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Tennis Shoes Vs Running Shoes: What’s The Difference, and Are They Interchangeable?

Tennis shoes and running shoes might seem similar to the uninitiated, but they're surprisingly sport-specific

Distinguishing between tennis shoes and running shoes goes beyond pure style choices.

People seemingly use the terms “tennis shoes“ and “running shoes“ loosely and interchangeably to describe sneakers. However, each shoe style serves a distinct purpose with key differences tailored to the specific athletic demands of the sport they’re designed for.

Fundamentally, tennis shoes are heavier and offer more lateral stability to reflect the reactive side-to-side movements of tennis players, while running shoes are lightweight, cushioned, and promote forward propulsion – but there’s a lot more to understand besides that.

As a professional running coach who’s also a keen tennis player, I know all too well how easy it is to reach for your tennis shoes while you procrastinate over replacing your worn-out running shoes.

Or, for occasional tennis players, it can be tempting to want to avoid investing in dedicated shoes and use your trusty running shoes instead.

In this guide, I’ll walk you through the fundamental design differences between running shoes and tennis shoes, and why this makes them poorly suited to the other sport. We’ll be covering:

A tennis shoes vs running shoes comparison image on backgrounds showing people running and a tennis racket with balls.
Credit: Marathon Handbook Staff

Why Is There A Difference Between Tennis Shoes and Running Shoes?

Though they’re both forms of athletic shoes designed primarily for outdoor workouts, there are important differences between running shoes and tennis shoes due to the differing demands of the sports they’re built for.

The two types of shoes have fundamentally different design philosophies because of the typical movements involved in their respective sports.

While most major sports brands such as Adidas, Nike, and Asics produce both running shoes and tennis shoes, there are also plenty of sport-specific brands that will only make one or the other. Babolat doesn’t make running shoes, for example, and Brooks doesn’t make tennis shoes.

Tennis shoes are sometimes referred to by brands as “all-court shoes” if they’re intended for use across a range of court-based racket sports such as pickleball and padel with a single pair of shoes, but in this article, we’ll be discussing tennis shoes specifically.

The Design Requirements of Tennis Shoes

Rafa Nadal prepares to return a serve at the Australian Open.
Rafa Nadal prepares to return a serve at the Australian Open.

To start with, let’s think about the movements involved in tennis. Tennis players need to be able to make rapid lateral movements (side-to-side) and require a stable platform underfoot so they can make sudden changes in direction in response to their opponent’s shot.

If you watch a tennis match on television and concentrate on the players’ movements, you’ll notice that they use far more energy moving side-to-side across the baseline (the furthest back line of the court) than they do moving forward or backward.

When they do move forward or backward, they’re usually sprinting in response to a drop shot or a lob by their opponent, rather than jogging.

Their movements are often aggressive, sudden, and reactive, and the shoes take a lot of punishment. Depending on the court surface, tennis players may even slide or skid on their shoes as they reach for a shot (especially on clay courts), also requiring additional lateral support.

These lateral forces are typically even greater in men’s than women’s tennis. This is because male players naturally tend to be heavier than females, and so greater forces are exerted when accelerating and decelerating in any direction.

The Design Requirements of Running Shoes

Person running on an orange athletics track with their shadow visible.

The design philosophy of running shoes is the polar opposite.

In almost all running situations, the primary focus is on forward motion. You’re unlikely to make many side-to-side movements and usually won’t have to make any sudden reactive direction changes as you do when playing tennis.

While tennis players need to be ready to move in any direction at any time depending on the shot their opponent plays, runners almost always need to move in only one direction: forwards.

Therefore, the purpose of a running shoe is to make that forward movement as fast, smooth, and efficient as possible, rather than providing a stable platform for explosive movements.

Tennis Shoes Vs Running Shoes: The 5 Most Important Differences

Now that we know why tennis shoes and running shoes are different, let’s take a look at how those differing design philosophies are reflected in the shoes themselves.

1. Foot Support

Running shoes come in a variety of different levels of support and stability, particularly in the arch, to help control overpronation.

In general, when comparing tennis shoes and running shoes, tennis shoes provide less arch support and pronation control than stability or motion control running shoes. Minimalist running shoes and neutral running shoes are more along the lines of support provided by tennis shoes. 

However, tennis shoes do still offer side-to-side support in the arch, but it’s typically provided through different mechanisms compared to running shoes. Tennis shoes often feature midfoot shanks, stability features, or reinforced sidewalls to provide support during lateral movements on the court.

However, the support in the arch is typically not as pronounced as in running shoes, as excessive arch support can restrict natural foot movement and increase the risk of ankle injury during quick directional changes.

It’s about finding a balance between support and flexibility to ensure agility and injury prevention in tennis-specific movements.

2. Cushioning and Stack Height

The stack height of a shoe refers to how much material lies between the bottom of your foot and the ground based on the thickness. Shoes with a higher stack have more cushioning.

One of the structural differences between tennis shoes vs running shoes is the thickness of the midsole, which is the portion that sits between the insole and the outsole and provides cushioning and arch support.

However, given the range of midsole characteristics across all types of running shoes, it is a little difficult to make universal comparisons of the midsoles of all running shoes vs tennis shoes.

