What Are Cross-Training Shoes? A Beginner’s Guide

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Shoes are one of the most important types of equipment for any exercise. In this article, we’re going to explore cross-training shoes and how do they differ from running shoes.

If you run and cross-train (or cross-train and run?), you should get a dedicated pair of cross-trainers. Best to leave your running shoes at home when not running and save them for what they do best.

But if you are shopping for new shoes, what should you look for in a cross-trainer? Does it depend on what type of cross-training you do?

Let’s look at cross-training shoes – what they are, how they differ from running shoes – and how to choose the right ones for your needs and goals.

What Is a Cross-Training Shoe?

Cross-training shoes—also called cross trainers—are a type of athletic shoe designed for multiple types of movement. They might look just like running shoes but have some noticeable differences.

They’re made to support almost any activity you’re doing, which often requires a slightly different type of support than running shoes. Running shoes are made for forward movement—lateral movement doesn’t come into it.

But cross-training shoes cater to both forward, backward, lateral, plus up and down movement, so you’re always protected and supported. For this reason, they’re very versatile—you may be able to do a weightlifting workout in your cross-trainers and move onto a bodyweight HIIT circuit using the same shoes.

What Do You Use Cross-Training Shoes For?

Cross-trainers are made to accommodate a range of activities, and some may even be okay to run short distances in.

Most cross-training shoes have a range of features that provide decent cushioning in the ball of foot, often in the heel, and extra support for lateral movement. Thanks to these features, many cross-training shoes are suitable for a wide variety of activities, including:

  • Weightlifting
  • CrossFit
  • HIIT training
  • Plyometrics
  • Aerobic activities
  • Sports

It’s worth noting that you get some sport-specific shoes, but they aren’t usually referred to as “cross-trainers.” For example, tennis shoes or squash shoes—footwear designed specifically for a certain sport and with specific features.

True cross-trainers are meant to be a jack-of-all-trades, and provide you with versatile support across a range of different activities.

Benefits of Cross-Training Shoes

You can just do everything in your running shoes. But there are definite benefits to using cross-training shoes, especially ones specific to certain sports.

Versatility

Cross-trainers are designed to be used for various activities. If you pick the right pair, you can get away with using the same pair of shoes for all of them.

This does depend on the cross-training activities you choose, but it might be helpful if you don’t have a lot of closet space or are on a budget!

Support & Stability

Cross-training shoes are made to be much more stable than regular running shoes. Most of them have some support features to boost lateral stability so that the feet don’t move sideways on certain movements, like sharp direction changes or side-to-side skipping.

Durability

Cross-training shoes are made to be durable. If you’re using a sport-specific shoe, it’s designed specifically for the surface on which the sport is played. But normal cross-trainers are made to survive multiple different sports and movements.

Comfort

Another big benefit of cross-training shoes is that they’re created to be comfortable. There’s cushioning in all the important places, and they generally don’t skimp on it in the ankle collar and tongue, either.

If they’re activity-specific, they’ll be designed based on the movements in that particular activity. This means they’ll be padded in all the right places, and there’ll be other features specific to keeping your feet comfy while you exercise.

Injury Prevention

The added stability and cushioning go a long way toward preventing injury. If you’re doing something like CrossFit in regular running shoes, you’re putting yourself at risk of turning an ankle, or worse.

Choosing a pair of shoes that supports your foot correctly for what you’re doing makes a huge difference. Better supported feet = less chance of injury!

How Do I Know if My Shoes Are Cross-Training Shoes?

Does your pair of shoes count as cross-training shoes or not? Here are some features that are usually specific to cross-trainers.

Remember that not all cross-trainers will have all these features—but each pair will have a few of them, and they’ll be noticeably different to running shoes.

Some features that cross-trainers may have include:

  • Side support: Those made for activities that include quick side-to-side movement will have reinforced sides for extra support. This may include extra ankle support as well.
  • Front and rear cushioning: General trainers often have good cushioning in both the ball of the foot and the heel. This provides shock absorption for a wide variety of activities.
  • Flat sole: Trainers generally have a much flatter sole than running shoes, to add extra stability.
  • Flexible uppers: This allows for easier movement in different directions, especially when moving at a speed. It may be combined with extra secure lockdown features, like a midfoot cage or strong overlays.
  • Specific outsole rubber: Tennis shoes will have special non-marking rubber on the outsoles that might look and feel different to regular running shoes. The same is true for things like squash shoes, which will have more sticky rubber. General cross trainers use firmer rubber than running shoes.

Cross Training Shoes vs. Running Shoes: What’s the Difference?

So what’s the difference between cross-training shoes and running shoes? Here are the biggest differences and why they’re important.

Flexibility of the Sole

There are two ways in which trainers can differ from running shoes. In some shoes, the sole is more flexible to allow for multi-directional movement without restricting the foot. For some—like weightlifting shoes—the sole is more rigid, to prevent your foot from moving during heavy lifts.

