What Makes a Good Gym Shoe?

Sep 26, 2019

There’s a reason you don’t see people at the gym pumping iron in Oxfords, or running marathons in steel-toed work boots. It’s not that exercising would be impossible in them, exactly. But it’s pretty clearly not what they were designed to do.

Of course, that’s all pretty obvious. We know you’d never seriously consider playing, say, a full-length basketball game in your dress shoes—at least we hope you wouldn’t, anyway.

The trickier question is whether your actual athletic shoes are up to the task. Because here’s the thing: not all gym shoes are created equal. Even when shopping for exercise-focused footwear, there are still certain things you should look for.

Really, what this comes down to is two things: purpose and fit. In other words:

  • The perfect pair of, say, basketball shoes isn’t necessarily going to be so perfect if you’d mainly be wearing them to play tennis, or lift weights, or run half marathons!
  • It doesn’t matter how well-made the shoe itself is if it doesn’t fit your foot.

Getting Sport-Specific

The very first thing you should do is determine what kinds of activities and exercises you expect to perform in your new pair of shoes.

Let’s say you’re not into any one particular sport. Instead, you plan to do a mix of going to the gym, aerobics class, in-home exercises, walking or jogging short to moderate distances, perhaps shooting a few hoops or playing a tennis match with a friend once in a while, etc. If that describes your approach pretty well, you’re probably fine looking for a pair of cross-training shoes.

On the other hand, if you’re playing a specific sport or activity more regularly—say once per week—you really should purchase a pair of sport-specific athletic shoes. That’s because sport-specific shoes are designed with features that help protect feet for the specific risks and rigors of each activity. For example:

  • Running shoes tend to be lighter and more flexible to avoid slowing you down, but have moderate cushioning to handle the impacts of straight-ahead motion.
  • Walking shoes will be a little stiffer and often feature a slight “rocker” sole for smooth, almost “gliding” weight transfer.
  • Tennis shoes need more lateral support and cushioning to deal with quick side-to-side motions.
  • Basketball shoes have higher tops to protect and stabilize ankles, as well as very thick cushioned soles to deal with lots of jumping and landing

If you play a lot, especially at a competitive level, you can get even more specific. If you run mostly on trails, for example, you’d probably want trail running shoes. Similarly, if you play basketball mostly outdoors, you’d have higher requirements for traction and ruggedness than shoes made for playing indoors.

For running shoes especially, it also helps to know your foot shape and pronation style. Overpronators might want a shoe with extra support and motion control features, while supinators (or under-pronaters) should look for all the cushioning they can get.

Not sure what your foot shape or pronation style are? We’re happy to evaluate your feet and give you a gait analysis!

Stretching exercise

Finding Your Perfect Fit

So once you’ve narrowed your search to a specific style of shoe, it’s time to find your perfect fit. Here are a few quick tips to make sure you get the right size.

  • Go late in the day or right after a workout. Your feet should be a little swollen—which is a good thing. It means your new shoes should still fit you at the end of your workout and not just the beginning!
  • Carefully measure length and width each time you shop, for both feet. Foot shape changes over time, even for adults, and it’s common for one foot to be a little larger than the other. (No, we’re not saying mix and match shoe sizes; just buy the shoes that fit the larger foot!)
  • Make sure you’re wearing your athletic socks when you try your shoes on. It makes a difference for the fit.
  • You should feel about half an inch of space between the front of the shoe and the longest toe. The shoe should feel snug enough that it won’t slide around on your feet, but not too tight around the heels or balls of the feet. Toes should have plenty of room to wiggle.
  • Take a few moments to walk around, jog in place, move side-to-side, and otherwise try to test the fit and comfort of the shoe (at least as reasonably and responsibly as you can in the store) before making the purchase. They should feel “ready to play” right off the bat.

What About Quality and Price?

We don’t believe you have to spend a fortune to get a good pair of gym shoes. But at the same time, is a $70 pair of shoes going to be made from better materials, provide better support, and last longer than a $20 pair? It’s not a guarantee, but probably yes.

Still, a couple of things. One, you’re almost always going to be better off in a cheaper pair of shoes that fit your feet and is for the correct sport than an expensive pair of shoes that doesn’t or isn’t.

And two, there are still a few quick tests you can run to make sure your shoes do have the basic features necessary to provide adequate support and performance:

  • Breathable uppers (mesh, synthetic leather, etc.) that offer breathability and durability.
  • A rigid heel counter that won’t collapse or fold when you pinch it at the sides.
  • Easy lacing, which allows you to customize the fit as needed.
  • Removable insoles, so you can add your own arch supports or custom orthotics if necessary.
  • Rigid soles that prevent you from easily “twisting” the middle part of the shoe.
  • Flexible toe boxes that flex naturally with the feet, but aren’t so flimsy that you can literally fold the top of the shoe.

As mentioned above, there may be other sport-specific features you’ll want to consider as you shop. To use our previous example, you may want to figure out whether you want a traction pattern optimized for indoor or outdoor courts. For those questions, feel free to ask a member of the store staff or—better yet—check in with Dr. Lockwood before starting your workout plan.

Is It Time for a Check-In?

Foot pain, obviously, can make it much more difficult to start or stick with any exercise plan. And foot pain that emerges as a result of athletic activity is also a worrying sign.

If you’re currently experiencing foot pain, or you’ve had a history of foot pain in the past and are about to start a new exercise program, please stop in and see the experts at Heartland Foot & Ankle Associates. Bring your gym shoes along, too!

It may simply be that you need a better pair of gym shoes—and we’re happy to provide our recommendations. But if other treatments or preventative care options are necessary, we’ll be sure you get those too. Ultimately, it’s about making sure you can enjoy your activities and live life to the fullest, without letting pain hold you back!

To schedule, give us a call at (309) 661-9975. You can also request an appointment online.