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A lot of workouts require you to have the proper footwear, shoes that provide both protection and comfort. The right sneakers reduce the risk of injury and can even improve performance. For people who exercise regularly or train for athletic events, it's worth spending the time and effort (and, unfortunately, some money) to find appropriate shoes for your activity.

Activity-Specific Design

Workout footwear is often broken up into sport-specific designs that suit the unique movements and impact level for the activity. The right type of shoe can help reduce foot strain and pain. Manufacturers make shoes for urban running, trail running, basketball, hiking, tennis, walking, cross training, weight lifting, and more.

Each type of athletic shoe has different features. Basketball or court sport shoes typically come with extra ankle support to help players change direction frequently. Trail running shoes use durable materials and stiffer soles that stand up to rocky surfaces or, in recent years, softer materials that let you really feel the ground.

Close up of a basketball player tying up his shoelaces Geber86/ Getty Images

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Cushioning

For high-impact activities, look for shoes with plenty of cushioning. Foam padding absorbs some of the stress of jumping or heavy footfalls, reducing the strain on the body. The density of the foam determines the level of cushioning.

Basketball and hiking shoes tend to come with thick cushioning to protect the feet from jumping and uneven surfaces. For running, the right level of padding depends on personal preference. Some runners like lightweight, bouncy foam, while others prefer minimal cushioning for a barefoot feeling. Weight training shoes have very little cushioning, so you can get a firm, even stance.

Close up of a group of friends hiking in the mountains Geber86/ Getty Images

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Stability

Stability is critical for many fitness shoes, though the structure varies by activity. Shoes for tennis and basketball require both flexibility and lateral support to enable fast side-to-side motions. Stability features in walking and running shoes often help correct overpronation, where the foot rolls inward.

People with normal foot motion don't usually need to worry about stability. In fact, studies find that too much motion control can cause injury.

Woman athlete warming up before she starts to run Martin Novak/ Getty Images

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Arch Support

People with flat feet or high arches may need shoes with arch support. They help distribute weight evenly with each step, which can reduce pain and injury during exercise.

The right height for the arch support varies from person to person. While some fitness shoes come with built-in arch support, it may be more comfortable to buy standard shoes and add a custom insert since there are often more options for inserts than shoes.

sporty woman holding shoe and arch support close up

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Traction

Most athletic shoes have at least some traction, but grippy soles are a must for activities that involve slick or loose surfaces. Court sports are a key example. Soles with traction enable players to stop and switch directions without slipping. For tennis, consider the surface; traction is particularly important on hard courts.

Hiking and trail running also require high-grip shoes. Typically, they use lug soles with deep indentations.

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Weight

A shoe's weight affects everything from speed to comfort. Research suggests that lightweight shoes are appropriate for many types of exercise. This is particularly true for road running and volleyball; less weight reduces fatigue during long or intense training sessions.

Fitness shoes tend to weigh more when they have additional support, cushioning, stability, and traction features. Trail runners may be heavier due to rock plates in the soles, and basketball shoes weigh more due to the bulky design and support system.

Group of people running in a forest on a sunny day. Tashi-Delek/ Getty Images

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Fit With Socks

Socks can affect how a fitness shoe fits. Don't try them on with dress socks, boot socks, or everyday socks—bring the socks you use for your workout. This makes it easier to judge how the shoe fits, feels, and moves. Shoes should feel comfortable right away, even before they're broken in.

Women at locker room getting ready for training M_a_y_a/ Getty Images

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Room To Breathe

Fitness shoes should give the feet plenty of room to move. At a minimum, leave about one-quarter to one-half of an inch of space between the toes and the end of the shoes. This strategy allows the feet to slide forward during a workout without causing pain. Over time, the extra room can prevent blisters and toe injuries.

Width is important, too. Good stability and foot health require the toes to be able to splay out when the foot hits the ground. A spacious toe box accommodates the spread, reducing the risk of friction, restriction, and pain. People with bunions need an extra-wide toe box.

Man running - close up on shoes andresr/ Getty Images

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Shopping Time

The best time to shop for fitness shoes is in the afternoon. Your feet have warmed up and swelled from movement earlier in the day; by trying on shoes when the feet are the biggest, you can more easily ensure a comfortable fit around the clock.

Late-day shopping is especially important for people who exercise in the heat. High temperatures can also cause swelling in the feet, so extra room is essential.

 male shopping picking through shoes Charles Olu-Alabi/ Getty Images

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Biomechanics

Every person's biomechanics are different, so it's important to test athletic shoes for comfort and fit. Try running, walking, and jumping while wearing both shoes—whatever you do in your workout. Some stores offer treadmills or varying surfaces to test traction and impact resistance.

Whenever possible, shop for shoes at a store that offers a gait analysis. This data helps employees recommend shoes that correct biomechanical issues and reduce the risk of injury.

Side view of young fit female athlete with long dark hair and muscular body in sportswear stretching leg during outdoor training in countryside Juan Algar/ Getty Images

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.