The CrossFit Sneaker Wars Are Heating Up

Collage: Gabe Conte

In the summer of 2015—five years after Reebok signed a landmark deal to become the official athletic brand of CrossFit Inc.—Nike announced that its own competing cross-training sneaker, the Nike Metcon, had been officially banned from the sport’s flagship CrossFit Games competition.

CrossFit had developed a reputation for litigiousness, and sneaker brands other than Reebok had to be careful to avoid references to the sport of CrossFit in marketing their own cross-training shoes—some sneaker blogs had even reported being threatened with legal action for suggesting that other, non-Reebok cross-training shoes might reasonably be worn during CrossFit workouts. But this was the first time that CrossFit Inc. had taken the step of actively barring its athletes from wearing a competitor’s footwear during the Games, which meant that even Nike-sponsored athletes were not allowed to wear Metcons for the competition.

Nike’s response was characteristically cheeky. They created a new colorway for the Metcon inspired by the original Air Jordan 1, which had been infamously banned by the NBA for failing to meet the league’s standards around acceptable proportions of color in the shoe’s design. The “Banned” Metcon 1, in black and red, was advertised on an enormous billboard right outside the arena in Carson, California where the Games were taking place. It featured an unforgettable tagline in huge capital letters: “Don’t Ban Our Shoe. Beat Our Shoe.”

A lot has changed since then. To begin with, Reebok dissolved its long-running partnership with CrossFit in the summer of 2020, after CrossFit’s founder and CEO Greg Glassman was roundly criticized for his remarks about COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd on social media. After Glassman removed himself from the company, CrossFit began a new partnership with the upstart Boston-based athletic brand and sportswear manufacturer NoBull, which became the title sponsor of the CrossFit Games in 2021. That deal elapsed at the end of the last Games season in 2023, and CrossFit recently announced yet another new partnership with “rucking and tactical training” brand GORUCK.

The dissolution of the Reebok deal has essentially created a power vacuum in the cross-training shoe space, with no one brand having stepped in to become the sport’s go-to sneaker.

A mess of different players are all vying for a piece of the pie. There is the Nike Metcon, which recently introduced its latest model, the robust and technically advanced Metcon 9. There’s NoBull’s simple, stripped-down fabric Trainer, which has proved popular with some recent high-ranking Games athletes. There’s the R.A.D. One, created by a former CrossFit gym owner and Games athlete, which is making waves on the scene. And there’s the new Reebok Nano X4, which still has a legacy connection to the sport, even if it’s no longer officially CrossFit affiliated.

Part of the problem is the breadth and complexity of the sport itself. CrossFit is “constantly varied high-intensity functional fitness,” and involves a combination of Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, powerlifting, running, rowing, cycling, and more. A good CrossFit sneaker needs to be light and springy enough to help you bounce up from a burpee into a 30” box jump, while also flat and sturdy enough to get deep into a wall ball shot or a 400-pound back squat. It needs to be thin enough to feel contact with the floor in a heavy deadlift, but soft and pliable enough to give you some cushion during 5K runs.

It’s hard for one shoe to do it all. The Metcon has a small insertable heel plate to add support during wall balls and a grippy band along the inside body to add traction during rope climbs—both relatively helpful features when you’re in the middle of those movements, but somewhat obstructive when you’re doing anything else. The NoBull trainers are made of its proprietary SuperFabric, which makes the shoe breathable and lightweight, but the lack of arch support makes them almost impossible to run in and uncomfortable even on walks. An advantage in one area means a disadvantage in another.

And then there’s GORUCK. New on the scene (although with roots in the world of CrossFit), GORUCK was founded by a husband-and-wife team with backgrounds in the Special Forces and the CIA. As its name suggests, it’s known primarily for rucking equipment, and as such the deal with CrossFit came to many people in the fitness community as something of a surprise. GORUCK’s signature CrossFit shoe, the Ballistic Trainer, is on sale on its website next to combat and rucking boots “inspired by Vietnam-era jungle boots” and “the broad spectrum of mission requirements of Jedburgh teams of WWII.” A little hardcore-sounding for a gym shoe, but maybe that’s what it takes to get the job done.

There’s no telling who will emerge atop the heap, but one thing does seem certain: The battle for CrossFit shoe supremacy is only going to keep getting fiercer. It was fitting that when Reebok launched the new Nano X4 earlier this month, it did so by taking shot at Nike and the Metcon line: The reveal announcement trailer mocked the feature-heavy Metcon for its unnecessary rope guard plate and various other ad-on features, ridiculing them as a bunch of stuff “no one asked for” and imagining a futuristic CrossFit shoe that has its own built-in cooling system and booster jets. The Nano X4 went the other way—sleek, pared-back, no nonsense.

But you can’t help but wonder if the jab wasn’t also a nod to their own competitive history as brands—and to their former fight in the field of CrossFit sneakers. Reebok’s no longer in any position to ban the Metcon, after all. So now Reebok needs to beat it.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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