Tennis Shoes vs. Bowling Shoes: What’s the Difference?


If you’ve ever gone to a bowling alley and paid to rent shoes, you’ve probably wondered why. What makes bowling shoes different from any other shoe? Are they really so different from tennis shoes?

Bowling shoes are different from tennis shoes, mainly because tennis shoes are designed for friction, and bowling shoes are designed for glide. Bowling shoes have soft, smooth soles, and tennis shoes have tough, textured soles.

CategoryBowling ShoesTennis Shoes
PurposeStability and glideFlexibility and grip
SolesSmooth, no tread, rubber or leatherTread, rubber
MaterialRubber, leather, plasticRubber, synthetic fabric
TerrainIndoor onlyOutdoors, grass or clay
ModificationsInterchangeable solesDifferent shoes for varieties of pronation styles
AppearanceOften bright and clunky, some newer sleeker stylesWide variety of styles and colors
InvestmentWorth it if you’re playing more than once a monthWorth it if you’re playing more than once a month
PriceLikely to find a good pair costing $35-$60Likely to find a good pair costing $70-$100
HistoryFirst mentioned in 1888First version in 1936

The rest of this article will explain these differences in more detail, considering how different sports call for different makes and features. We’ll also explore the question of when buying a pair of these shoes becomes a worthwhile investment for you and look at what specific shoes might be best for your needs in both bowling and tennis.

Purpose

When you play tennis, you are constantly in motion, coming to abrupt halts and running in quick bursts of movement. These fast stops and starts are so integral to the game that tennis toe, an injury caused by stopping too quickly and jamming your toe against the top of your shoe, is named after this sport.

The tennis shoe is designed accordingly to accommodate this level of activity. It is created to be light for maximum speed, support the toe and the ankle, and grip the court. Traction is incredibly important to avoid slipping and injuries and promote dexterity, so tennis shoes have textured rubber soles.

On the other hand, bowling shoes are created for the smooth motion of delivery: the process of approaching the lane and releasing the bowling ball. Unlike the quick changes of direction and spontaneous movement of tennis, bowling is deliberate and measured.

The best technique involves a run-up and a slight slide as the ball is released: this allows for greater control over the ball’s momentum and movement than an abrupt stop would offer. Consequently, bowling shoes are designed to work with the lacquered wooden approach floor to maximize glide potential. 

Soles

The difference between these two sports means that the shoes are designed for very different purposes, which has the most significant impact on the make of the soles. The sole is what makes bowling shoes so unique: unlike most athletic shoes, which aim to give you a good grip on the ground, these are actually created to minimize friction.

Bowling shoes are made with soft rubber or smooth leather soles, with no or shallow heels. The lack of tracks can make them slippery, but they are perfect for a controlled approach and gradual stop. Shoes that work to prevent abrupt stops not only allow for a cleaner game; they are also safer because they cut down on injuries due to overbalancing, tripping, or pulling muscles.

On the other hand, tennis shoes do their part to prevent injuries: their excellent grip and rubber traction increases friction and stability during running and pivoting to avoid slips, but most serious bowlers find that they are too ‘sticky’ to wear if you are looking for a perfect approach.

Tennis shoes also have flexible, bendy soles for increased movement, jumping, and running on the balls of the feet, while bowling shoes have thicker, more rigid soles.

Material

Shoes are made up of the upper, the part of the shoe that covers the foot, and the sole, the bottom part of the shoe that comes between your foot and the ground. Both of these elements have a wide variety of possible modifications and materials, and in both tennis and bowling, the materials of the shoes make a significant impact on the game.

In bowling, a solid stance is essential in making a good delivery, so bowling shoes aim to provide stability. While there are some with uppers made of cloth, synthetic or natural, they are usually made of stiffer, sturdier materials like leather and rubber, sometimes with synthetic plastic. These give more support to the ankle.

Tennis shoes are designed for flexibility and breathability. All the running and exercise that the sport requires can cause players to heat up and sweat, and so athletic shoes more generally and tennis shoes specifically are created to be breathable and wick moisture away from your foot.

Rather than leather and plastic, the upper part of tennis shoes is often made of fabric. Tennis shoes used to be mainly made of cotton. However, as innovations in athletic shoes have developed, manufacturers have created lightweight synthetic materials in open weaves, which allows for greater movement.

