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The right shoes for every workout

Runners have guidance galore—this is how you pick the perfect footwear for everything else.

Shopping for running shoes has evolved into a rigorous, scientific process: At the store, specialists analyze our gaits with the help of computer technology, dissecting our foot strike and prescribing the perfect fit. As for any other athletic shoe, there's significantly more guesswork involved. If your fitness regime involves any time at the gym, taking classes, or in the indoor cycling studio, you need to take a closer look at your footwear choices. We asked Grant Goulet, Ph.D., an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology and director of the Michigan Performance Research Laboratory, for some help sole searching.

cross-training/bootcamp-like classes

If you’re self-guiding a workout routine, or taking a high-impact group fitness class, you’re probably focused on precision movement—lateral side and box jumps, pistol squats, complex lunges. So you’d think you’d want something with a lot of motion control and correcting pronation or supination (where your arches are either flat or high). Turns out, that’s not the focus these days. “What’s more at the forefront is something called ‘preferred movement path,’” Goulet explains. “There’s an innate way our body likes to move and we want a shoe that allows it to move that way.” Look for a neutral shoe that doesn’t feel constraining, though provides enough structure to prevent your ankle from rolling over. A shoe with some cushioning will minimize shock (important in situations such as coming down off a box jump), but without so much padding that you can’t feel the floor—being able to feel like you’re gripping the ground is helpful to get the most out of explosive and balance moves. 

field sports

Soccer players, flag footballers and softball enthusiasts who think your old pair of running shoes will work just fine, take note: “It is important to have the enhanced traction with a cleat when you’re playing on grass for the sake of performance and injury prevention, even if you’re a weekend warrior,” Goulet says. Make sure you get a cleat designed for the surface you’re playing on, usually turf versus natural grass. This ensures you have enough traction to prevent you from slipping, but not so much that pivoting to accept a pass will lead to a torn ACL.

indoor cycling

You already know that sneakers within a pedal cage isn't ideal, but the fit of your clip-in shoes is also essential. “You want to minimize motion within a cycling boot to optimize performance, because it will help translate all of your power into the bike instead of the interface,” Goulet says. Translation: If your foot is wobbling around, your legs are generating power that’s not going completely into the push-pull of the pedal stroke. You’ll also want some flexibility in the shoe so your foot and ankle are free to be in the optimal positions throughout the pedal rotation. For the most part, steer clear of ones with only Velcro closures, as they can be difficult to tighten enough and wear down over time. The ones with dial closures (such as these from Specialized) or a crank tightener (like these from Shimano) tend to be more expensive, but are worth the upcharge, Goulet advises. And unlike other sports shoes that need replacing at least once a year, these will last you a while.

basketball/tennis

Yes, you read that right. Basketball and tennis shoes have similar characteristics because the movements are alike. The big difference is that basketball shoes are typically high-tops. Turns out that the collar height, as it’s called, has stuck around because of tradition and doesn’t do a lot for stability. Look for a shoe that fits just snugly enough on the sides to promote ankle stability, key for all those lateral movements and pivoting. Focus less on the shoe weight—the really light ones can sometimes sacrifice proper ankle support. Again, even if you’re a weekend warrior, invest in a good pair of shoes; playing either in running shoes is asking for a rolled ankle, Goulet says.

lifting

With the recent weight room renaissance, there seems to be more and more weight lifting shoes strewn around the gym floor. Truth time: You probably don’t need them. “For 98 percent of the population who are there to get fit, it’s probably not essential,” Goulet says. The signature of lifters are their wedged heel, which is more for performance, not injury prevention. Cross-trainers should work just fine.