deeper squat through enabling greater ankle dorsiflexion, a limiting factor for many people who struggle with ankle mobility. Greater ankle dorsiflexion leads to greater knee flexion, and greater relative knee flexion and allows for a deeper squat with a more upright torso.
Thus, weightlifting shoes can be a good tool for those with ankle mobility issues that cause them to rock forward on their toes in a squat. Weightlifting shoes are also great for those whose knees tend to cave in during a squat, as the shoe forces greater external rotation through the knees. With increased ankle mobility and greater knee flexion, the torso is able to stay more upright through the entire squat.
In addition to an elevated heel, weightlifting shoes also feature a wider toe box which can help with “toe splay.” While this may feel foregin at first, it could be advantageous in letting you “spread your toes.” This would allow your feet to cover more surface area, thus increasing stability, proprioception, and force transfer from your feet up through the rest of the body.
Weightlifting shoes should really only be used for weightlifting. They’re great for squats and olympic lifts like snatches, cleans, and jerks. Weightlifting shoes should not be used for deadlifts because the elevated heel increases the movement required for the lift, essentially requiring you to perform a deficit deadlift.
There are a variety of weightlifting shoes on the market, all with unique features and varying heel heights. The standard heel height is .75” Some popular weightlifting shoes are the Reebok Legacy Lifter, Adidas Adipower or Adidas Powerlift, and Nike Romaleos.
Cross trainers are the “middle ground” between running shoes and weightlifting shoes and are the most versatile in terms of what activities they can be used for. The flat sole allows for stability and adequate force production in movements such as lifting, jumping, short sprints, or changing direction.
The benefits of a flat sole allows for the feeling of a firmer, “less” shoe. This “less shoe” feel also makes for a more lightweight shoe, which is advantageous for most workouts. Cross-trainers don’t feel like cinder blocks on your feet, as some bulky running shoes or weightlifters might.
Like the weightlifting shoe, cross trainers allow for greater force transfer during lifts and jumps because of the minimal cushioning. Also like the weightlifting shoe, some cross trainers feature a wide toe box. These features allow cross trainers to be used for weightlifting, and thus eliminate the need to switch shoes mid workout.
When choosing a pair of workout shoes, there are lots of factors to consider such as: individual body mechanics, mobility limitations, and the type of workout you do most often
Experiment with different shoes. Just because your best friend works out in a certain pair trainers doesn’t mean that will be the best fit for you.
The most important point is that your shoes should not be used as a crutch or a bandaid to mask an underlying issue. If your ankle mobility isn’t great, you still need to improve upon that, not just use the shoes as a quick fix and way to avoid the nitty gritty work.
In the gym, we want to use shoes and other gear to our advantage but not rely 100% on them. Shoes are a great tool, but for longevity we need to address the root of the problem, be that mobility, a movement imbalance, or a strength deficit.
If you feel you may be relying too heavily on your shoes or just want to improve in a certain aspect of performance email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about shoes and how you should be training this holiday season.