Updated: Aug 4, 2021
One of the most common questions we get is "What shoes should I get before I start parkour?" The easiest answer to that is you don't need to get any special shoes. If you're heading along to your first class or training session, just wear whatever shoes you run in. If you've got a few to choose from, pick the lightest ones.
But, if you do want or need to buy new shoes, or you're looking for a bit more information, we've got you covered. This blog post addresses some of the more important aspects of a shoe for parkour training, and we've included a few suggestions of particular brands and models at the end. We're focused here on the needs of parkour training, and not so much on foot anatomy or health. BUT! All of the images included in the section below are from the fantastic Instagram account of Andy Bryant, podiatrist. He's condensed all that advice into the handy mnemonic WTFF - wide, thin, flat, flexible. (Spoilers!) That's a great resource for more info on foot health and some more detailed breakdowns of why barefoot-style shoes are good for you.
Please note this blog isn't medical advice, and listen to your doctor or podiatrist if you have specific foot needs!
Things to look for
One thing to always keep in when you're looking for shoes is how amazing your feet are! Advertisements and spec sheets for modern running shoes will often emphasise design features like shock absorbing foam for the heel; always remember that your foot is a wonder of design and 'technology' that already has shock absorption features. The foot also provides us with a huge amount of sensory information, if we let it. Chunky, overdesigned shoes very much get in the way of that.
The truth is we don't need much from shoes. A bit of protection for the sole of the foot, and that's about it! So, look for shoes that are light, simple and allow your feet to do what they do best.
Modern running shoes, as you can see in the comparison picture, can be very thick. This is the opposite of what you want for parkour training. We want to be able to feel the ground, or obstacle, under our feet, and react accordingly.
Big ol' thick sole will minimise your sensitivity - and make things like balancing on a rail much more difficult.
This is one of the most important things in a shoe. You want your feet to bend, shift, curl and move easily, and a solid chunk of foam generally doesn't do that. Look for shoes that can flex in all directions. If you're looking at shoes in a shop, pick them up and try to roll them, and twist in both directions while holding the toe and heel. If the shoe is too rigid to roll or twist, it won't let your feet mobilise as they need to.
Minimal toE spring
Toe spring is the term for the upwards 'flick' that a lot of modern running shoes have at the toes. It's generally terrible news for your feet, and bad for parkour in particular too. As you can see in the image on the left, a toe spring pushes the toes and metatarsals into strange angles, which continues up the chain into your leg.
You may not realise it, but you get a lot of push out of the very tips of your toes as you are jumping and striding. Pick shoes that let you make the most of that! That means flat profiles and good contact with the ground for your toes.
Zero (or Minimal) Drop
'Zero drop' means that the heel of the foot inside the shoe is no higher than the toe.
Having a large chunk of foam under the heel is another feature of modern running and sports shoes, and one that also causes a lot of problems. While it can feel like it is cushioning impact, that large foam heel can affect the length of your calf muscles under strain, and actually disguise the impact you're feeling. (Ie, if you can't feel the impact of a landing or running stride, you won't engage your muscles to minimise that impact.)
Wide toe box
Human feet are meant to be widest at the toes; meaning the toes splay even wider than the largest knuckle. As you can see, the shoes you wear can change the shape of the foot inside, and only the a wide toe box allows the toes to splay out.
Modern shoes tend to squish and smush toes into a point, which adversely affects the anatomy of your foot (literally changing the alignment of bones, and causing problems like hammer toes.) It also gives you less to grip and push with! Look for shoes that have enough space for your toes to splay out and move.
One piece sole
This is just a question of durability - if the sole of the shoe has too many different chunks of material that are glued together, it's more likely that one of those pieces will just rip off. Then your shoes are asymmetrical, which will affect your movement. Parkour can be tough on shoes, so pick shoes with a one piece sole to minimise that!
There's probably a industry-term for it, but I don't know it, so I'll just describe the problem. Many shoes have a sharp edge that meets the ground to form a right angle - think of your standard skate-shoe. This can make it more difficult to change directions, and can keep the ankle in an upright angle when you do - meaning you're less able to to utilise the full range of motion of the ankle. Look for shoes with curves on the outside of sole, to allow for agility and a full range of motion.
This one's pretty simple; just avoid the old basketball boot, or high-top, shape that extends up past the ankle joint. That shape was designed to keep your ankle relatively immobile, and that's the opposite of what you want in parkour training.
Parkour training can be pretty hard on shoes. You might end up going through pairs quicker that if you're just running and walking, so you don't want them to be too pricey. If you ever see "parkour specific" shoes or gear that charge a premium, run a mile (barefoot :D).
There are a number of ways to minimise costs of footwear. You can just pick the cheaper ones: Anya's Reviews is a great resource that reviews barefoot and minimalist shoes with an eye on affordability (US centred, but most can be ordered or bought here too!) Or keep an eye out at op shops and on eBay - people often get rid of barefoot-style shoes after only a few tries. Watch for sales on the shoes you like and get several if they're cheap - as we've seen the aim is for simple and low-tech shoes. You're never going to need to buy the latest model! You can also try a post in local FB parkour groups or discord- sometimes people have an ill-fitting pair of shoes lying around they might give you or sell for cheap!
Here are some of the more common shoes that people use for parkour training. We're not trying to sell you anything, so we've included Pros and Cons for each.
Merrell Trail Glove
Pros: Durable soles while still being thin and flexible, versatile and suitable for all sorts of training, Merrell's warranty
Cons: Expensive. Later models are not as durable as earlier ones. (If you can get your hands on 3s or 4s, snap them all up!)
Also note: Other Merrell shoes in the 'Glove' range can be great too - Move Glove, Vapour Glove and Pace Glove. They're all a little less durable than the Trail Glove, though
Pros: Very wide toe box allows for lots of toe movement.
Cons: Expensive. Can take some time to get used to as they are very minimalist.
If you decide to go with minimal or barefoot-style shoes, be sure to train up your feet and lower legs in the recommended way (usually meaning to taper across from your other sneakers or runners gradually)
Pros: 'Cloud foot' shape of the sole which makes for great agility and strong ankles. Affordable!
Cons: Toe box is quite snug and may not suit wider feet, sole is less durable.
If you're buying Feiyues, be sure to get them from a Martial Arts store or supplier. This is because there are two types of Feiyues that look very similar (due to one company buying out the rights to the the original)
Pros: Affordable, easy to find.
Cons: A little bit more heel cushion. Toe box can be too snug.
Pros: Very cheap! Easy to get just about everywhere. Cons: Not very durable (you can rip the sole in one wall run if you're unlucky)
Skinners and similar
Pros: Amazing sensitivity, like being barefoot but with a little more protection for the skin.
Cons: Not durable, unsuitable for some types of training (like wall runs and climb ups)
There are several versions of super-minimal shoes, like Vibram Fivefingers, or steel mesh socks, or even reef walkers/ water shoes. They're well worth a try!
Pros: Feels amazing! Great for strengthening feet and lower legs, improving proprioception, maximum sensitivity.
Cons: You'll need to train up to it slowly, and strengthen and condition your lower legs to minimise risk of injury.
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