Tennis shoes, running shoes, walking shoes, sneakers, they are all the same, right? Many people, myself included, assume that the different types of athletic shoes have more to do with marketing than actual performance.
Turns out, I was wrong. A few decades ago, there wasn’t a lot of difference between one type of shoe and another. However, as technology and research have improved, much more goes into shoe design than you might think.
The right type of shoe for the sport and type of court you are on actually matter. There are a surprising amount of variations in court shoes. Knowing which ones you need and how to choose the right shoe can keep you at the top of your game and may reduce your risk of injury as well.
The types of court shoes we will look at are:
- Racquetball and Squash
But why should I have to buy court shoes? Why not just buy running shoes?
Many people who play court sports also run. They already have running shoes. But running shoes and court shoes serve different purposes.
Running shoes provide comfy support. They cushion, stabilize, and support your feet. Running shoes have cushioned heels and toes to reduce foot trauma from toe-to-heel strikes on the ground. But because running is all in the forward direction, running shoes don’t provide a lot of support for lateral motion.
Running shoes are designed for everybody so they don’t offer special support features for anybody. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons describes them as “neutral” shoes that are fine if you have high arches and who are of normal weight.
Running shoes aren’t for you if you have flat feet or if you are overweight, and they aren’t for people who play court sports.
Court shoes give you lateral support and stability.
While court shoes aren’t uncomfortable for toe-to-heel forward motion (they aren’t ideal for running, but they aren’t uncomfortable for running), their primary function is to keep you in control over your feet during side-to-side, lateral motion.
Many of the quick movements in court sports are side to side, not forward and back. Court shoes support your feet in lateral motion. Because your feet undergo greater impact when you are making lateral moves in court sports, court shoes have greater support at the sides than at the heels and toes.
Why not just make a shoe that accommodates both kinds of activities? When you are running a race, every ounce counts. Running shoes are made both to cushion heels and toes and to be lightweight. They are so lightweight that many people wear running shoes for everyday activities.
Court shoes aren’t lightweight. They provide support for the kinds of motion that are important for a winning edge in court sports. You will feel a lot better wearing court shoes when you are playing a game on the court, but very few people would use court shoes when they aren’t playing their game.
Court shoes are considerably more durable than running shoes. Usually, it’s time to discard your running shoes after the tread on the sole wears down. If you don’t, you are at heightened risk of taking a fall on the wet or slippery pavement after about 500 miles of running.
The soles on-court shoes, in contrast, seldom wear out. When you have to replace your court shoes, it’s usually because you have worn a hole in the side of the shoe.
Now let’s take a look at the different types of court shoes and what makes each unique.
Do You Really Need Specialized Shoes?
If you aren’t a pro athlete, you may be tempted to just pick up a pair of cross-trainers and call it a day. However, the right shoe for your sport is important. It can improve your performance and increase your endurance. More importantly, it can help reduce your risk of injury.
Shoe performance is probably not something you think about when you are on the court, but it does have an impact on how well you play. You take the time to select the right tennis racket. You choose basketball shorts that are comfortable and allow freedom of movement. Your feet deserve the same consideration.
Men vs. Women: Color Isn’t the Only Difference
Color and style are an obvious difference between women’s and men’s court shoes. Size probably comes to mind as well. However, in addition to being larger, there are a few differences between them.
Men have wider feet than women. Athletic shoes come in different widths, which can compensate for this issue. However, men’s shoes have a squared-off toe while women’s shoes have a rounded toe. The rounded toe actually gives women a little extra push by providing a greater surface area.
Women have a greater angle of extension from the hip, which causes their feet to turn inward. Women’s shoes require extra midsole stabilization to compensate for this. Men’s shoes are considered to be more durable than women’s, although it’s hard to say whether this is simply perception or reality given how far shoes have come.
Tennis shoes are often used as a catch-all to describe athletic shoes. They were originally designed for the British Navy. The name sneakers come from the lack of noise the shoes produce, as opposed to the heavier and noise shoes they were used to.
So how did they become known as tennis shoes? Because aristocrats began using the shoes in their sports due to their comfort and performance. The main sport was tennis, hence the name of tennis shoes.
For our purposes, we are referring to modern shoes designed to play tennis and not athletic shoes in general in the following description.
Tennis Shoe Design
Tennis shoes are flatter than most types. They are designed to be sturdy and provide plenty of support. Most sports require lots of vertical movement, but tennis has a lot of lateral movement. This requires a shoe design that provides support when you are in lateral motion.
