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This question also has an answer here (in German):
Wann benutzt man “laufen” und wann “rennen”?

I can’t quite grasp the difference between laufen and rennen. I know they both mean running. In Italian, my native language, we just have this one traslation for both of them, and so I can’t decide when I can only use one of them. Are they equivalent, or is there any difference?

Could you explain the difference, if there is a one, in connotation through examples?

PS: Yes, I saw and tried to understand the other question regarding the topic, but since it is in German I can´t properly understand. I would appreciate an English explanation to fully understand. Thank you

  • Look here: de.pons.com/… – Barth Zalewski Dec 8 '14 at 15:00
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    But do not hesitate to ask for clarifications or translations of the answers to that question, if the German is too much for you. – Wrzlprmft Dec 8 '14 at 15:02
  • see also: Was bedeutet eigentlich “laufen”? – Walter Tross Dec 8 '14 at 15:15
  • Maybe I shouldn't use a third language, but anyways... Laufen can also be andare di buon passo, while rennen cannot. – Walter Tross Dec 8 '14 at 15:18
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    @userunknown Why don't you write your own answer then? – Matthias Dec 11 '14 at 9:19
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To start with, we can distinguish two types of "movement on your feet":

  1. At every point in time you have at least one foot on the ground. You are walking.
  2. There is a short moment when both feet are off the ground. You are running.

Depending on context, we use different words for each type. In sports it is easy. In that context, "laufen" is exclusively used for a type 2 movement, while type 1 is called "gehen". So racewalkers are "Geher" in German, while all runners from 100m sprint up to Marathon are called "Läufer". And although we use the noun "Rennen" in sports, the corresponding verb normally isn't used there.

Outside of the sports domain, "rennen" is always used for a type 2 movement:

zur U-Bahn rennen
um die Wette rennen
um sein Leben rennen

Usually it also implies near maximum speed (relative to you capabilities).

The meaning of "laufen", however, can vary. When applied to a person, it always means "movement by feet", but beside this it is a very general word. Consequently, we say "Ein Kind lernt laufen." If you want to learn about speed, you have to listen to the context:

At a party:
Tschüß, ich gehe jetzt nach Hause.
Läufst Du, oder nimmst Du den Bus? Ich gehe zu Fuß, es ist ja nicht weit.

Here "laufen" is used just to make clear the person is going by feet, and not using a vehicle. Nothing is said about speed, from experience we can conclude she will walk normally.

Some tourists could say

Wir sind den ganzen Tag durch die Stadt gelaufen.

and again we can assume they were walking.

However, when someone says

Ich laufe jeden Morgen 10km.

she most likely means that she is running a lot. The same holds true for phrases like

Seit ich angefangen habe zu laufen, fühle ich mich viel besser. [He wouldn't emphasize that he started it if was about walking.]

And of course in

Lauf um dein Leben!

"laufen" means "rennen" as fast as you can.

And then there are the vague cases, like

Ich muss laufen, um den Bus noch zu kriegen.

From the subclause we can conclude that there is some hurry. But here "laufen" can mean "walk fast" as well as "run" (though maybe not at maximum speed, otherwise using "rennen" would have been more likely). Personally, the phrase sounds a bit strange to me, maybe because it is vague. I would not recommend using it and rather prefer "ich muss mich beeilen" or "ich muss rennen".

One word about "gehen": in many contexts it denotes "changing location" by any means:

ins Exil gehen
zur Schule gehen
ins Gefängnis gehen

But when it is clear that it is about moving by feet, it is always "type 1". In that way it is consistent with sports language.

tl;dr
"Rennen" is running fast and means a type of movement where both your feet are leaving ground at the same time. "Laufen" will mean the same when you are talking about sports, otherwise it is a general word for moving by feet, and you need context to know of there is something said about speed.

