What to Know About High-Intensity Training Shoes

Discover the differences between training shoes and running shoes and what you should don for your next cross-training session.

April 20, 2017

Many beginners show up to the gym for their first high-intensity training workout wearing running shoes. However, this isn’t the best way to go.

If there’s one universal rule that applies to every sport, game and exercise regimen, it’s this: Match your footwear to the activity.

Think about it. Would you go on a serious hike without serious hiking shoes or boots? Play a field sport without appropriate cleats or turf shoes? Wrestle without wrestling shoes? Of course not.

Then why would you show up to the gym for your High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) sessions wearing whatever old kicks you happen to have laying around? To get the most out of your workout, you’ll want to look for training shoes made specifically for HIIT and cross-training movements.


“HIIT shoes support you in feeling connected to the floor,” said Jodi Butler, the coach/owner of Pittsburgh FIT, a gym in Pittsburgh, where she’s coached hundreds of athletes in the ways of HIIT.

This connection to the floor helps you form a better, more stable base for those weight-lifting exercises like kettlebell swings, medicine balls, clean-and-jerks, etc. But the hallmark of this type of activity is the vast range of exercises it employs. In fact, HIIT training consists of just about everything from dynamic cardio and sprints to complex compound movements, box jumps and even rope climbing.

That’s where the other benefits of these shoes come in. “These shoes also have the flexibility to allow you to run, jump or move quickly,” Butler said.

Because of this vast range of activities, HIIT cross-training shoes often incorporate special features like a high rubber midsole and added friction protection across the upper midfoot and toe areas (sometimes referred to as the cage) to assist during rope climbs as well as a harder, stickier sole to help stabilization and box jumps.


“Beginners usually wear running shoes to the gym,” Butler said. Unfortunately, HIIT is not what running shoes are designed for. That’s why they are called running shoes, not running and cross-training shoes. “They force an athlete onto the front of their foot, which creates instability, especially when lifting weights, doing kettlebell swings, and having loads overhead.”

And trust us … the last thing you want to be when swinging weights over your head is unstable.

This instability is mainly due to what’s called the “drop,” which measures the difference in heel height from the heavily padded rear of the shoe to the minimally padded front. Running shoe drops commonly measure about 8 millimeters or more on top of a significant amount of foam cushioning. This is great for running. Not so much for high-intensity training.

You see, running shoes are built to go in one direction: forward. Training shoes are designed to keep you locked in no matter which direction you move in, be it forward, backward, or for dynamic lateral movements. In fact, when we asked Butler what the one thing a beginner should look for in a shoe, she had a one-word answer that spoke volumes: “Stability.”

That’s why HIIT shoes have a minimized drop of no more than 4 millimeters. A 4-millimeter difference may not sound like much, but combined with training shoes’ other features, there is quite a bit of difference. For example, the padding on most running shoes is too soft to provide the stability necessary for serious HIIT sessions.

Further, Butler suggests beginners forego weightlifting-style cross-training shoes (these usually have a strap that tightens over the top of the foot) and minimalist shoes (often a zero drop) until they are more well versed in the cross-training world.


So, basically, HIIT shoes are the jacks-of-all-trades of the footwear world. After all, you’re going to be running, jumping, climbing, stretching and lifting in them. They provide a stable base for weight exercises, enough padding for running and jumping work as well as special features for those uniquely HIIT exercises like climbing ropes and wall exercises.

But a word of warning: if you’re used to running shoes, or any shoes with an elevated heel, cross-trainers will feel different on your feet when you try them on. This should be expected. Different is OK. What isn’t OK is discomfort. In fact, they should feel like you could go straight to work with them. “If you feel like you need to break them in they are not for you,” Butler said.

So, if you’re feeling any pinching, rubbing or hot spots when you put them on, try a different size, a different model or a different brand.

Then, once you find a pair that feels good, put them to the test.

“Try them on. Jog in them. Jump in them,” Butler said. “You want it so your foot feels snug and contained in the shoe (meaning you don’t slip around inside of it). You want your shoe to help you feel connected to the floor [while being] flexible enough to jump, run and drag.”

When you find a pair that makes you feel like getting right to it, then you know you’ve found your training shoe. If you’re just starting out and working at a new gym, you might want to leave them there. That way, you’ll only use them for your workouts and not for casual use, which can reduce their effective lifespan.

So, what are you waiting for? Find that right pair and go get intense.

Searching for the right size? Look for the True Fit icon on apparel and footwear product pages when shopping online at DICK’S Sporting Goods. Get personalized size and fit recommendations with just a few clicks. Learn more about True Fit.