It also needs to support sudden starts and stops, and provide traction on the court surface. Tennis shoes often have specially designed tread patterns on the sole that is designed for different court surfaces.
There are a few variations in tennis shoe designs. The first is dependent on the type of player you are. If you are a baseline player, you perform lots of lateral movement and typically stay at the back of the court. You’ll need a shoe that provides plenty of lateral support.
If you are a serve and volley style player, your movements will be different than that of a baseline player. It’s common to slide your toe across the court when serving, and you will be making frequent charges on the net. You will need a shoe with a toecap or reinforced toe, and a medial inside the arch of the shoe.
The other consideration is the type of court you play on. Hard courts require a durable sole, while clay courts require a sole with good traction on the softer surface. You can also choose muli-court shoes, which are designed to play on both types of courts.
Best Tennis Shoes:
- Wilson: Great selection in styles from a company that knows tennis
- Nike Cage: Geared towards durability and sliders, worn by pros and amateurs
- Adidas Adizero Ubersonic 3: Inexpensive, options to choose based on court or playing style
Raquetball and Squash
The moves in racquetball and squash are similar to those of tennis. Although with tennis, most players either focus on vertical movement or lateral movement, racquetball and squash require a mix of both.
You’ll need to be able to move quickly from side to side and backward and forwards. Since most shoes are designed to allow vertical movement, it’s wise to focus on those that allow lateral movement, and support sudden starts and stops.
You’ll also need shoes designed for the court itself. Running and outdoor tennis shoes are designed for very different surfaces. Raquetball courts are similar to basketball courts. They are smooth and require a non-marking sole.
Gum rubber is usually best for both courts. You’ll need something designed to give you traction on the slippery surface that doesn’t risk damaging the floor.
What are the must-haves in racquetball shoes?
First of all, it’s important that the soles are made of gum rubber. Gum rubber “grips” a sealed wooden court with more traction than regular rubber. Basketball shoes have regular rubber soles, which is another reason not to use them for playing racquetball. It is easy to recognize gum rubber soles. Gum rubber is usually yellow or brown and has lots of tiny grooves in it.
Your club will probably require you to wear shoes with gum rubber soles so you won’t mark the floor.
The other must-have in racquetball shoes are the right size. More than for any other kind of court shoe, size makes a difference. Your racquetball shoes have to be comfortable. Your toes should be slightly behind the edge of your shoe.
You don’t want to jam your toes into your shoe. You should be able to wiggle your toes inside your shoes. You should be able to feel where your toes are in relation to the end of your foot with your fingers through the top of the shoe.
It’s always a good idea to try on shoes before you buy them (or buy shoes with a return policy). It’s always best to try shoes to see how they fit when your feet are at their largest. For most of us, this is at the end of the day.
Or just after you have played a racquetball match! Racquetball is a game that will cause your feet to swell, so you need to try the shoes when your feet are at their largest. If the shoes aren’t comfortable, don’t buy them, or send them back. If you don’t invest time in this step, you may be very uncomfortable in your shoes after a match.
It is important to remember that racquetball shoes don’t come in unisex sizes. Women’s feet and men’s feet aren’t shaped the same. Especially in a high-impact, fast-moving sport like racquetball, you need a shoe made for the contour of your foot. Keep in mind that men’s sizes run higher than women’s sizes when you are choosing the perfect shoe for racquetball.
Best Shoes for Raquetball and Squash:
Python Deluxe Indoor Court Shoes: Men, non-marking, shock-absorbing heel
Head Men’s Sonic 2000: Specially designed heel support
Gel Rocket 9 Women’s: lightweight, extra cushioning and support, gum rubber sole
Badminton shoes are similar to racquetball and volleyball shoes. Either of these can be used for badminton, but shoes designed for badminton are still a better choice. Badminton shoes are designed to give you the right traction on a badminton court and feature unique tread patterns.
Badminton shoes should feel almost like not wearing shoes while still offering you support. They should be lightweight to allow the quick footwork that you need. They should provide ankle support for pivots and lateral movement.
They should fit snugly and have a nonmarking sole, usually made from gum rubber. They have a thinner sole that provides a low center of gravity which is perfect for pivoting movements.