Tennis, unlike bowling, calls for side to side movement – running back and forth along the net. Tennis shoes are specially reinforced for these lateral movements, with extra support reinforcing the shoes’ inner sides. 

Terrain

The reason that you can’t wear regular shoes in a bowling alley is to preserve the smooth, lacquered surface of the wooden approach to the lanes. Some bowlers do wear sneakers or tennis shoes to bowl, but they will use a dedicated pair that they never wear outside.

This is because shoes that are worn outside will track dust and debris into the bowling alley, increasing the friction on the floor’s surface, making it harder to glide. This can then disturb the approach of the bowler wearing outdoor shoes and anyone else using the approach.

Another reason that bowling shoes should not be worn outside is that the soles’ soft surface can be easily damaged, increasing the friction and reducing the smoothness and control of the glide.

Tennis shoes, however, are perfect for outdoor wear. Whether you’re playing on an outdoor or indoor court, tennis shoes are designed to grip the surface of the court, and better traction can actually increase your speed.

Modifications

Interchangeable Soles

One of the things that set bowling shoes apart in the world of athletic footwear is that you can buy bowling shoes with a variety of interchangeable soles. You won’t find this on the basic bowling shoes you rent at your local alley. Still, professional bowlers will have a selection of different heels and soles they combine in various configurations for different levels of grip and slide.

One reason for this is that every bowling alley will have a slightly different smoothness on their approaches, and at that level of play, even those nuances impact the delivery. Professional bowlers will tour the tournament circuit and choose different soles according to the alleys’ slipperiness.

There are three basic categories of bowling shoes: rental shoes, athletic shoes, and performance shoes. The ones you rent are basic, with sliding soles on both feet. Athletic shoes are mid-range in price, and they also have a sliding sole on both feet. These are the sort of shoes you are likely to buy if you bowl regularly but not to a competitive level.

Finally, performance shoes are of the highest quality. Unlike the others, they only have a sliding sole on one foot, and the other foot, called the braking foot, has a rubber sole with grip. The sliding foot is the one on the side of the bowler’s dominant hand, and the braking foot is the opposite. 

This discrepancy allows the bowler to anchor themselves with the braking foot for more controlled delivery. Performance shoes are the category where you will find interchangeable soles.

Tennis Shoe Modifications

Different tennis shoes are made to support different feet and gaits, the key here being your pronation. In a step, the outer part of your foot hits the ground first. Pronation is the movement of your foot rolling inward during the motion of a step. Those with low arches can over-pronate, putting too much pressure and impact on the foot, while those with high arches can be prone to imbalance or rolling their ankles. Check out this helpful guide for figuring out which you are.

The good news is that you can buy shoes to help stabilize your movement and bring out your best game. For under pronators with flat feet or lower arches, an example of a good shoe is the Adidas Barricades. The supportive insole on this shoe will help correct and modify the heavy impact on your gait. If you tend too far in the other direction, the Nike Air Zoom Cage 3 offers durability to prevent supination, more commonly known as ankle rolling.

Appearance

Bowling shoes are rather infamous for their garish colors and unappealing style. Part of this is strategic on the part of the bowling alleys: making the shoes unattractive decreases the likelihood that people will steal them. It also means that, should someone steal bowling shoes and wear them outside, it would quickly be obvious to onlookers what had happened. The brightness of the shoes acts as a deterrent.

On the other hand, while primarily functional, tennis shoes come in a wide range of colors and styles, and over the years, have carried increasing social currency. Professional tennis players strike multi-million dollar sponsorship deals with athletic equipment companies to wear their brand, such as Rafael Nadal’s 10-year deal with Nike. Sales of the shoes favored by famous tennis players shoot up and become a style and status symbol as well as a functional choice.

Investment

So, do you need to buy dedicated shoes for either of these sports? Are they worth the investment? 

Bowling Shoes

For bowling, it all depends on how regularly you bowl. Sporadic bowlers will probably find that renting shoes is the simplest and easiest way forward. However, if you are bowling multiple times a month, shelling out to rent shoes every time you bowl may start to feel ridiculous.

