It only takes choosing the wrong pair of shoes one time to learn this essential truth: The sneakers you wear for your workout can make all the difference between kicking total butt at the gym and limping home in pain.
But what qualifies as a "great sneaker" completely depends on your feet—and your workout. A pair that feels right for someone with flat feet might hit all the wrong hot spots if you've got high arches. And the shoes that push your strides forward on a run might twist your knee during a dance cardio class, or keep your heels from being able to really drive your movement on a rowing machine.
"Shoes are made to make you good in whatever sport it is you're doing," says running coach Amie Dworecki. "Running shoes promote a forward motion when you're running, which is different than a gym shoe designed for lateral side-to-side motions."
So how do you know what's going to work best for you?
For starters, ask the experts: We spoke to a handful of trainers, instructors and coaches to find out what their favorite sneakers are for working out. They shared what they personally look for in a shoe, and the qualities that are most important for their activity of choice.
But once you've zeroed in on the kinds of sneakers that might work, you'll need to do your own trial-and-error experiments to figure out what suits your feet. And what makes you feel your best: Even these pros will admit that while form and function are by far the most important factors to consider, there's no denying that a badass-looking pair can give you that extra boost of confidence to push just a little bit harder.
Trainers' favorite sneakers for working out
Karen Maxwell, CPT, senior master instructor for CycleBar
“These soles are really cushiony—it feels like stepping on unicorns. I’ll wear them as athleisurewear, but can also do intense cardio or boxing or bootcamp classes. I’m not a big runner, but when I do run on the treadmill, they’re super light so my feet don’t feel like they’re slapping the pavement; they’re these little launchpads of pillows. [The upper] is stretchy, but soft; you put it on and it feels like a pair of socks. After my first APLs five years ago, I became obsessed; now I have my husband obsessed with them, too.”
“Shimano’s fit your foot really well. A lot of other indoor cycling shoes don’t have cushion, but I feel like there’s a little cloud between my foot and the pedal. [They’re good for] honestly anyone who wants to own a pair of cycling shoes—beginner, intermediate, advanced.”
Kari Pearce, personal trainer and former CrossFit Games athlete
“No matter what you’re doing—weight training, running, jumping—they’re flexible but with support, so your ankle isn’t wobbling. I have bad Achilles so it’s important to have that stability when I’m jumping. I tend to wear them outside, too, especially if I’m doing a lot of walking. NOBULL is constantly coming out with new colors, which keeps it fun. I wear the bright red—I love bright things! It gives me extra energy.”
Karla Puno Garcia, dance teacher at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway
“If I’m teaching a dance class, or running a rehearsal (or dancing myself), these are flat and smooth. They don’t have a lot of support, but they’re nice to turn on. I try to stay away from things that have a lot of friction with heavy rubber on the bottom, or else my feet stick and it twists my knees.”
“They look like they’re literally out of the ’80s or ’90s with that double velcro strap, but they’re so comfortable. They have nice support. I got them last fall when I helped choreograph the Tony Awards because they’re shoes you can have on the whole day and do everything in them—dance, work out, go out.”
Michelle Parolini, CPT, senior master coach for Row House
“These are really great for functional fitness training and for running—the lugs have enough depth to give you a lot of support, but the shoe still moves freely. They’re super lightweight and breathable—it feels almost like a bare foot. I have a wide foot and they allow for that width at the balls of my feet. I’ve been wearing them for 10 years, and have four pairs.”
“When I’m rowing, I look for something with as flat a sole as possible. On a rowing machine, to generate power it’s all about finding that connection from your feet to the handles—you’re able to connect better and drive through the heels in flat shoes. I’m super obsessed with NOBULL Trainers and have about 15 pairs of them in different colors. But Vans or Chuck Taylor’s are also great rowing shoes.”
Amie Dworecki, running coach
“I don’t actually hear about this shoe a lot, but they came onto the performance running scene several years ago, and are great for any kind of running on the roads. I like that it feels very light and responsive. I was never into minimalist running shoes, but I don’t like a ton of cushion—I want to feel what’s going on under my foot.”
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