Cross-training is a valuable and often neglected component of endurance training. Recent studies show that regular cross-training—a plyo circuit, a bootcamp-style workout class, or even some boulder hopping—yields real results on race day. If you’re considering adding some variety to your routine, or if your schedule already includes cross-training, you should be wearing shoes that can withstand the stress and protect you from injury. For most, that means swapping your running shoes for trainers with more support.
Consider a 2017 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology that showed introducing well-trained ultramarathon runners to explosive plyometric workouts for just 12 weeks was enough to see a 4 percent increase in running economy. In other words, the runners showed a 4 percent decrease in the amount of energy and oxygen required to maintain race pace.
Cross-training works because running the same miles for months is monotonous for our legs. Our muscles adapt to the work, become more adept at managing stress, and, because they’re never pushed beyond the limit they’ve already reached, strength increases taper. Progress plateaus soon after. When injected into the middle of our running calendar, cross-training targets disused muscle groups more directly and makes novel demands on our already conditioned muscles. In the off-season, cross-training is active recovery: a way to build strength while the major muscles we’ve taxed and tired are rebuilding.
We looked for shoes with reinforced heels and other targeted support systems that would firm up the foot during lateral movements, a midsole that was either cushioned and flexible for impact absorption and agility during plyometrics, or dense and sturdy enough to withstand weighted squats, and grippy outsoles for secure ground contact during all of this.
Hylete’s Men’s Circuit Cross-Training Shoe comes with three interchangeable insoles: a flat insert with 0mm heel drop and no arch support, a “medium rebound” foam insert with 4mm heel drop and medium arch support, and a taller “high rebound” foam with a 6mm heel drop. The upper is woven for breathability, but wrapped with durable ripstop nylon and TPU, a malleable, plastic-like polyurethane. On the ground, the shoe relies on the tough and grippy Vibram rubber that’s become so popular in the highly variable and demanding world of circuit training. Each insole is made for specific workouts, but don’t take Hylete’s recommendations as gospel. Experiment with the slope and foam combinations to find your ideal feel and performance.
The Free TR 8 updates Nike’s line of Free Trainers. Most notably, the Free TR 8 nixes the rigid, synthetic quarter panel and, in doing so, creates a lightweight, flexible, and breathable bootie-style upper. Nike’s NASA-inspired, high-tensile Flywire threads are integrated into the quarter panel’s lacing system and, when laced over an attached tongue, tighten to a bound but comfortable fit. A cushier foam midsole with added support under the heel makes the TR 8 more plyo-friendly and, on the outsole, the multi-directional flexion of the honeycombed rubber pods help the shoe to better bend with the foot in motion. This is a versatile trainer that will move easily during most of your cross-training workouts.
The F-Lite 235 V3 from Inov-8 adds a bit of performance to a minimalist base with a relatively plush (for minimalist shoes) 6mm-thick footbed and a midsole made to perform the split function of cushioning under the heel and returning energy to the forefoot. Adding to their detail-oriented, dual-purpose design, the upper takes advantage of two different types of mesh: a finer, firmer mesh adds rigidity along the outside of the shoe and, along the inner or medial side, a flexible mesh with a looser weave breathes easier and gives the foot room to expand. The gum rubber outsole also allows for natural foot movement with its segmented, metatarsal-like channels that run heel to toe. The abundance of durable synthetic overlays will speak specifically to the cross-fitters, but the lightweight, free-moving design should interest anyone looking for less influence from their trainers.
The Under Armour UA TR96 is a throwback and an update to dependable all-purpose trainers. The upper is a basic lightweight mesh with synthetic overlays for lateral support at the midfoot and protection across the toe. The EVA foam midsole makes for a sturdy, cushioned base and lateral grooves let the rubber outsole flex where it needs to flex. This shoe works for the gym, the track, a pickup game, or an aerobic grocery run. If this is all one day, don’t forget to hydrate. Women wanting something similar should look at Under Armour’s new UA Aura.
NoBull is a growing brand designing trainers and running shoes capable of withstanding the physicality of cross-fit-style workouts. Their Trainer features a tight-fitting mesh upper wrapped in SuperFabric, a lightweight abrasion- and slash-resistant specialty tech material. The rugged construction proves less flexible than something like a woven upper, but these break in to become more comfortable over time. The outsole is patterned for flexibility (an advantage over other cross-fit specialty shoes) and a neutral 4mm heel drop helps the shoe transition from weights to running. Most helpful in the gym, though, are NoBull’s inventive colorways, like this one with ice cream sprinkles.
