Functional Footwear for Fitness

Your feet are your movement foundation – literally. When you’re moving around, your feet are working to propel you forward, sideways, backwards – whichever direction you’re trying to move in. Your foot health drives how effectively you create and direct energy through the ground – which powers your overall movement.

All of this is fine and dandy, until we introduce shoes. The main purposes of shoes have included benefits such as heat retention in the feet, reduced wear and tear on feet when traveling long distances by foot, and warding off injury from objects on the ground when moving. Additional purposes of shoes range from foot alignment, gait improvement, posture modification and, historically, even to denote social status.

A few weeks ago someone asked me about what shoes I would recommend for kettlebell training and running, so I put together a chart on various shoe brands to give you a sense of autonomy to choose the best shoe for your needs. To be clear, I am not affiliated with any of these companies, I simply have done a lot of research on shoes given my flat feet. This list is not exhaustive, as there are many quality footwear companies out there. This list also excludes speciality shoes (i.e. running, powerlifting). A good shoe should allow your foot to do what it’s supposed to do when walking, which is (1) create an arch upon ground contact, (2) and flatten out, before (3) reengaging the arch as it pushes off of the big toe. In order to support the foot in it’s journey across the earth, here are a few shoe features to consider:

  • stable heel cup/counter at the back of the shoe
  • stable arch support if you have high or flat arches
  • flexible front/toebox of shoe

There are many types and styles of footwear determines the features you’ll notice. Zac Cupples does a fantastic video (linked here) explaining each of these shoe features in more detail. Taking the circumstances and environment into consideration helps determine exactly what type of shoe you should consider wearing.

When running on hard, man-made surfaces like concrete, opting for more cushion and support could be good for your feet and body in the long run. Minimalist shoes are useful when you’re exploring trails, sand, rocks and other unstable surfaces.

If you have no intention of performing foot-specific drills to increase your foot and ankle’s  movement variability (to either build an arch or improve the variability of your arch) then a more supportive shoe is recommended to “support” your movements and performance efforts in competition and life. This means if you have somewhat higher arches (and the ability to flatten them), then going barefoot or wearing minimalist footwear may promote the variability of your foot arch height. And if you already have low arches or flat feet, you should consider shoes that provide some arch support.

Now, the above suggestions hold true for most people. But, if you’re like me, you accept that it takes solid, consistent effort to make progress in anything meaningful in your life. Taking that into consideration, if you have flat feet, but are willing and able to choose activities that promote you creating an arch in your foot, then you could consider wearing a minimalist shoe. And if you have stiff, high arches, wearing a less supportive shoe should be okay, so long as you’re choosing activities that promote the flattening of your feet. Remember, it’s not just what you do, but also how you do it that determines the outcome.

Ok, on to the shoes! There’s function and there’s fashion, and then there’s some with a decent blend. Now, since they evolved for function, feet couldn’t care less about fashion. So, if you have a performance goal that has anything to do with you generating force through the ground, then you should consider a shoe that focuses on foot function over fashion.

Some foot functions supported by shoe features that consider long-term performance are:

  • toe splay (facilitated by a wide, asymmetrical toe box)
  • foot drive (facilitated by a flexible toe box)
  • foot inversion (facilitated by stable arch support)
  • calf loading (facilitated by angle from heel to toes [drop])
  • creating an arch upon ground contact (facilitated by heel cup support)

A final factor to consider when choosing your shoes is whether you have any previous injuries (i.e. ankle sprains, achilles tendon, calf, etc.), as those can influence your foot strength, mobility and coordination, leading to further issues.

In the accompanying infographic, I provide an (incomplete) list of some brands to consider, with specific shoe features to compare among them. I should mention

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Chris Gaines

I help people discover the impact of athleticism in their everyday life. With that clarity, they navigate misconceptions around fitness. With that focus, they pursue movement skills with intention and a larger purpose. All so they can face life's everyday challenges and grow with confidence.

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