If you’re part of a league or bowl as a regular hobby, it is definitely worth investing in some athletic bowling shoes of your own. Not only will this save you money in the long run, but it will also help you to develop more consistency in your delivery. Not to mention that it’s substantially more hygienic!

If you’re looking for a fairly affordable pair of athletic bowling shoes, check out the men’s KR Strikeforce Aviator shoes. Unlike the majority of bowling shoes, these have been designed with breathability in mind with a unique mesh covering, and they claim to be ’40 % lighter than comparable rubber outsoles.’

For women, the BSI Classic is a great spin on the traditional bowling shoes, while the Dexter Kristen Women’s Shoes are a more understated option, with the added benefit of side panels for breathability.

If you’re looking for something a little more high-end, these men’s Dexter Bowling SST 8 Pros might be for you – they have interchangeable soles and a leather toe-drag to help your game get to the next level.

Tennis Shoes

Tennis shoes are also an investment in your game. If you are only an occasional player, you can probably get away with putting on your jogging shoes or regular sneakers for a quick game. But if you are playing tennis with any kind of regularity, the lateral support offered by tennis-specific shoes is invaluable. Having the right shoes not only elevates your game but is a serious factor in preventing injury.

You may want to consider the women’s Air Zoom Vapor X. This is based on the shoe that Roger Federer wears, and it is a great option for something flexible and fast, with a Zoom air cushion unit in the heel to reduce impact. For something with greater support and an incredibly sleek look, check out ASIC Gel-Resolution.

For men, the K-Swiss Performance Bigshot is a great choice for beginners or if you’ve sustained an injury in the past and you want the extra security of excellent support. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something that will stand up to some hard playing, Adidas’s Adizero Ubersonic 3 is a durable and popular pick.

Price

Like all athletic equipment, there is a huge range of quality on offer when it comes to tennis shoes and bowling shoes. The price you pay determines the quality and the level of style you receive, so think about how important this sport is to your lifestyle. The cheapest are rolling in at under $30 and the best of the best selling for hundreds of dollars. Within this wide range, it is difficult to say definitively that one type of shoe is more expensive than the other.

However, a casual perusal of the lists of best-rated shoes on Amazon, both for bowling and tennis, is revealing. In general, there appears to be a sweet spot when it comes to bowling shoes, with the most popular and highly reviewed pairs coming in between $35-$50. There is a wider range with tennis shoes, but they are edging closer to that $100 mark with more regularity.

When you take into account all of the special edition and all-star endorsed models out there, and it’s safe to say that, in general, tennis shoes are more expensive.

History

The ground-breaking invention of a rubber sole for shoes was promoted, unsurprisingly, by the U.S. Rubber Company in 1892, but it wasn’t until 1936 that the first shoe designed and marketed specifically for playing tennis was sold. Since then, new innovations have continued to give players better and more tailored shoes, elevating the game as a whole to new levels.

The historical evolution of bowling shoes is not as well recorded, but it is believed that the first pair of leather bowling shoes was popularised around 1888. Significant improvements are fairly recent, however, with the removable and interchangeable heel being patented in 2006.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, bowling shoes and tennis shoes are very different. Made for very different sports, they offer players benefits suited to the needs of the game. Tennis shoes need to be durable to stand up to the wear and tear of running and jumping, flexible to allow for maximum movements, and high traction to give solid grip.

On the other hand, bowling shoes need to preserve the smooth wooden approach in bowling alleys, as well as offer the right combination of stability and glide. The smooth soles of bowling shoes are unique among athletic shoes, and bowling shoes are also set apart by the way that performance shoes give their pairs different soles on the right and left foot.

Whether you’re looking to improve your delivery in the bowling alley or your agility on the tennis court, one thing’s for sure: the right shoe is crucial. Invest in the right shoes, and enjoy the game.

Sources

Tim C, M.D.

My grandfather and my mother both taught me bowling in the early 1970’s. I spent the next few decades working my way up to the top tiers of local amateur bowling leagues, and continued to participate in college at the club level. My wife and bowled in coed leagues before kids, and then taught our kids bowling as they grew up. Now I’m here to answer some of the web’s common questions about bowling rules, techniques, equipment and more. To see more about the site, check our About Page

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