Trainers, Sneakers, and Running Shoes – What’s the Difference?

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One of the biggest parts of running is choosing the right shoes. Get this wrong, and you’ll be uncomfortable and open to potential injury. But get it right, and you’ll only need to worry about your training and races.

You may have a few questions if you’re buying your first pair of shoes. Trainers, sneakers, and running shoes – what’s the difference? Does it matter? Which one should I choose? Are men’s and women’s shoes different?

In a nutshell, yes, it matters. Let’s dive into the differences between each shoe so you know what to look for and why!

Main Differences: Trainers vs. Sneakers vs. Running Shoes

One shoe might look like any other shoe to you. They vary in color, style, upper material, and “coolness,”… But there are some differences between these types of shoes.

Purpose

All three shoes are designed for different purposes. This is perhaps the most important difference—if you choose a shoe that’s not designed for what you’re using it for, you’re putting yourself at risk of injury and you won’t be comfortable.

Trainers

Trainers—also called cross-trainers—are versatile shoes. They come in many different types, some designed specifically to be a sort of jack-of-all-trades. You can use them to go to the store, take a short run, hit the gym, or wear for a bike ride.

Some are more specialized, like tennis, basketball, or badminton shoes. Weightlifting shoes are also usually specialized and count as cross-trainers, but these types are specially designed for one activity only.

Sneakers

Sneakers are casual-wear shoes. They’re usually available in many more colors than athletic shoes, and they are designed for comfort and not performance. You technically can run or play sports in these shoes, but they’ll hurt your feet, put you at risk of injury, and wear out much faster than usual.

Running Shoes

As their name suggests, running shoes are designed for running! They come in various designs, from extra-cushioned for easy recovery runs to bouncy, carbon-plated shoes for speed.

Design and Style

Each of these shoes look different once you know what to look for! It’s mostly about the materials used to craft each type of shoe.

Trainers

Trainers usually have an athletic look to them. They can come in various materials, but they usually have a reinforced midfoot to help support lateral movement, so they might look quite sturdy.

They’re usually made of synthetic material for extra support and may have small mesh sections for breathability.

Sneakers

Sneakers are most often made of synthetic material and may even be waterproof. There’s not a lot of breathability in these shoes—they’re closed designs with thick material that holds your foot in place.

They can come in a huge variety of styles and colors, depending on the brand and the shoe’s popularity. High-top sneakers are popular, as are platform shoes with an extra-thick outsole.

Running Shoes

Running shoes are the most athletic-looking of the three. They usually sport a mesh upper, which is easy to differentiate from the synthetics of the other two. Most running shoe brands offer an array of colors.

Activity Suitability

Each of the three types of shoes is suited to a particular activity or group of activities. Choose the right one for the right activity to have the best experience.

Trainers

These shoes are designed for cross-training. If you play a particular sport—let’s say tennis—you should invest in a pair of trainers for that specific sport. Tennis shoes will have an outsole designed to withstand heavy use on the court surface, plus support on the sides of the shoe to help you move laterally with ease and safety.

If you want a pair of jack-of-all-trade shoes, they’re usually designed to protect your feet against twisting or rolling over during fast direction changes. Ultimately, trainers are suited to activities that have you moving side-to-side instead of forwards and backward.

Sneakers

Sneakers are designed for casual wear. They’re made with comfort in mind, so they’re great for outings to the mall, visiting friends, or doing everyday errands. Sneakers are not designed to withstand high-impact activity.

Running Shoes

Running shoes are made for running. You can wear them casually, although we recommend not wearing the same pair for running and casual wear.

They’re designed in such a way to provide shock absorption during high-impact activities, to support the arch and prevent the foot from rolling, and some have extra support to stop side-to-side movement.

Note that you also get different running shoes for different types of running. Shoes made for easy, slow runs will have more cushioning, while those designed for speedwork will be more streamlined and lightweight.

Sole and Cushioning

This is the heart of a shoe’s performance. Each of these shoes are a little different, based on the type of activity they’re designed for.

Trainers

Trainers are often flatter than other shoes, with a low heel-to-toe drop for added stability during side-to-side movement. There’s often a touch less cushioning in these shoes, unless they’re specifically made for high-impact sports.

The outsole of a pair of trainers is usually specific to its sport—tennis and squash shoes will have non-marking rubber for court use, and so on. General trainers will often have multi-directional tread underneath to facilitate side-to-side movement.

Sneakers

Sneakers usually don’t have a ton of cushioning underfoot because they’re not made for high-impact activities. They’re often pretty flat, with a very low heel-to-toe drop, if any.

You’re also likely to find smoother outsoles here because you don’t really need any serious traction.

Running Shoes

Running shoes come in varying degrees of cushion. Minimalist shoes offer very little for a close-to-the-ground feeling. Some runners feel more comfortable with a “barefoot shoe” as they believe it positions the foot more naturally and encourages good form.

