By Geoff Rand
The explosion in popularity of CrossFit has spawned an endless sea of branded sport-specific gear. Shoes have a strong foothold on the gear market. Every athlete wears shoes and the apparel companies are definitely aware of this, some cranking out new models every six months, with ever-enticing fancy-sounding features and flashy colors.
But do you need CrossFit shoes? What benefits do they offer? What about those lifting shoes? I’ve got answers.
To answer the first question, no, you don’t need CrossFit shoes; you could show up at the Box with your standard sneakers and complete the WOD. You could also hammer in a nail with the battery of a drill, it's just not the best tool for the job. You will find you will perform better with a CrossFit-type shoe and your lifts and movements will be more efficient, stable, safer, and effective if you wear them versus the standard “squishy” shoe.
The typical sneaker is made for walking or running. It incorporates a cushiony foot bed that is designed to absorb impact and lessen the force you feel when you move. While this may feel comfortable for a long run or for people who stand on their feet all day, when you start lifting weights, it becomes less than ideal.
Whatever the type of lift you’re doing, when you pick up weight, the force of the bar gets transferred downward to the ground through your feet. If you’re standing on a bed of foam, gel, or air cushion, you will have an unstable foundation supporting everything pushing down on top of it. I’ve heard it likened to standing on a giant marshmallow. The same thing happens when you land from a jump. If your base is unstable, it makes every part of the movement weaker, less efficient, and potentially unsafe. You want a shoe that allows the force you absorb when lifting or jumping to be transferred directly to the ground forming a solid, stable platform.
I’ve used the term “CrossFit shoes”, but really I’m talking about any minimalist shoe, not just the ones labeled specifically for CrossFit. When we talk about minimalist shoes, you will hear the term heel drop or heel-to-toe offset, and this refers the difference in height between the heel and the forefoot. A typical cushion-sole sneaker will have a heel drop of 10-12 millimeters. Minimalist shoes often have drops of 6, 3, or even 0 millimeters. If your shoe doesn’t provide a heel drop measurement, more than likely it is not a minimalist shoe. The lower the heel drop measurement, the closer your feet are to being in contact the ground. The best shoes for our sport will have little to no heel drop.
Other features of the minimalist shoe are a sleeker shape and conforming fit. You’ll find minimalist shoes don’t have extra protrusions or excess material and you probably will wear a size or more smaller than your normal street shoe or sneaker you’ve been wearing. They should fit fairly snugly. This tighter fit allows you to feel the surface you’re on and push against that firm base to accomplish your lift.
One CrossFit-specific feature I’d strongly suggest looking for when choosing a minimalist shoe is a rope guard. I know that Reebok and Inov8 have added a durable plastic grippy piece to the inside of some of their models to keep rope climbs from tearing up your shoes while increasing the grip you can apply. You can tell the people who are climbing in shoes without these guards because they have what look like huge half-moon bites taken out of their shoes. The coaches will thank you for choosing shoes with rope guards, as it’s less debris they have to vacuum up under the ropes at the end of the day.
Some will argue that minimalist shoes don’t offer enough cushion for running and that their feet hurt when they run in minimalist shoes. If you heel strike when you run, then yes, your feet will hurt as minimalist shoes aren’t designed to take a hard heel impact. If you are landing softly on your forefoot, you should not feel discomfort while running in minimalist shoes. Look at some of the Olympic athletes breaking world records while running barefoot. It’s not the shoe, it’s your form causing the discomfort.
Examples of minimalist shoes either designed for, or acceptable for CrossFit are Reebok Nanos, Inov8 F-lite 195s, Merrell Trail Gloves, and Nike Metcons, to name a few of the more popular types.
The Olympic lifting shoe is a specialist shoe that has a place in CrossFit when doing Olympic lifts of the snatch or clean and jerk, or any type of squat. This is not a shoe everyone needs to own, but it does offer some benefits to those who are serious lifters or those who have mobility issues.
The idea behind Oly shoes is to give you a solid base with zero compression and eliminate your foot sliding around inside. They accomplish this by constructing the heel of solid plastic or even wood. The straps on Oly shoes are called tarsal straps, and they are used to lock your foot in place to make your base even more stable. They keep your foot from rolling and allow you to press out against the side of the shoe, which helps you to create additional hip activation, and translates into more power in your lifts. A word of caution from experience…don’t crank down too tightly on the strap as you can cause your feet to go numb.
Olympic lifting shoes have a ½” to 1” (13-25 mm) drop (or sometimes even more) so that you can sit back more in your heels without falling over. This also helps to open up the hips and places you in a more torso-upright position, which helps you to better support the overhead lifts. The drop also assists athletes with hip or ankle mobility issues, by allowing them to squat deeper, while still maintaining proper alignment of the spine and pelvis and discouraging overextension of the knee, which leads to injury.
Oly shoes are expensive and not everyone needs them. If you have good ankle and hip mobility, you might be fine lifting in minimalist shoes. A good way to see if you could benefit from Oly shoes in your lifts is to put 2.5 lb. or 5lb. weight plates under your heels and squat. Have a coach observe the differences in your elevated and regular squats. If the extra elevation helps you keep that chest up better and squat deeper, the shoes might be a good investment.
You may argue that in real life, you’re not going to stop what you’re doing and change shoes before picking up something heavy, so why would you need special shoes? That is a fair question. But, in real life, you are not repeatedly picking up heavy objects and lifting them overhead for 20, 30, or 40 minutes straight. If your shoes help to keep you in proper form and prevent injury from repeated lifts while wearing them, you’ll be more likely to maintain proper form when lifting an object in real life without the shoes.
There are some situations where Oly shoes are not appropriate. They are heavy and clunky and the heel drop is too high to run in comfortably (or safely). They aren’t good for jumps or movements like toes to bar also due to their weight. They aren’t good for deadlifts because the elevated heel puts your shin out of ideal alignment, which causes you to use more of your quadriceps in the lift than your glutes and hamstrings that you should be using. The elevation also adds to the distance you need to pull the bar. For deadlifts, stick to minimalist shoes or go barefoot.
Popular Olympic lifting shoes are made by Reebok, Adidas, Pendlay, Rogue, and Nike.
For most CrossFit athletes, a good minimalist shoe will cover the majority of their needs for daily WODs. If you are getting into the heavy Olympic lifts, are serious about CrossFit competitions, or can benefit from increased range of motion while squatting with them, Olympic lifting shoes might be a good investment in addition to your regular CrossFit shoes.
Before you go out and buy new shoes, talk to some of the athletes and coaches in the Box. Ask what they wear and why. Many of us have tried several brands and models to get to the ones we like. It will likely save you some hassle and money on returns.