What Kind of Shoes Should I Wear?

CrossFit is all about going back to the basics: eat real food such as meat and veggies, and do functional exercises such as squatting and deadlifting. By going back to our roots, we are letting our bodies function and thrive on what our ancestors and genetics have been used to. In this day and age of marketing and consumerism though, it’s easy to make misinformed decisions, especially when it comes to your health. So as much as you might think the Shake Weight and Slim Fast will lead to a strong, healthy body, sadly they do not.  The same thought can be applied to running shoes, specifically those used in CrossFit style workouts. Here I will examine several types of shoes and give my take on each type. 


If you’ve ever complained about nagging knee injuries as a result from overuse or running, you’re not alone. It is becoming more common knowledge that the very shoes that are designed to protect you and your knee may actually be CAUSING those injuries. Having big foam heels on the bottoms of sneakers allows you to slam on that heel without feeling a thing. What you don’t realize is that the impact still affects your joints and can cause long term damage. Incredulous? Do me a favor and next time you’re barefoot, go outside and run on the grass or if you’re lucky enough to have a big carpeted space indoors, run on that. Notice something? You land on the BALL of your foot, not your heel. Also, you tend to land on that foot almost underneath you, not way out in front like when you wear a sneaker. 
Wearing traditional sneakers take you away from natural running! Plenty of people are discovering this as books like Born to Run by Christopher McDougall come out. McDougall explains that the Tarahumara Indians have been running for ages and are capable of running marathon distances or greater in just leather sandals. Even better, they can do this without ANY knee injuries that we are used to hearing about.

While there is much to learn about proper running such as the POSE technique**, having the right shoe can get you there quicker. How? By reducing the heel size, a flatter shoe will not let you get away from heel striking. It will force you to land on the ball of your foot and merely touch down with the heel. This creates more efficient running and much less risk for injury. 


So with a plethora of choices out there, what kind of shoe should a CrossFitter wear? Since we do more than just run, there is more to consider in a shoe. How about multiple shoes? What are the CrossFit trends or fads nowadays? Below are just some options you have as a CrossFitter.

THE TYPICAL SNEAKER
Did you know that there is a correlation between the rise of sneakers and knee injuries? More likely than not, you’ll find this type of shoe on your “sporty” person. Although they come in different colors and with different features, they all have a big foam heel which claims to “reduce injury” and help you run faster. Actually, the only thing they do is promote bad running form by allowing you to plant your heel first. Over time, this can result in various shin, hip, and knee injuries. These are ok for walking since you land on your heel, but stay away for any sort of running.

THE LOW HEEL, FLAT BOTTOM SHOE

Converse Chuck Taylors are very popular amongst CrossFitters. They bridge the gap of running and heavy lifting by providing a flexible shoe that you can box jump in, but also a stable platform to do some heavy backsquats. Biggest advantage? The price! A pair can be as low as $25 compared to $199 weightlifting shoes.  Low or high top is personal preference. Also in this category are Adidas Sambas, Puma H-Streets, DC shoes, and Vans.
Inov8 is the newest brand CrossFitters love. A more athletic look than the Converse, they still provide that low heel than promotes proper running form and are stable enough to do some heavy (sub-maximal) lifting. Practically a perfect metcon shoe. Pictured are the F-Lite 230s. Update: New CrossFit specific Inov8s are here, check it out: Inov8 XF-210

OLYMPIC WEIGHTLIFTING SHOES
Adidas, Pendlay, Do-Win, Risto, VS Athletics, and even Nike all make olympic weightlifting shoes. Why spend $70-$199 to lift some weights? If you are serious about training olympic lifts (and you should be since they provide strength, power, speed, agility, etc) then you need a stable platform to perform your lifts on. The soft foam of most sneakers absorbs all of that good energy you want to make a lift. Oly shoes have a very hard bottom which allows for full power transfer off the ground. Also, they have a raised heel (anywhere between 0.75-1.5in.) which allows for a better squatting position. This comes in handy for those with poor flexibility to get down in a proper squat clean, squat snatch, or overhead squat. Do your research as these shoes are expensive, but will last you a long time with proper care and use. Pictured here are the Adidas Ironworks III.

MARKETING/FITNESS FADS

Vibrams are an attempt to get back to nature. Essentially, they provide a covering so that you can be as “barefoot” as possible, without risk of injury from sharp rocks or glass while running or walking. Although I’m not much of a fan of these, a lot of CrossFitters love them. They are very much an attention getter, especially if you wear them to the supermarket. They obviously have very little heel which will help promote proper running, however, I think they take away from the proprioception that your feet feel when you are truly barefoot.  Pictured are the Vibrams FiveFingers Sprint.   *update 1/28/11: Vibram Five Fingers are coming out with a casual line for the office and social situations. Check them out here. 

Nike Frees. I actually like the look of these, but their marketing is misconstruing. They say the Frees are meant to imitate bare foot running, but there is still clearly a lot of foam on that heel. Frees come in different foam heights, so if you love the look, or if you want to wear them just for walking around, go with 3.0’s. Anything thicker (5.0’s, 8.0’s, or even 10.0’s) is just asking for trouble when it comes to running.