On the other end of the spectrum are maximalist shoes. These can have up to 40 mm of padding underneath your foot, designed to mitigate shock on every step. Most running shoes fall somewhere in between, and the heel-to-toe drops can vary between zero-drop and 12 mm.

Trainers

Planning on cross-training? Here’s what you should know about trainers.

Features of Trainers

Trainers usually have a flat sole with a very low heel-to-toe drop for added stability in the lateral plane. They’re made of sturdy material and often have some sort of midfoot support for extra sturdiness.

The outsole can vary, depending on what exactly the trainer has been designed for. Some will have non-marking rubber; others will have almost plastic material that’s not very sticky.

What Are Training Shoes Good For?

The main purpose of training shoes is to stabilize your feet during side-to-side movement. They’re designed to prevent the foot from rolling, either inwards or outwards, keeping your foot planted so you can move efficiently and stay stable on your feet.

When to Wear Training Shoes

If you play a sport like tennis or basketball, you can find training shoes specifically for your sport to maximize your performance. Otherwise, if you move from activity to activity, you can find a pretty good “general” pair of sporty shoes.

We don’t recommend using them for running. They’re not designed to protect your feet from impact, so you’ll be at risk of injuring yourself. But, most training shoes can be used for activities like:

  • Weightlifting
  • Yoga
  • Dance
  • HIIT
  • Plyometrics
  • Aerobics

What to Look for in Training Shoes

First, ensure you get the right shoe for your activity. e.g. a tennis shoe. Also, make sure your trainers have adequate arch support, firm heel support, a wide platform, and fit properly.

Sneakers

Features of Sneakers

Sneakers are usually made of synthetic materials and aren’t too cushioned. They most likely have a flat sole and can have a low-top or high-top ankle collar, depending on the style.

They’ll often have a smooth, less sticky outsole than trainers or running shoes, as well as a low heel-to-toe drop. You’ll find much less cushioning in them than athletic shoes.

What Are Sneakers Good For?

Sneakers are good for casual wear. They’re not built with performance in mind, which means they have no support features built into them to protect your feet, so we recommend not using them for sports. But they go great with a casual outfit!

When to Wear Sneakers

Choose sneakers when heading out on a date, to meet friends, visit someone, or go shopping. They’re made for style and comfort, so they’re not the best choice for sports.

What to Look for in Sneakers

Look for sneakers made from high-quality, sturdy material. There should be enough cushioning to be comfortable for you, or at least a removable outsole so you can add your own if necessary.

Aside from that, choose something you like! Sneakers are largely about style and individual taste, so have fun with these.

Running Shoes

Running is a high-impact sport, so choosing these shoes at the right time is imperative. Here’s what you should know.

Features of Running Shoes

Running shoes are often the most tech-heavy of the shoe types. Each brand has their own special midsole foam, support technology, and more. Even within different brands, there’s so much choice within the “running shoes” category.

You can choose minimalist shoes, with little to no cushioning; maximalist shoes, with the most cushion you’ve ever had underfoot; shoes with a high drop, zero-drop shoes, trail running shoes, track spikes, shoes made for comfort, and shoes made for speed. Each one has slightly different features.

In general, they have a mesh upper to allow for great airflow, a great midfoot lockdown, and a rubber outsole to provide stability on multiple surfaces.

What Are Running Shoes Good For?

Running! They give you everything you need to run safely and freely. The midsole helps to absorb shock as you run, protecting your joints and tissues from being jarred. Some midsole foam also adds a bit of bounce, helping to propel you forward.

You can get running shoes to suit all arch types. Stability shoes are designed for overpronators, to stop their feet from rolling. Neutral shoes—the majority of running shoes—are suitable for neutral runners and overpronators.

When to Wear Running Shoes

Wear running shoes when you run! You can wear them casually because most of them look good enough for that.

But we don’t advise wearing the same pair for both running and socializing, or they’ll wear out twice as fast. Stick to running in your running shoes.

What to Look for in Running Shoes

Getting the right running shoes is important. First, make sure you know your arch type and your gait, so you know what kind of support you need for your foot. Once you know that, the second thing to figure out is whether you need a road or trail running shoe.

Aside from those two factors, choose a shoe that fits properly—we advise getting your feet properly measured—that provides the right amount of cushion according to your liking, and use a heel-to-toe drop you’re already familiar with.

Risks of Wearing the Wrong Shoes

At best, you’ll experience discomfort if you choose the wrong shoes for your activity. The level of discomfort may vary, but you’re not likely to be completely comfortable.

At worst, you’ll get injured more often, and your sporting performance will be reduced. The wrong shoe can hold you back from reaching your full potential. The right shoe can help you reach all your running goals.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.

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