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Which shoes are best for which workout? Our fitness expert shares this helpful guide

Having the right gear is essential if you want to get the most out of your workouts. The shoes you wear play a significant role in how comfortable you are, how easily you can move and how protected you are against injury. 

However, all gym shoes aren’t created equal, so you should choose based on the workout. Our fitness expert Judd NeSmith, NASM-CPT, PES, and founder of Serious Fitness helps explain what to look for in your gym shoes.

What to look for in gym shoes

For running

When it comes to running shoes, NeSmith said one of the most important factors to consider is the heel-to-toe drop. It is usually measured in millimeters and refers to the difference between the height of a shoe’s heel and the height of its toe. 

For people running for general health benefits, a shoe with a high heel-toe drop of 8 millimeters or greater is the best bet. “Most of us have tight calves, tight ankles and tight Achilles tendons. If you put those people into a flatter shoe, it can cause extensive strain in those areas,” NeSmith explained.

However, more experienced, athletic runners who don’t have a history of injuries can opt for running shoes with a medium heel-toe drop of 5 to 8 mm. Shoes with a low heel-toe drop of 1 to 4 mm are best reserved for racing. 

In addition to the heel-toe drop, NeSmith advised runners to look for shoes with adequate cushioning, stability and breathability to ensure they’re comfortable. It’s also a good idea to opt for shoes with a wide toe box that prevents your toes from squeezing together. Running in shoes with a narrow toe box can lead to issues in the feet, knees and hips that affect your running form. 

If you have issues with overpronation — or your ankle rolling inward when your foot strikes the ground — NeSmith also suggested choosing stability running shoes. These shoes provide targeted arch support and position your foot correctly to keep it from rolling inward. Runners with no pronation issues can go with a neutral shoe. 

Whether you’re running on roads or trails also affects which shoe is right for you, though.

“A road running shoe is going to be a more cushioned shoe because they’re meant for harder surfaces,” NeSmith said. They have a flatter sole to create a stable, consistent base for running on paved roads. They’re usually lighter too. 

On the other hand, trail running shoes are stiffer and have less cushioning to provide a more stable platform on uneven terrain. “They also have a much beefier outsole with bigger and softer lugs for better traction on trails,” NeSmith pointed out. They have reinforced uppers for protection from rocks, roots and other debris on the trails too, so they’re heavier than road running shoes. 

For walking

Walking is a wonderful activity for fitness, sharing some similarities with running. NeSmith said you don’t necessarily need a walking-specific shoe, though. “Any good road running shoe is ideal for walking,” he said. 

Look for a neutral road shoe with adequate cushioning. Trail running shoes can work for walking too. Their added heft may not make them as comfortable, though. 

For cross training/weight lifting

If you’re headed to the gym for cross training or weight lifting, choosing shoes with a flat sole is essential. Shoes with a medium to large toe-drop elevate your heel during gym training sessions, so they can shift your weight forward and interfere with your form. 

“You want to be as close to the ground as possible, so you’re in a biomechanically correct position to do squats, lunges and jumping exercises,” NeSmith explained. 

Keep in mind you can do short running exercises in cross trainers, but you shouldn’t run more than a mile in them. 

For cycling

For both indoor and outdoor cycling, NeSmith recommended a cycling-specific shoe. They have cleats on the bottom that attach to the pedals for a secure foot position. Most studio spinning bikes have SPD pedals, so if you choose SPD-compatible shoes, they can lock in place on the pedals for a more even pedal stroke. 

Best gym shoes

Top running shoes

Nike Men’s Air Zoom Pegasus 39 Running Shoes

With a 10 mm heel-to-toe drop, these shoes from Nike feature durable, lightweight foam cushioning that helps absorb impact when your foot strikes the ground. The heel shape also encourages a more comfortable heel-to-toe transition when you land, while the extra padding in the tongue and collar provide a more comfortable fit.

Sold by Dick’s Sporting Goods

ALTRA Men’s Torin 5 Road Running Shoe

These road running shoes offer the wide toe box that Altra footwear is known for, so your toes can spread comfortably while running. It also has balanced cushioning that encourages low-impact landings and lightweight uppers that are breathable even in warmer weather.

Sold by Amazon

Brooks Cascadia 16 Women’s Trail Running Shoe

With a durable rock shield, these Brooks shoes offer excellent protection against the rocks and pebbles you kick up when running off-road. They also have a soft rubber outsole that molds to the ground for greater stability and can provide effective traction in both wet and dry conditions.

Sold by Amazon and Dick’s Sporting Goods

Top walking shoes

Nike Women’s Air Zoom Pegasus 36 Running Shoes

These Nike shoes have a slim design that provides a more comfortable fit when walking long distances. They feature a firm layer of foam cushioning and a durable sock liner for extra support. The uppers are perforated too, so there’s additional breathability in the forefoot and arch to keep your feet cool.

Sold by Amazon

ALTRA Men’s Provision 5 Road Running Shoe

These comfortable, lightweight shoes allow for natural foot movement when walking, which helps prevent pain and injury. The balanced cushioning also encourages proper form, while the wider toe box keeps your toes from getting pinched. The engineered mesh uppers allow better airflow too.

Sold by Amazon

Top cross training/weight lifting shoes

Nike Men’s Metcon 7 Training Shoe

With a rubber tread, these training shoes provide excellent traction on the gym floor. They have a wide, flat heel that distributes your weight evenly for greater stability during dynamic movements. The soles also have grooves that allow your foot to bend naturally.

Sold by Amazon and Dick’s Sporting Goods

Nike Women’s Free Metcon 4 Training Shoes

These gym shoes have a rubber-striped sidewall surrounding your heel, so you can brace for movement in all directions. They feature flexible, breathable mesh that allows you to move quickly through agility drills as well as a wide heel to create a stable base for lifting.

Sold by Dick’s Sporting Goods

Top cycling shoes

SHIMANO SH-RP1 High Performing All-Rounder Cycling Shoe

These versatile cycling shoes work well for both road and indoor cycling. They are compatible with SPD cleats and clip-in pedals and feature a fiberglass-reinforced sole to provide more power for your pedaling. They’re also made of synthetic leather for improved durability.

Sold by Amazon

SHIMANO SH-IC300 Confidence Indoor Cycling Shoe

These indoor cycling shoes are perfect for spin classes and compatible with many cycling studio bikes. They have a slip-on design and a dial that allows you to get them as snug as you want. They’re also easy to walk in, so you can wear them off the bike at the gym.

Sold by Amazon


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Jennifer Blair writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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