Choosing Your Table Tennis Shoes

Do You Have Happy Feet?

Yasaka Gatien Pro Deluxe Table Tennis Shoes
Yasaka Gatien Pro Deluxe Table Tennis Shoes. Photo by courtesy Table Tennis Pioneers

When new ping-pong players start to get serious about the sport of table tennis, one common question that pops up is whether it is worth buying special table tennis shoes. In this article I'll examine whether it is worth your while buying proper ping-pong shoes, and what to look for if you do decide to upgrade to specific table tennis shoes.

Papa Needs A New Pair of Shoes

The first question you should ask is whether you really need a new pair of table tennis shoes.
The main consideration is whether your current shoes are hampering your table tennis play in some manner. So if you are slipping and sliding around the court, your feet ache by the end of the day's play, or your shoes feel like lead weights after a little while, you should probably upgrade to a specialist table tennis shoe. If you are perfectly happy with your current shoes, then there is no pressing reason to buy a shoe designed for table tennis - unless you want to, of course!

Even if you are happy with your current sneakers, I would suggest trying at least one pair of real ping-pong shoes, just to give you an idea of what a ping-pong shoe is like to play in. If you then decide to stick with your old shoes, at least you know that you aren't missing out on anything.

Other Racket Sport Shoes

Another common question that crops up is whether shoes designed for other sports - such as badminton, squash, or tennis - are OK to use instead.
Personally, I'd say that as long as the shoe meets your requirements, then it really doesn't matter whether it is a table tennis shoe or not. Many of the badminton and squash shoes are just fine for table tennis. Tennis shoes tend to be a little heavier and may not have enough grip on all surfaces, but if you like them then that's all that matters.

Table Tennis Shoes - What to Look For

Regardless of whether your shoe is a specialist table tennis shoe, or some other type of racket sport shoe, there are a number of factors to keep in mind when selecting your new shoes.
I would hesitate to say that any particular factor is more important than others, but you should think about each one before making your final decision. You can also check out my list of Top Ten Table Tennis Shoes if you want to see what's popular in table tennis circles.
  • Comfort - if anything is a dealbreaker, comfort is probably it. Despite all of a shoe's other good qualities, if they aren't comfortable to play in, then they probably aren't the right shoe for you. You will hopefully be playing many games in them, so make sure that your feet feel great in your new shoes. And if you are like me and wear orthotics or maybe special gel insoles for comfort instead, then you had better try the shoe out with your normal inserts - a shoe that feels great without any inserts can feel wrong once you put your orthotics inside.

    The breathability of the material used in the shoe will also affect how comfortable it is to play in. Full leather shoes and some of the heavier fabrics can toast your toes unless they have adequate ventilation holes, while most lighter mesh fabrics give plenty of ventilation to let the heat out.

    Also, bear in mind that some shoes are wider than others. Don't assume that because a shoe is your normal shoe size, it will fit well. Some manufacturers are notorious for producing wide (or skinny) shoes, and sometimes the Asian sizing doesn't quite match up as you would expect according to the comparison charts for US and European equivalents.

  • Support - different players require different amounts of support from their shoes. I personally prefer a shoe that is cut low around the ankle, but I am fairly indifferent about whether the shoe is made of firm or soft material. As an orthotics user, I don't care about whether a foot arch is included, but you might want one for extra support. Make sure you get a shoe that matches your requirements for support - you'll feel the difference by the end of a long day on the court.
  • Shock Absorption - this is one factor that can really vary a great deal between ping-pong shoes. Since most table tennis shoes are designed to be as light as possible, the amount of shock absorbing material sometimes get sacrificed to lighten the load. This may not matter if you never play for very long, or play on a nice wooden sprung floor, but if you are playing for long times on concrete or a hardwood floor, your joints will pay the price for skimping on the shock absorbing stuff. Also, keep in mind that the shock absorbing qualities of your shoe are going to reduce over time - so while the rest of shoe may still look fine, you probably won't want to be using that shoe for long times on concrete.

    Continuing to wear shoes long after the shock absorbing qualities have become inadequate is something that many table tennis players are guilty of (including me!). It's hard to throw away what looks like a perfectly good shoe. If you only play for brief periods, you might get away with it, but if you are playing for longer periods, then do your joints a favor and replace your shoes at least every six months or so - and more often if you play a lot. Your body will thank you.

  • Weight - extra weight in the shoe is something that will slow you down and tire you out over the course of a long day. Lighter is better - but keep in mind that making a shoe light usually involves some sort of compromise in other areas due to the reduced material, so those ultralight shoes you buy may not be very good at giving support or providing shock absorption.
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  • Durability - the more durable the better, of course. Soles that are stitched to the uppers will generally last longer than soles that are glued to the uppers, especially if you drag your toes from time to time. Soft inner soles will probably wear out faster than harder insoles, but these days new insoles can be purchased from distributors for a small cost. Leather will be more durable than most fabrics, although most shoes should wear out their shock absorption ability long before tearing the fabric of the shoes becomes a problem.

    Similarly, rubber soles will not last as long as the plastic varieties, but this is not really a factor since in most cases the shock absorbing qualities will have deteriorated long before the sole is worn out. If you are waiting for the sole to wear out before changing your shoes, you are waiting way too long!

  • Grip - this is another biggie. You want a shoe that grips just how you like it. Some players like a little bit of slide, while others (like myself) prefer as much grip as they can get. Some surfaces are more slippery than others - for example, Taraflex isn't as grippy as a clean wooden floor. We all know how slippery a dusty and dirty wooden floor can be!

    If you prefer a lot of grip, then go for a flexible rubber sole with a ribbed/patterned surface. If you like to slide a little, then things get more complicated, and you may need to buy two different types of shoes - one set with a harder plastic sole for very grippy floors which will allow you to slide a little, and one set with normal rubber soles for more slippery floors. But if you are sliding into position like Roger Federer at the French Open, you need more grip!

    Also, as Carl Danner kindly pointed out, a shoe that has soles that come up the side of the shoe around the toes (such as the Yasaka Gatien Pro Deluxe shoe pictured above) can be useful for allowing you to roll your foot a little and still be able to grip when pushing off, instead of having your shoe slide away on its edge, which can cause you to slip at a time when you are very vulnerable to injury.

  • Stiffness/Torsion - table tennis shoes will vary in the amount of bend they possess between heel and toe, and from side to side. Some players prefer less stiffness, and others prefer more. Too much bend and you will receive less support from the shoe, and too little and your foot will be constricted when you move around the court.
  • Looks - while not affecting the your game directly, playing while wearing a stylish shoes feels good and can give you a mental boost. And if you lose, at least you looked good out there!
If you are looking for some examples of fine table tennis shoes, you should take a look at my list of Top Ten Table Tennis Shoes for a sample of what's available out there.