For example, minimalist running shoes or barefoot running shoes have almost no midsole cushioning at all, making the shoe very flat, low to the ground, lightweight, and firm. 

In contrast, maximalist running shoes have a greater stack height, meaning there is a lot of material between the bottom of your foot and the running surface to provide cushioning and shock absorption.1Sun, X., Lam, W.-K., Zhang, X., Wang, J., & Fu, W. (2020). Systematic Review of the Role of Footwear Constructions in Running Biomechanics: Implications for Running-Related Injury and Performance. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 19(1), 20–37. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7039038/

However, in general, tennis shoes have a lower profile and sit lower to the ground than running shoes because they have less cushioning and a thinner midsole. 

3. Shoe Weight

While there is a wide range of weights for running shoes, you will generally find that running shoes are lighter than tennis shoes.

This is because tennis shoes are designed to provide superior traction and lateral stability, and these construction elements add to the weight of the shoe.

In contrast, running shoes are intended to be lightweight to reduce energy costs and improve running economy over long distances.

Studies have found that a 100 gram increase in the weight of running shoes decreases running economy by 1%.2Rodrigo-Carranza, V., González-Mohíno, F., Santos-Concejero, J., & González-Ravé, J. M. (2020). Influence of Shoe Mass on Performance and Running Economy in Trained Runners. Frontiers in Physiology11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.573660

4. Traction

A tennis player slides on their tennis shoes while hitting a forehand on a clay court.

With the exception of trail running shoes, which are designed to provide enhanced traction for uneven and loose surfaces when running on trails, you will find better traction and grip on the outsole of tennis shoes vs running shoes.

Because of the rapid directional changes in tennis, you need to have a good, anti-slip grippy bottom of the shoe to prevent sliding, slipping, and falling.

Additionally, the surfaces tennis is played on (the most common being hard courts, clay courts, and grass courts) offer less grip than the paved surfaces most runners stick to, especially grass and clay courts, so extra traction is required from the shoe’s sole.

There are different tread patterns on running shoes, but overall, the traction is less significant on running vs tennis shoes.

5. Durability and Longevity

Most running shoe companies recommend replacing running shoes every 300-500 miles, depending on the type and quality of the running shoe, your body size, training factors, biomechanics, and how often you run in your shoes (and if you rotate your running shoes).

Running shoes primarily need to be replaced because the cushioning and support in the midsole break down.

Tennis shoes also need to be replaced, but the primary driver behind when to replace tennis shoes is when the outsole tread is worn down.

Because tennis shoes need to provide good traction for directional changes, the integrity of the grip on the bottom is essential. The additional forces exerted on the shoe also mean that the shoe as a whole needs to be more durable than a running shoe, especially in the forefoot.

Most often, it’s the area around the big toe that wears through first on a tennis shoe due to the forces it’s exposed to during the serve (especially for advanced players who are likely to jump during the serve).

You’ll often see that this area has some kind of reinforcement on a tennis shoe for this reason.

Close-up of a runner's feet as they cross a bridge.

Can You Use Tennis Shoes For Running?

While it’s certainly possible to run in tennis shoes, in our expert opinion we don’t recommend it if it’s possible to avoid it.

As can be seen, tennis shoes are structurally and functionally more similar to cross-training shoes than running shoes and are not designed for long-distance running.

They are heavier, less cushioned, less supportive, and often fairly inflexible for the heel-to-toe transition with running. Essentially, the soles of tennis shoes are stiffer and more grippy, and tennis shoes are less responsive than running shoes.

These factors not only compromise the fluidity of your running stride, reducing your running economy, but you also increase the risk of injuries when running in tennis shoes instead of running shoes.

You’ll be faster and safer when running in the right shoes, designed specifically for the purpose.

Why Can’t You Use Running Shoes On A Tennis Court?

Arguably, it is an even worse idea to use running shoes for tennis than vice-versa.

The lack of lateral stability and ankle support for aggressive side-to-side movements in running shoes significantly increases your chance of injury while playing tennis, with ankle sprains and twists especially common.

Using your expensive running shoes for tennis could also end up costing you more in the long run than investing in some tennis shoes, as playing tennis will make your running shoes wear out shockingly quickly.

In particular, I’ve learned from experience that it doesn’t take many big serves to start destroying the mesh upper of your running shoe around the big toe, especially on your dominant foot as you push off from it during the serving action.

Furthermore, some member-only racquet sports clubs won’t even allow you to play tennis in running shoes.

This is usually because they’ll only allow white soles (much more common for tennis shoes than running shoes) to avoid leaving scuff marks on the court that are impossible to remove, but there may also be a desire to protect themselves from liability in case you injure yourself.

Want to know more about running shoe design? Check out:

References

  • 1
    Sun, X., Lam, W.-K., Zhang, X., Wang, J., & Fu, W. (2020). Systematic Review of the Role of Footwear Constructions in Running Biomechanics: Implications for Running-Related Injury and Performance. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 19(1), 20–37. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7039038/
  • 2
    Rodrigo-Carranza, V., González-Mohíno, F., Santos-Concejero, J., & González-Ravé, J. M. (2020). Influence of Shoe Mass on Performance and Running Economy in Trained Runners. Frontiers in Physiology11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.573660
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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