 
Skecher Shape-Ups. These are advertised as shoes that can help you exercise as you walk. I think these are just ridiculous looking and will do very little, if anything, to help you get in shape. I wouldn’t even think about trying to run in these. Other terrible fitness marketing schemes are FitFlops, Reebok’s EasyTones or ZigTechs, or any other shoe that claims to “cushion,” “tone,” or “shape your butt.” Where the Nike Frees might be used for casual walking or errand-running, I wouldn’t even recommend the Skechers for those activities.   
  

MY GEAR
Rogue Weightlifting shoes. The heel is lower than traditional weightlifting shoes (.75 vs. 1.5in) because Rogue knows that CrossFitters powerlift as well and do not always need a huge heel. I notice much more stability in all of my lifts, especially down in the squat position of a squat clean, squat snatch, or overhead squat.Well worth the investment of $119 (and free shipping!)
 
Adidas Adizero Pros. These are advertised as road racers, but work perfectly for what I need. Like the Converse or Inov8’s, these have a flat, low heel which allow for proper form while running and adequate base for most CrossFit style metcons, even those involving relatively heavy weights. (Anything at a maximal load I will use my Rogues). 
At any running race, you will see most elite runners wearing this type of shoe and as the crowd trickles over the starting line, you’ll notice the heels of their sneakers get bigger and bigger and bigger. I’m not calling myself an elite athlete, but I do want to point this fact out if people are worried about injuring their feet from “not enough foam protection” this is clearly not an issue. And because I land on the ball of my foot, the shoes have lasted over 10 months and still look great on the sole. (I basically wear these every day)
 
CAVEAT
The first time I tried wearing thin shoes to run (Puma H Streets), I warmed up with a mile run because that was my normal routine. I could barely walk for the next week because my calves were screaming. If you decide to buy a minimalist shoe such as the Vibrams or Adidas Adizeros, do yourself a favor and SLOWLY work your mileage up. If the idea of running 3-5 miles at a clip doesn’t bother you right now, it will if you transition from a big cushy shoe to a low profile shoe. Start by just wearing them around the home, outdoors, do errands in them. Then, once you’re ready to do some running, go no more than a quarter mile to half mile at a time (preferably on grass or softer surface compared to concrete or asphalt). Work your way up over the next few weeks to your normal mileage; it might take you a few months before you’re completely adjusted. Your calves will thank you for the slow adjustment.

Also, get used to being barefoot as much as possible. At home, when you go to a park, at the gym, etc. get those shoes off and go barefoot to give those muscles the stimulation they are supposed to be getting. When we do lifts like heavy deads at the box, a good amount of people will choose to go barefoot or in their socks to get the oomph off the ground they need.  If you want to take it a step further (pun certainly intended), get a pair of Vibrams and use those to run your errands. (so punny)


CONCLUSION
CrossFit is about being ready for the unknown and unknowable. Versatility is key, but so is proper form. In this regard, I recommend a low profile sneaker that is stable enough to run, jump, lift, and climb, but also promotes proper running form. By avoiding knee injuries, we can keeping heading towards our goals of health and longevity. At the same time, we occasionally need to specialize in order to BECOME stronger. Therefore, I also recommend a good pair of weightlifting shoes as they will allow you to clean, snatch, and overhead squat your way to a PR and allow your body to adapt to heavy weight. As for the more “traditional” sneakers in your closet? Don’t throw them out, but also don’t come complaining of knee pain if you continue to run in them.

**If you want to learn more about proper running technique, search around for POSE running. If you are a member of CrossFit King of Prussia, talk to Coach Tim as he is a CrossFit Endurance certified coach. 

LINKS
-To work endurance training into your CrossFit training, visit CrossFit Endurance

-For more sneaker recommendations, visit POSE Tech’s website or Google around, especially on the Crossfit message boards

-WHAT KIND OF SHOES DO YOU WEAR TO WORKOUT?
-DO YOU CHANGE UP YOUR GEAR DEPENDING ON THE TYPE OF WORKOUT?

6 thoughts on “What Kind of Shoes Should I Wear?

  1. I love my Vibrams, but I'll second that warning about building up your mileage s-l-o-w-l-y. I ran a few miles my first night with them, and could barely walk for about 2 weeks after. It becomes immediately apparent that a totally different set of muscles are used to run semi-barefoot than cushioned on regular running shoes. Thanks for the overview of all of these options.

  2. Thanks for the tips Chris. I just bought a Chuck style pair of shoes at Kohls (Zoo York) during a big shoe sale. The real Chucks just didn't fit correctly. They have strange sizing so make sure to try a pair on before purchasing. And just as an FYI to anyone who likes to get their drink on…. don't wear those Skecher Shapeups when drinking as your general lack of balance from the booze combined with the need for better balance because of the shoes leads to hitting your head too many times… 🙂

  3. Very Nice writeup CP, Runners World called, they want you to sign up for a column called, "Real Running, Real Primal"

  4. I train heavy in my Chuck Taylors for now, since I'm saving up for a nice pair of Oly shoes. I love my VFF KSOs though. But definitely work your mileage up slowly. I started out doing sprints in them and worked up.Looking into buying a pair of the Invo8 F-Lite 220s for WODS. I've heard good things about them.

  5. Great post Chris! This is such an interesting topic. Could you elaborate a little more on what you dislike about the Vibram Five Fingers? I've been thinking about getting a pair. Also, what are your thoughts on doing all exercise barefoot and not owning any exercise shoes (at least for the summer months)?

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