The Real Difference Between Walking and Cross-Training Shoes

You probably have a lot of shoes in your closet. Dressier options for dinner dates. Sandals for days at the pool. And of course, sneakers for when you're ready to pick up the pace outside or at the gym.

Are you wearing the right type of sneaker for your go-to activity? Here's why deciding between walking and cross-training shoes matters.
Credit: BAaAej Ayjak/iStock/Getty Images

But did you know that there are different types of sneakers best-suited for different types of activity? That's right: Your feet need varying levels of support during a walk versus when you're tackling burpees, and there are sneakers to help accommodate for that.

"A walking shoe might be what you go to for support and comfort," says Kate Marlin, co-owner of Lively Athletics, a boutique in Oak Park, Illinois. "In a cross-training shoe, people are generally looking for something that's lightweight, flexible and responsive for movement in multiple planes."

Not sure where to begin? You're not alone. Here's how to choose a pair of sporty kicks that fits well, feels good and matches your routine of choice.

Read more: The Best Cross-Training Workouts to Try

What to Know About Walking Shoes

Walking shoes have some similarities to running shoes, but they typically have a bit less comfy cushioning or stiff support. That's because your foot isn't pounding into the ground with the same amount of force as a run, says doctor of physical therapy Geoffrey Gray, founder and director of research at footwear consulting company Heeluxe.

Still, walking sneakers will have some cushioning around the balls of the feet and the heel to cradle your heel bone so that your foot stays properly aligned. Walking shoes also offer some support through the arch — not to prop it up completely, but to match its shape. "Rather than having a flat thing underneath a curved thing, we want those curves to be similar," Gray says.

Marlin notes that many people often come into her store looking for more supportive, well-cushioned walking shoes on the advice of their doctor or podiatrist, especially if they've been dealing with an injury. For these people, running shoes can often make good choices for slow striding, as they're built with more cushion.

Walking shoes can also have a variety of levels of traction — the tread or grip on the bottom of the shoe — Gray says. To choose the right level for you, consider where you'll do most of your striding. If you're on the treadmill or indoors, you'll want shoes with a smoother sole. Hikers, trail walkers and those who stay outside in cold, icy weather will want tread with deeper grooves.

"There are also great waterproof shoe options out there that can make it a lot more comfortable in the winter or the rain to still get those miles in outside," Marlin says. For warmer climates or summer, however, seek out a lighter, more breathable upper so that your foot stays cool and dry.

In terms of fit, walking shoes should fit securely around the heel and instep — the middle area of the shoe, near the laces — to hold your foot in place. They'll often feel more comfortable if they're looser around the balls of your foot and have some wiggle room around your toes, Gray says.

Read more: How to Burn More Calories and Actually Lose Weight Walking

Cross-Training Shoe Basics

If your routine involves bootcamp-style classes or other gym workouts, your body is demanding something different from your footwear. You'll feel more comfortable jumping, squatting and kicking in a more flexible shoe that's low to the ground and allows you to feel the ground a bit more, Gray says. A flexible shoe means that it can move with your foot, allowing you to execute your workout with better form and posture, Marlin says.

Another key difference between walking and cross-training shoes is lateral support, which keeps your ankle from rolling during side-to-side motions. "That's probably going to be visible on the shoe — you'll see almost like a saddle around where the mid-foot goes, generally attached to the laces," Marlin says.

Typically, cross-training shoes have flatter tread patterns for indoor floors. That's especially critical if you're doing a kickboxing class or others that involve pivoting, Marlin points out. Grippy or rugged soles, especially under the ball of the foot, might make those types of movements more difficult.

Some models of cross-training shoes will even tote special features for added traction for next-level activities like climbing a rope. "The arch might have little projections in it to help kind of bite into the rope rather than just having like a smooth piece of rubber there," Gray says.

You may also notice added bits of rubber coming up over the front edge of the shoe. This is strategically done by shoe designers to prevent wear and tear on fabric when you're doing moves like push-ups, planks and burpees, he says.

In contrast to walking shoes, cross-training shoes should fit a bit more snugly around the ball of your foot. However, you still want a little bit of space at the end of your toes so your feet don't squish or strike the front of your shoe with every squat and lunge, Gray says.

Read more: The Best Workout Shoes for Every Sweat Style

How to Choose the Right Pair

Just like finding the right partner or figuring out the best commute route to get to the office, selecting a Goldilocks sneaker may take a little bit of time. The best way to find the right shoe for your workout is to visit a speciality athletic shoe retailer and get expert advice, Gray suggests. Go in the afternoon or evening, when your feet are a little bit swollen, since the same thing will happen mid-workout. Once you arrive, explain the types of activities you do and what you need from your shoes.

"Don't feel shy about taking some time walking around once you're in the shoes," says Marlin, who also suggests that someone on the hunt for something new try on several pairs. If you're buying cross-training shoes, practice the types of exercise you'll be doing in them and make sure the shoes allow for comfort and free movement, she adds. "For example, if you do lots of squat jumps, are you getting enough cushioning when you land but still enough flexibility to spring up?"

Also, make sure to think about the specific sock you'll be wearing with your shoe, and bring that to your fitting if possible. That added thickness and fit can make a big difference in how the shoe fits and could even affect sizing choice. If your socks differ by season (say, you walk in thick wool socks in the winter and a thinner, sweat-wicking pair in the summer), you might actually require two pairs.

Read more: The Best Walking Shoes for Ankle Support

The Bottom Line

Buying shoes for each workout and season might seem extravagant or expensive. But doing so can make your workouts more enjoyable — meaning you're more likely to stick with them — and also reduce your risk of injury. "It's an important investment you're making in yourself and your fitness," Marlin says.

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