Are You Wearing the Wrong Shoes for Your Workout? Here's How to Tell

Put your best foot forward.

How to Choose the Best Workout Shoes - athletic shoes
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Wearing the wrong shoes while working out may not just mean a less effective workout—it could also mean a bad injury. Wearing shoes with thin tread on your next hike increases your risk of a twisted ankle; wearing cross-training shoes on a multi-mile jog could lead to aching feet, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and more. You likely take special care to select comfortable work shoes—don't your workout shoes deserve the same attention?

Experts agree that choosing the right athletic shoes is as important as the workout itself. The position of your feet while exercising influences the alignment of other parts, muscles and joints, of your body; some good foot stretches can help strengthen your foot muscles and ease short-term aches and pains, but they can't undo real damage from improper footwear.

"Sometimes I see people try to use running shoes in the gym when lifting, and sometimes I see people using cross-training shoes for distance runs," says Jesse Dietrick, CSCS, FRCms, and director of trainer development at Fitness Quest 10. "I think this is a mistake because it is very common to injure your feet when using a shoe that is designed for a different task."

Make your shoes work for your exercise, not against it. Different workouts require different types of motions from your body, and the best workout shoes are specifically designed to provide just the right support at just the right angle. If you're unsure, get help from a shoe specialist at the store. When your feet and ankles feel stable, secure, and strong, you'll log better (and safer) workouts overall. And won't your morning workout feel so much better with solid support helping you get through it? Before even picking up a shoe to try on, put these athletic shoe-shopping principles to work.

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Shop smart

How to Choose the Best Workout Shoes - shopping tips
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"Match the size, width, and shape of the shoes to the shape of the feet," says Jason Karp, PhD, a coach and chief running officer at Run-Fit. In other words, "Don't try to fit a round peg into a square hole," he says. Look at the overall shape of your foot and then look at the overall shape of the shoe. Doesn't match? Leave the shoes on the shelf.

Karp also suggests checking the immediate comfort level. If the shoe is putting pressure on one part of your foot or your toes or pinching or squeezing, the fit is not going to improve—skip them. He also recommends trying on shoes later in the day, when your feet are slightly swollen; there's a time and place for shoe shopping, after all, and you're sure to get a better exercise-specific fit. Finally, Karp suggests wearing your exercise socks when shoe shopping. You'll get a better feel for how the shoes will support your body during an actual workout.

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Consider your workout

How to Choose the Best Workout Shoes - type of workout
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The next step to choosing the correct workout shoe is to determine what type of motion your workout requires. Exercises such as hiking and walking involve forward motion only, with little impact. Running also only involves forward or linear motion, but is high impact (meaning both feet are off the ground at once). Workouts such as boot camp, circuit training, and dance involve lots of changes in directions, including forward, backward, diagonal, and sideways or lateral.

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Examine shoe options

How to Choose the Best Workout Shoes - Examine shoe options
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Once you know what kind of exercise (and corresponding motion) you plan to do, examine the design of the shoes you're considering. There are generally four parts of the shoe to look over, from the bottom of the shoe to the top.

First, sole and tread is what contacts the ground and provides traction, important in fall prevention. Shoes range from a completely smooth sole and tread for indoor exercise to medium for sidewalk or asphalt exercise to big and blocky for off-road trail workouts. The cushioning will be mostly in the heel of the sole. Try on a few shoes to find out what cushion level is most comfortable.

Next, look at heel rise: the position of your heel being slightly higher than your toes. This position promotes forward-motion.

Toe box is where your toes are in your shoe, and is often thought of as width.

Ankle support has to do with where the shoe lines up above or below your ankle (picture high-tops or low-tops). Where the material lands around the ankle either allows or restricts ankle motion to the inside or the outside.

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Match your shoes to your workout

How to Choose the Best Workout Shoes - Match your shoes to your workout
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Hiking: Proper hiking shoes should have a thick sole and tread for traction on the trail. Dietrick says the larger tread is designed to create stability on different terrain. A higher ankle cut will prevent rolling your ankle on rocks and dirt and keep debris from getting into your shoe.

Outdoor boot camp/circuit workout: You'll find these workout shoes in the cross-training section. Boot camp and circuit workouts that include sharp cutting and changing of direction should have lateral (side to side) support. The sole should be flat from heel to toe, the tread should be medium (partially noticeable from a side view), and the cut should be higher, around your ankle bone.

"Most cross-training shoes have support and don't collapse when performing a lateral motion. For example, an agility exercise that requires you to change direction," Dietrick says.

Running: "Running shoes are designed for cushioning and to disperse forces upon landing," Karp says. Look for shoes with a good cushion. Next, wiggle your toes in the toe box. "There should be a finger-width distance between the toes and the end of the shoe because feet swell slightly when running," Karp says.

Also pay attention to heel rise in a running shoe. The heel should be slightly higher than the toes to facilitate forward motion.

Walking: Walking is low impact, so your shoes do not need extra cushioning to reduce high force, as in running. If you walk outdoors, choose a medium tread. If you walk indoors, a flat sole is fine. A heel rise is not necessary in a walking shoe.

Indoor cardio workouts (dance, or similar): Basic cushion is sufficient. Choose the ankle cut based on the moves you'll be doing. "Most times, these have a flat sole with minimal grooves on the underside simply because you do not need the same traction indoors compared to an outdoor shoe," Dietrick says.

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