Best shoes for Badminton:
Yonex Eclipsion: Women’s, Great stability, snug fit, power cushion and gum rubber sole
Li-Ning: Men’s: flexible sole with multiple pivot points, tight heel to prevent rollover
Yonex Eclipsoin Men’s: Graphite sheet for support, power cushion
Many indoor court shoes are listed as being for racquetball, squash, volleyball, and badminton. You might have noticed a theme here. Yes, you need volleyball shoes. There are differences between these sports, and differences between the type of shoe (as well as types of cleats for field sports) that will perform the best.
Volleyball shoes provide the traction you need to perform on a volleyball court. They also have extra cushioning, because volleyball involves a lot of jumping. Lateral movements are important in volleyball, as in other sports, so you will need shoes that support the lateral movement as well.
Gum rubber is recommended for most indoor court shoes. It’s absolutely necessary for volleyball. You will need the flexibility to perform the necessary movements, as well as the traction they provide. It’s also important so you don’t damage the volleyball court.
The midsole is one of the key differences in volleyball shoes. When you play volleyball, much of your time is spent on the balls of your feet instead of being flat. This means you need a shoe with lots of flexibility.
It also means that you will need extra cushioning and support in the midsole of the shoe. This helps prevent pain, fatigue, and injury, and makes play more comfortable. Volleyball shoes generally have a foam, gel, or air-cushioned midsole. Some shoes combine two of these features.
Volleyball creates more shock than other sports due to frequent jumping, so your shoes must have proper cushioning. It also has to be firm enough to allow quick movement changes. If your shoe doesn’t provide proper cushioning and support, you are at risk of developing an injury. The shock from repetitive jumping is hard on all the joints in your feet and legs, including your knees and even hips.
Volleyball shoes should be light and narrower than those designed for basketball. It may seem like a minor consideration, but your shoes can actually weigh you down, especially as a match progresses.
Best volleyball shoes:
Adidas Men’s Stabil X: sling cage for stability, boost midsole for jumping
Asics Gel Rocket 9 Women’s: lightweight, gel cushioning provides shock absorption and stability
Asics Gel Rocket 9 Men’s: lightweight, gel cushioning, trussic system
Basketball shoes are designed specifically for basketball. To play your best, you don’t just need a basketball shoe. You need the right style of basketball shoes. The midsole of a basketball shoe will provide cushioning while still giving you stability.
Foam and gel midsoles are the most common, due to their weight and effectiveness. They should also have extra cushioning at pressure points, usually in the heel and forefoot.
The outsole of a basketball shoe will be wider than most other court shoes. It will also be relatively flat. This provides you with a wide stable base to perform the movements required in basketball. Most moves in basketball are forward and backward.
The tread patterns on the outsole are designed to facilitate this type of movement. They are often a herringbone or hexagon pattern, which provides traction on an indoor court surface.
Basketball court shoes are surprisingly complex. Which style is best for you will depend on your style of play. The two biggest differences between the types of basketball shoes are height and weight. High-top shoes provide great ankle support. They also come with extra weight. If you are a forward or have a powerful aggressive playing style, a high-top basketball shoe is your best choice.
If you are a guard, you’ll need to make quick agile movements. Low-top basketball shoes provide less ankle support, but they are lighter and more flexible. If you frequently change positions or prefer a balanced all-around style, a mid-top shoe will provide you with some ankle support without the extra weight of a high-top shoe.
Best Basketball Shoes:
Nike: lots of men’s, women’s, and children’s basketball shoes categorized by type and features
Adidas Men’s Pro: mid-top, cloudfoam shock absorption, herringbone outsole
Under Armour Women’s Jet: Superior support, bootie, breathable
Basketball played on an outdoor court is often known as streetball. Basketball shoes are often designed for indoor court play. If you are playing on an outdoor asphalt court, you will obviously have different needs than you will if you are playing on an indoor wood court.
The mechanics of the game are the same, but the difference in surfaces means that you really need a different shoe for outdoor play. You’ll notice a few differences in shoes designed for outdoor courts.
The tread pattern is often different than indoor court shoes to provide you with the traction you need on the surface. They are also made from a harder rubber than indoor court shoes. Indoor court shoes will wear out quickly when worn on an outdoor court.
Breathability is also more of a factor. Because outdoor courts aren’t climate controlled, you’ll need greater breathability to prevent your feet from sweating.
Best Streetball Shoes:
Under Armour Men’s Lockdown: Breathable, durable, cloud foam cushioning
Adidas Streetball Men’s: Durable outsole, light strike cushioning
Under Armour Women’s Street: Lightweight, durable, body-mapped fit, great support