Many of the people who come train with me at Custom Strength show up wearing running shoes. Even those who aren’t runners. I never say anything about it – my goal is to make them comfortable and help them move better and get more fit. I don’t think criticizing their choice of footwear helps with that. But eventually they ask the question, “what kind of shoes should I wear in the gym?” My answer is pretty consistent, “anything but running shoes.”
Why the anti-running shoe stance?
Running shoes are made for…running. There are 3 features of running shoes that I believe makes them a poor choice for the gym:
- They have no lateral stability. Because running shoes are built to run, they are designed to optimize forward movement. As part of getting people moving better, my training includes lateral movement. From lateral squats, to icky shuffles in the agility ladder, to one leg hops from side to side, my clients move in more than one plane. I believe running shoes add a small risk to these movements because they can be borderline tippy in all but the forward direction.
- They have heels. That is to say, the heel sits higher than the toes. Often considerably higher. This pushes the centre of gravity forward, which I believe encourages “quad dominant” movement, meaning they move with their weight a little forward. This is probably a good thing for running. It is not a good thing in the gym when you’re trying to develop balanced strength as it makes it harder to develop strength in the back side (the posterior chain as we like to call it). It’s an especially bad thing in the gym for a person who spends most of their day sitting, as they already tend to have an under-developed backside.
- They are very cushion-y. While cushioning may be a good thing to help your foot when pounding the pavement (although the barefoot running movement would probably suggest otherwise), it is not so great in the gym. The problem is that it dulls your connection with the ground. This means the muscles in your feet don’t give meaningful feedback up through the kinetic chain, and the result is often very wobbly movement. That wobbly movement is commonly expressed as the knee falling inwards, or “knee valgus”, which can cause stress at the knee. Part of my goal with training is to help strengthen the stabilizers in both the feet and hips as this tends to be very beneficial for knee health. But it’s hard to do that in a cushy shoe.
What is included in my “anything but running shoes” list? Crosstrainers, basketball shoes (preferably not high tops), Converse, tennis shoes, and volleyball shoes to name a few.
If the running shoes are minimalist shoes? Ah – that’s a bit of a different story. Often these are just fine, as they tend to have none of the 3 items above. Technically they still have the problem of being built for moving in one direction only, but because they aren’t tall or cushiony, or high heeled, they tend to be pretty good in terms of lateral stability.
What about training without shoes? What a great idea! In fact we encourage this when asked, and even when not asked, we often recommend people start doing their warm-up without their shoes. The next thing we do without shoes is deadlifts. People’s deadlifts look much better without shoes. Often once we start people removing their shoes for part of the workout, they forget to put them back on. I’m not going to lie; I like it when that happens.
What about orthotics? My first answer to this is that you should train in your orthotics at first. If you have them it means some health care professional thinks you need them. It’s a good idea to abide that advice. They want you wearing your orthotics when walking, running, or playing a sport because those are dynamic environments, and your body isn’t maintaining alignment on it’s own, so the orthotic is there to help. But…keep in mind that the gym is a controlled environment. That makes it a great option to gently introduce movement without orthotics as a means to strengthen the muscles of the foot. I have talked about this with physical therapists, chiropractors, athletic therapists, a chiropodist, and a pedorthist, and each agrees that strengthening the muscles of the foot is a very good idea.
I’ve had many cases where a client was training in running shoes with orthotics, and I’ve asked them to do their next set without them. At first they are often resistant, so I tell them I just want them to try it once and then they can decide which they prefer and I won’t ask them to do it again. Almost every time, they are shocked to report that they felt more stable without them. This is a fairly regular occurrence. Train the feet, but be smart about how you progress into it.
What is your footwear of choice for training?
Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada, who trains primarily in socks, with the occasional session in minimalist runners or tennis shoes.