Perhaps Nelly said it best in his song Air Force Ones: “I said give me two pairs ’cause I need two pairs.”
Like Nelly, athletes can’t have just one pair of kicks—because of practicality, not style. What you wear on your feet matters, whether it’s on the football field, at the track or in the weight room. The right shoes will boost your performance, prolong your training and help prevent injury.
Let’s break down the available options so that on your next shopping trip, all you’ll have to worry about is choosing a color.
First: Know your foot type
The most important factor to consider when purchasing running shoes is your foot type. (Watch this video for an in-depth look: Arch-Specific Running Shoes.)
Flat-footed runners have a lower-than-normal arch. In some cases, the bottoms of their feet are completely flat from heel to toes. Flat-footed athletes are more likely to overpronate (i.e., their feet will roll inward when running), so they could benefit from a shoe that offers some stability or motion control properties.
The majority of people have a neutral or “normal” foot type, where their arch lifts off the ground, but not too high. If you are in this category, almost any type of shoe will work for you. But shoes that have a lot of stability or motion control characteristics might feel like too much underfoot.
Runners with higher-than-normal arches tend to supinate or underpronate—i.e., their feet do not roll far inward enough during the transition from heel strike to toe-off). Underpronating means that more impact forces from the ground are delivered to the body, so high-arched runners tend to feel better in shoes that have a thicker midsole and extra cushioning.
Running shoes are made for every situation from the track to the trails. The exact type you choose depends upon where and how often you run.
While it may sound like an oxymoron, the term “barefoot shoes” refers to very lightweight shoes designed to encourage a more natural foot strike, as if a runner were, in fact, running unshod. These shoes typically are “zero-drop,” meaning the heel sits at the same level as the forefoot (in traditional running shoes, the heel is elevated by several millimeters), and they have a wider toebox that allows the toes to splay outward during your gait. Some barefoot shoes, like those offered by Vibram, wrap each toe individually.
While barefoot running can be a helpful addition to a runner’s training arsenal, it’s not something you should undertake too quickly. Newcomers should ease into barefoot training. And runners who overpronate or supinate should be especially careful, since barefoot shoes offer no motion control properties or extra cushioning. (See how to Choose the Best Barefoot Running Shoes for You.)
These shoes are designed for runners who are transitioning to barefoot running, but aren’t quite ready to jump into the deep end of the pool. Minimalist shoes have little or no arch support, so they’re meant to encourage a midfoot strike (where the runner’s first point of contact with the ground is toward the ball of the foot, and not the heel). (See Minimalist Shoes: A Beginner’s Guide.)
Trail shoes are good for runners who do a lot of work off-road. They provide extra stability and a stiffer outsole to protect the feet from harsh surfaces.
Made for track athletes, racing shoes are very lightweight to encourage faster leg turnover. They also have spikes for extra traction.
Okay, most athletes are knowledgeable enough not to show up for basketball practice in a pair of cleats. But here’s a general overview of what you should be looking for.
Cleats are necessary for proper traction to quickly accelerate, stop, cut and turn on the field. Baseball players and golfers should stick with a metal spike to dig hard into the dirt or grass. Plastic spikes are best for football and soccer players (metal spikes are illegal in football).
Tennis players should look for lightweight, thinly soled shoes with a low ankle cut.
Volleyball athletes need a shoe designed for side-to-side movements, which require great traction. Look for a shoe with a rubber sole and more padding underfoot, which offers players additional protection when jumping.
The two major types of basketball kicks are high-top and low top. Selection comes down to individual preference and desired degree of ankle support. However, all basketball athletes need to look for a comfortable shoe built for traction with a shock-absorbing midsole and non-marking outsole.
Cross-training shoes are a good option for athletes who are strength training for their sport. However, serious lifters and bodybuilders may require something more specific. A traditional weightlifting shoe has a flat sole, sturdy side construction and extra ankle support. (Read Do My Shoes Matter in the Weight Room?)