By Michael Scholtz, M.A., Best Life fitness expert
These days, it seems like you can find a specialty shoe for virtually every activity, whether it's an old standard like step aerobics or something more unique like rock climbing, bowling or tap dancing. You could end up with a closet full of sneakers, if you really wanted to (and had the space!). But, aside from a few special cases, you really only need just two pairs of workout shoes (or possibly one or two more depending on your workouts of choice). Knowing what type to buy, what to look for in fit and function and how to determine if a shoe is not right for you or needs replacing will help you spend your money wisely and keep you healthy. Check out the different shoes you might need, what activities they're best for and how to choose the right fit for you.
Good for: Walking, running, rowing, stairclimbing, elliptical training, lifting weights, light aerobics classes, light to moderate hiking or light to moderate stationary cycling.
Shoe summary: These shoes are built for straight-ahead movements and provide cushioning and stability for the foot and good flexibility that allows you to push off your toes comfortably. They have enough support for all but the most demanding aerobics classes, court sports, or other specialized activity.
Fit facts: You want a shoe that doesn't just fit good, but perfectly. How many times have you left the store with a shoe that felt good in the store, but didn't quite feel as comfy or supportive when you put it to use? Use these tips:
• Know what kind of foot you have. For instance, people with high arches need a shoe that provides lots of cushioning. Look for a softer, more flexible midsole. If you have flat feet, on the other hand, you'll need a shoe that has good stability so it will prevent you from over-pronating, or rolling your foot inward because the arch is not strong and high enough to prevent it. Your best bet is to visit a store that specializes in helping runners—they can evaluate your feet and help you find the best match.
• Check to make sure you have the right fit in the toe box and heel cup. The toe box is the area around the ball of your foot and toes. You should not feel pressure here and your toes should be able to wiggle freely. The heel cup, the rigid section in the back of the shoe that holds your heel in place, does not need to be tight but it should not slide on your foot as you walk, run or change direction.
Swap your sneakers: Every three to six months or 300 to 600 miles depending on how hard you are on your shoes. For example, if you're heavier and/or do a lot of running exercise outdoors, you may need to replace them more frequently. The lighter your weight and the less intense your exercise routine, the more you can push your shoes toward the top of the range. Signs that your shoe needs to be replaced regardless of time are: It sits crooked on a flat surface (from uneven wear) or the midsole (the area between the sole and the actual shoe) looks like it has compressed and not rebounded. Using a shoe with either of these issues could lead to injury because the shoe won't offer as much support or cushioning. If you do not reach the mileage cut-off within one year, it's still a good idea to replace the shoes anyway. Shoes do age—even if they just sit in your closet—and over time, they can lose some of the cushioning in the foam midsoles.
Good for: Basketball, tennis, racquetball, intense aerobics, boot camp, fusion, or other activities that involve a lot of side to side motion.
Shoe summary: Court shoes are made for sports like tennis or basketball. They have a thicker sole in the toe box because you will spend a lot of time on your toes during these activities. They also provide a lot of lateral support to help your ankles absorb some of the stress of quick and repeated changes of direction.
Fit facts: Court shoes can be modified with store-bought arch supports or custom-made orthotics for people who need the extra help with fit. But, for the most part, they're just like any other shoe: They should be comfortable, and fit properly in the toe box and heel cup.
Swap your sneakers: Every three to six months (the same as with running shoes) if they're used about three to five times per week.
Good for: Water classes
Shoe summary: Water shoes provide great traction on wet pool decks, and they prevent scuffing your feet on rough pool bottoms, a feature that is especially important to diabetics with circulation issues in their extremities.
Fit facts: Focus on finding something comfortable that fits snugly and has enough traction to keep you safe. Styles vary from strap-on sandals to pull-on nylon "slippers."
Swap your sneakers: Every two years, if you keep them clean and dry between workouts, or when they start to feel loose.
Good for: Outdoor cycling, Spinning classes
Shoe summary: Stiff-soled cycling shoes help support the arches of your feet during the downward push of the pedal stroke. And real cycling shoes allow you to use toe clips or clipless pedals that snap in like ski bindings. Having your foot in a toe clip or snapped to the pedal can be intimidating at first but it's worth the effort because you get better contact with the pedal and your foot stays lined up properly and cannot slip off at an inopportune time.
Fit facts: Cycling shoes are like court shoes, so you want to select the fit based on the toe box and heel cup. Also consider whether you'll be riding outdoors or inside and on or off road. Some cycling shoes look and feel like regular athletic shoes, some resemble hiking boots and others are very specific to only riding and have a slick plastic or carbon bottom and a large cleat that fits in the pedal; both factors that make it quite difficult to walk when you're not on the bike!
Swap your sneakers: As with water shoes, these can last up to two years if you take good care of them. Also, you should get new shoes when these don't fit snugly anymore.