  • "Ich muss laufen, um den Bus noch zu kriegen" ist Standarddeutsch und kein Sport. Sport oder nicht ist kein Kriterium. Laufen umfasst einfach langsame und schnelle Fortbewegungen, Rennen nur schnelle. – user unknown Dec 11 '14 at 6:00
  • @userunknown Speziell diesen Satz habe ich zwar erst gehört, nachdem ich in den Süden gezogen bin, und rein vom Gefühl gehört er für mich ins selbige Panoptikum hiesiger Ausdrucksweisen wie "Ich bin an der Haltestelle gestanden." or "Die Tram is langsamer wie die U-Bahn." Ich wäre versucht zu antworten: "Klar, die Sänfte ist noch in der Reparatur." Aber im Kern hast Du Recht. Ich habe meine Antwort entsprechend überarbeitet. – Matthias Dec 11 '14 at 9:18
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    SZ, [sueddeutsche.de/sport/… rannte in 9,58 Sekunden ins Ziel - und konnte sich am Ende sogar noch ein paar Mätzchen erlauben.) Wenn ich rennende Leute beobachte weiß ich meist wenig über deren mögliche Maximalgeschwindigkeit - das sieht mir aus wie eines dieser Phänomene erfühlter Sprache; kennt man den Unterschied nicht erzählt manirgendwas und schwächt die Aussage mit "oft, wahrscheinlich" und subjektiven Vorlieben "würde ich empfehlen" ab. Bläht die Texte sinnlos auf. – user unknown Dec 12 '14 at 6:13
  • Die Idee dass über Sport anders gesprochen wird als über Laufen/Rennen sonst kommt mir sehr gewagt vor. Zwar gibt es auch Sportjargon, aber Laufen ist so ein alter Sport und so alltäglich. – user unknown Dec 12 '14 at 6:17
  • @userunknown Dein Link ist leider kaputt, aber von dem Ausschnitt her paßt es doch wunderbar: eben weil man normalerweise nicht davon spricht, daß Leichtathleten "rennen", kann der Autor das Verb hier gebrauchen, um zu unterstreichen, daß für Bolt das Rennen scheinbar ein Kinderspiel war. – Matthias Dec 12 '14 at 9:17
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The answers to the other question give very detailed elaborations on the difference. Hence, I will put it very, very simple here.

Laufen has basically two meanings in regard to your question; there are others that are off-topic here.

  1. It means to go by foot, and is synonymous to gehen:

Hast du den Bus genommen? - Nein, ich bin gelaufen.
Did you take the bus? - No, I walked.

  1. It means to run, and is synonymous to rennen. The subtle difference is that rennen is interpreted as "schnell laufen" and thus, generally, connotes a faster speed.

Ich musste rennen, um den Bus noch zu erwischen.
I had to run (fast) in order to catch the bus.

  • The answer is close but misses the point. Laufen is a metaword for moving by foot but while rennen always means a speedy way of laufen, it isn't therefore faster than laufen. Fastest rennen is still laufen. Proof: Usain Bolt läuft im 100 m Lauf. You will hardly find a faster rennen. – user unknown Dec 11 '14 at 5:55
  • No! It's the main point that "Laufen" and "Rennen" are not synonymous ("gleichbedeutend"), that they are not meaning the same. (Of course, they are similar enough that, in a given situation, they are meaning the same - because the difference is not relevant to the situation). – Volker Siegel Apr 22 '15 at 1:05
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I think what throws you is regional differences. All the explanations given by the other answerers are correct-- for formal "Hochdeutsch", and for the Northern half of the German-speaking area. There, "laufen" and "rennen" are synonyms. But in the South, and particularly in Schwäbisch, "laufen" is a synonym of "gehen." (E.g., I can say, in dialect-inflected speech, "we don't need the car, wir können auch laufen.") If you're in the South and you want to refer to running, you need "rennen."

  • "rennen" is actually an immigrant from the north - Older people say "sauen". – tofro Jun 19 '18 at 15:09
  • "laufen" as a synonym of "gehen" also applies in the North. – Oliver Mason Jun 19 '18 at 15:26
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So, let's try to put this in english:

Rennen is the easiest to explain: The corresponding noun is das Rennen (the race).
Therefore "rennen" means to run really fast or as fast as possible.

With laufen it depends on context:

  1. Run at a more relaxed speed, jogg (like running, but slower).
  2. Move on foot (to differentiate from going by bus /car...). In this case, it can be synonymous to "gehen" ("walk").

Ordered by speed:
gehen -> laufen -> rennen

But be aware that laufen tends to "spread" a bit... Especially in SW-Germany we use "laufen" instead of "gehen" and a "100-Meter Lauf" is quite a fast race...

  • I don't quite agree about that order. "laufen" is either identical to "gehen" or almost to "rennen", depending on context. "Hast du den Bus genommen? - Nein, ich bin gelaufen." is equal to "gehen". "Ich musste laufen, um den Bus noch zu erwischen" is equal to "rennen", but just a bit slower. – Em1 Dec 8 '14 at 21:20
  • In athletics lingo, the verb "rennen" is hardly ever used, so in that context "laufen" is also used for racing (which has no direct equivalent, even though "the race" is "das Rennen"). – Carsten S Dec 8 '14 at 22:13

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