Heel-to-Toe Drop

The standard drop for running shoes is 12mm, but they can come from zero to 12. Keeping the heel noticeably higher than the toes promotes a slight forward lean that helps to propel the runner forward.

On the other hand, training shoes usually come with a heel drop of between zero and 4 mm, although you can also get them in 6 to 8 mm drops. This goes a long way towards boosting the stability of your foot in the shoe.

Lateral Support

Running shoes don’t generally need lateral support. You’ll find some extra support on stability shoes, but it typically comes in the midsole and is subtle.

Trainers often feature more robust support to protect the feet during lateral movement. This could include tough overlays, special lacing systems, a midfoot cage, or other noticeable support systems that limit that lateral movement.

Upper Durability

Running shoes tend to keep their uppers light and airy so they don’t weigh the runner down. They’re also usually fairly breathable, to keep your feet cool during exercise.

Cross-training shoe uppers vary widely. It depends on exactly what the shoe is designed for, but most are created more with durability than breathability.

They may be made of more rough, hardy material, and chances are some overlays are layered on the upper.

Midsole Feel & Performance

Many running shoes have thicker midsoles to protect the feet against the impact of each foot landing. Running shoe midsoles often compress easily and provide some energy return—with the obvious exception of minimalist running shoes.

The foam you’ll find in most cross-trainers is high-density, not as compressive as that in running shoes. It’ll still absorb shock and offer some responsiveness, but not to the same extent as a running shoe.

Outsole Rubber

Running shoes’ outsoles can also vary hugely. The biggest difference between running and cross-training outsoles is firmness.

Trainers typically use a firmer rubber with a light traction pattern geared towards multi-directional movements. Running shoes often have slightly softer rubber with more texture, and a traction pattern more specific to gripping road or trail surfaces.

Can You Use Cross-Training Shoes for Running?

Technically, you can. But when it comes down to it, you shouldn’t. You’ve already read about the differences between running and cross-training shoes above, so you know they’re built quite differently.

If you’re going to be running for less than a mile, you can probably get away with wearing trainers. But anything more than that, and you’ll be putting yourself at risk.

First, cross-trainers are often heavier than regular running shoes. You’ll only be slowing yourself down and increasing your chance of injury by wearing more cumbersome shoes.

If the trainers have a stiff sole, your foot won’t be able to move through its natural range of motion, which could hurt your form. Also, they don’t typically have the same cushion as running shoes, so your feet won’t be as protected from impact.

Wearing trainers for running may increase your chance of getting injured, due to the reduced shock absorption and potentially a reduced range of motion.

Can You Wear Running Shoes to the Gym?

Again, you can… But it depends on what exactly you want to do at the gym. If you’re going to be lifting weights, we don’t advise it, as they’re not likely to provide you with the support you need for heavy lifting.

If you’re just going to run on the treadmill, use the cardio machines, or join an aerobic class, then it should be okay to use a cross-trainer.

How to Choose the Right Cross-Training Shoes

Looking for cross-training shoes? Here’s how to choose the right ones for you and your needs.

Choose Your Activity

If you can get a pair of shoes specific to your activity, then it’s a good idea to do so. Weightlifting shoes are flat and stiff. Tennis shoes have special outsoles, and so on.

If you plan on doing multiple activities in the shoes, try to consider what kind of features you’d need. For example, if you’re going to jump rope, you’ll need good forefoot cushioning, and if you’re planning on also doing plyometrics, you may want extra ankle support.

Know Your Foot

You also need to make sure that your arch is well-supported. Generally, cross-trainers’ lateral support helps provide support for overpronators, but you still need decent arch support. If you can’t find a shoe with good arch support, it’s worth considering an insole that suits your foot.

Get the Right Fit

Getting your foot measured properly is a good idea so you can fit the shoe correctly. If you’re buying online, check if there’s a measuring chart. This is a much more accurate way of fitting your shoe than going by sizes, because sizes vary by country.

When Should You Replace Your Cross Training Shoes?

Cross-training footwear can take a beating! Depending on what kind of activity you put them through, they may last a long time or wear out fast. Here are some signs that show it’s time to replace them.

  • Outsole: Becoming slippery, peeling, or showing large worn patches.
  • Midsole: Flattening (on one side or throughout), no longer as springy as before.
  • Upper: Holes forming, starting to chafe your toes or foot.

Why It’s Important to Replace Shoes

Shoes—both running shoes and cross-training shoes—are designed to provide protection and comfort. When the shoe begins to wear out, both of those factors are compromised.

That means that you have to deal with:

  • Decreased stability
  • Less shock absorption
  • Reduced protection
  • Increased chafing

Even if the shoes still look fairly good, there’s a chance that your feet will begin to suffer. All of the above lead to an increased chance of getting injured, either because your shoe gives in, or because it doesn’t protect you throughout your movements.

There’s also a chance of more chafing, which could increase your chance of developing blisters. Worn shoes can also change the way you move, leading to worse form and potential injuries that come with that.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.

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