Picking the perfect sneaker can feel overwhelming. Stroll into a sporting goods store and you’re confronted with a daunting wall full of options flaunting features you didn’t even know you needed. But ending up in the wrong shoe can ruin a workout—so where do you start?There’s a reason you can now find footwear made specifically for lifting weights, for CrossFit, for running, even foot wraps for yoga. “It’s best to choose sneakers that are suited for your primary activity,” says Brice Newton, senior manager of global footwear merchandising for Brooks Running. “For example, runners need sneakers that can withstand the repetitive pattern and force that’s applied when running.”
To the casual walker’s eye, those carefully designed sneaks might just look flashy and fun to try, but every little decision that goes into designing a pair of shoes for exercise is made with improving workout performance in mind. A feature that enhances running performance may not always do the same for walking, though. “We start with what runners want and layer in a deep understanding of biomechanics,” Newton says.
What runners want usually differs from what walkers want. Walking sneakers, for example, typically have more cushion overall, but especially in the heel, says podiatrist Emily Splichal, M.D., author of Everyday Is Your Runway: A Shoe Lover’s Guide to Healthy Feet & Legs. “Although there is less impact when walking than running, your foot is on the ground longer, so the cushion helps to offset that impact over time,” says Splichal.
When walking, your feet follow more of a “rocking chair-like” motion, says Paulina Kelly, global product marketing manager for walking at New Balance. “Your weight rolls from the heel, through the ball of your foot, and continues to the toe.” That means walkers benefit from shoes that are flexible through the ball of the foot to allow for that rolling motion, support through the arch where the force of the foot striking the ground is heaviest, and all-over cushion. Walking in a running shoe, which often has less cushion, could lead to impact injuries like plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, and Achilles tendinitis, says Splichal.
Of course, walking and running are relatively similar, Newton points out, so some running sneaks could be just fine for walking, as long as there’s the correct amount of support and the fit feels comfy. But sneakers made for totally different workouts—like Olympic weightlifting, which have a hard, flat bottom for added stability during those super-heavy lifts—should probably be avoided.
More than anything, you want to be comfortable—or you won’t keep walking. “Picking the proper shoes can prevent discomfort and injury and will encourage you to maintain an active lifestyle,” says Kelly. So when you’re looking for the perfect walking shoe, start with cushion and look for some solid arch support, especially if you have flatter than normal feet, says Splichal.