Like its predecessor, Nike’s Free x Metcon 2 is a hybrid fusing the Nike Free’s grooved, malleable outsole with the Nike Metcon’s durable upper and sturdy midsole. The outsole, an innovative design that’s as popular as it is flexible, bends, twists, and expands to allow natural movement in the forefoot as it plants and pushes off. The upper mimics the Metcon with reinforced textured mesh and a rope-gripping rubberized arch. The TPU heel counter that previously added lateral stability below the ankle has been extended to the midfoot and, in its place, the integrated tongue flares to form a high collar with an eyelet for lockdown lacing. With two types of tactfully placed foam – one soft, one supportive – the midsole both absorbs repeated impacts during HIIT workouts and enables the heel to stand up to weight training. This Free x Metcon combination will carry you on your fastest and heaviest days.
On, a Swiss running company with arguably the most strategically designed running gear on the market, recently released their Cloud X shoe, which has adequate cushioning for being a lightweight. This adaptive cross-trainer leverages On’s unique CloudTec sole, a flexible grid of hollow “Zero-Gravity” foam pods that cushion against both the horizontal and vertical forces joints are subjected to during plyo-heavy circuits and workouts with quick lateral movement . On also uses proprietary “speedboards” to control the midsole’s flex and twist. The Cloud X’s speedboard runs slightly firm, making for a crisp, responsive ride. Try a pair of these if you’re planning a lot of fast-twitch work and explosive circuits in your offseason.
Solid knit uppers are lightweight, breathable, and comfortable – they fit, feel, and move like a pair of socks. Unfortunately, this lack of structure means they’re also likely to feel baggy and unsupportive during vigorous workouts. Reebok’s Flexweave technology firms up the open knit in the Crossfit Nano 8 using a new “figure 8” weave that takes advantage of the high tensile strength of bundled fibers. This newly secure upper is combined with a heel-hugging bootie and a grooved, bendable gum rubber outsole. Try these if you like the comfort and breathability of soft uppers but want more support.
The Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V2 is a true minimalist shoe, with zero heel drop, a wide toe box, a flat, 3mm outsole, and only 7.5 ounces of material. In addition to these features, other minimalist shoes are most often made unobtrusive by stripping their design to feature a simple mesh upper over a flat rubber outsole; running won’t stress the bare-bones construction, but add any variance to your movements and you’ll find they disintegrate. The Bare-XF 210 V2 toughens up the category by wrapping a rubber bumper up and around the toe and covering the inner and outer quarter panels in their protective rubber “Rope-Tec.” Incorporate these into any workout to inject helpful new stressors for muscles and joints otherwise coddled by robust midsole and outsole cushioning. If you’ve never trained in minimalist shoes, first read up on how to introduce them without injury.
The Minimus 40 Trainer is a minimalist running shoe with enough added bulk to make it a versatile, multi-sport hybrid. To accomplish this, New Balance layered a rugged Vibram rubber outsole on top of its energetic Rapid Rebound foam and, in the heel, its lightweight but stable REVlite foam compound. Minimalist purists will like the low heel drop—only 4 millimeters—and, for CrossFit fans who want a secure fit, a reinforced heel wraps around and hugs the Achilles. These have gained favor with weightlifters and the bootcamp-style training crowd, but could just as easily transition to a high-intensity stair workout.
The Asics Conviction X 2 toughens up the popular Conviction X. The redesign carries over the RynoSkin quarter panels from the first generation and adds a separate synthetic skin over most of the mesh in the upper, and Asics’s High Abrasion Resistance rubber, a material twice as durable as its conventional rubber, is used again for the outsole. A firm heel withstands weight days without feeling rigid, and a perforated sock liner keeps airflow moving around the entire foot. Asics has also added a tongue pocket (the company calls it a Lace Garage) that keeps your laces stashed while you’re moving. This shoe runs a bit long, so you might consider stepping down a half size.
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Merrell’s Agility Synthesis Flex is a rugged trail runner that’s been stripped to the essentials in pursuit of agility. The mesh upper is lightweight and breathable (the shoe weighs only 9 ounces), and, like a traditional cross-trainer, the midsole is designed for cushion and rebound, and the heel is stabilized with a long poly plastic band. The Agility Synthesis Flex differs in its readiness for rugged terrain. A hard toe cap protects against errant obstacles, the midsole is designed to flex in two directions, maximizing ground contact, and the traction on the tacky rubber outsole is designed to function like the bones in the foot. Maybe you should consider some boulder hopping in the off-season.
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