New runners have a lot of vocabulary to learn when first getting into the sport. Among the talk of paces and intervals and training cycles, technical terminology from the shoes world can get lost in the shuffle. Still, understanding running shoes is crucial to finding a pair that will make you the best runner possible. And one of the most important terms to know is “heel-to-toe drop.” When I first got into running, I had never heard this term. But as I’ve gotten more involved in running, I’ve learned what it is and what it means.
In this article, we’re going to cover the background on heel-to-toe drop and what to look for in running shoes so that you get the best possible product for you! By the end, you will not be wondering anymore what that weird phrase means.
What Is Heel-To-Toe Drop in Running Shoes?
Also known as offset, heel-to-toe drop simply means the difference between the heel height and the forefoot height in a shoe. Typically, the drop is given in millimeters.
As an example, if a shoe has 25 mm of material under the forefoot, and 30 mm of material under the heel, the heel-to-toe drop would be 5 mm. Running shoes often have more material under the heel to protect a runner’s feet from landing too hard.
However, running shoes with a lower heel-to-toe drop are more even in thickness throughout the midsole. To put it more simply, if the heel is fatter and thicker, there is a larger heel-to-toe drop.
Where Did Heel-To-Toe Drop Come From?
Running shoes are built around raised heels for mechanical reasons. First, the padding helps a runner land more softly, ostensibly reducing fatigue. Raising the heel also encourages the body to lean slightly forward, which some say improves running form. Shoes were like this for decades, without controversy. But then….
Heel-to-toe drop became a hot topic of conversation after Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run was published. In it, the author talks about the world’s greatest distance runners, who happen to come from a rural tribe in Mexico.
They don’t use any fancy footwear, instead running barefoot or in sandals. And they don’t get the same kinds of injuries your running buddies have. No tendonitis, no shin splints, no stress fractures. McDougall’s premise is that maybe we really don’t need all the cushioning from running shoes. Humans evolved their running mechanics long, long before shoes were invented, so we are born being ready to run. McDougall discusses the concept of barefoot running and how it had become popular throughout the United States.
Contrast this with typical running shoes, which focus on cushioning and making the foot comfortable. Running shoes now feature layers of foam of varying thicknesses. Some say these shoes allow more people to run further, faster, and with fewer injuries. Others say the exact opposite: that it is these shoes with high heel-to-toe drops that are causing injuries. The advent of minimal and zero-drop shoes has not eliminated injuries, so the debate remains open.
Still, as barefoot running began to sweep through America, there was increasing development of minimal and zero-drop shoes (and even five-fingered shoes like Vibrams) as well as major running shoe brands lowering the drop for a more “natural” feel.
What is the Range of Drop in Running Shoes?
There are a variety of ranges of drop in running shoes from true barefoot shoes to extremely cushioned ones.
In zero drop shoes, your heel and forefoot are level, encouraging a mid-foot or forefoot strike. Many of these shoes are also “barefoot” shoes. They often have no cushion in the heel pad and a very small layer of material between the shoe and the ground.
You should note that heel drop and cushioning are not the same thing. While there aren’t very many of them, you can find a cushioned zero-drop shoe. You’ll experience less impact on your knees, but remember that the impact has to go somewhere, and lower drop shoes tend to put more stress on your lower leg.
Zero-drop was first coined by the makers of Altra Shoes, so you can always find zero drop shoes there. Another example is the New Balance Minimus.
This drop is considered a minimalist shoe. It’s for individuals who want more of the barefoot running experience, but aren’t quite ready for zero-drop. Hoka One One features a 4-millimeter drop across much of their line.
A minimalist drop is also going to encourage a forefoot or mid-foot strike. Shoes like these tend to be lightweight, with little arch support. Cushioning and flexibility have to come from your stride.
Shoes will a small drop tended to be fairly common until the 1970s when running became more popular. Brands like Nike and others started to develop more cushioned shoes. Now with the barefoot running phenomenon, low drop shoes are coming back into style. Even the major brands are releasing minimalist models.
This heel-to-toe drop is the typical range for running shoes, as it works for a wide variety of runners. It’s not minimalist, but at the same time, it’s not extremely cushioned. One example is the women’s Brooks Launch which has a heel-to-toe drop of 10 millimeters.
You’ll get the cushioning that you need in your heel with this type of drop, and since the 1970s, somewhere around 10 mm has been the typical drop for running shoes. Since this style is so popular, a very wide range of models is available, from support to stability to trail and mountain running shoes.
This high drop is ideal for runners who aggressively heel strike, who have tight calves, or who have Achilles tendonitis. It will be harder on your knees and hips, but easier on your lower leg, including your ankle, Achilles tendon, calf, and foot.
The men’s Asics Roadhawk FF 2 is an example of an 11 mm drop shoe. The heel cushioning is fairly firm, as is the forefoot, but the flexibility is pretty low.
Is Heel-to-Toe Drop Really That Important?
Yes. Heel drop is a key factor in how one running show differs from another. Put another way, it is why one shoe might be right for you, and another be very much not right. Different heel drops are better for different runners. As getting a good running shoe is the most important thing you can do as a runner, it’s worth considering what kind of heel-to-toe drop is going to be best for you.
The science hasn’t concluded that barefoot running is better. It’s best to go based on your individual needs. You should choose what you like and what feels comfortable to you.
Low drop shoes (typically less than 8 mm) tend to work better for runners who land on their toes or mid-foot, whereas high drop (typically above 10 mm) tend to be better for runners who heel strike. The reason for the latter is that having additional cushioning in the heel can put less of an impact on the runner’s foot.
Something else to consider is that barefoot and minimalist shoes require very good form, meaning that you need to consistently land mid-foot, have short strides, and maintain a high cadence. This is usually more difficult for the newer runner.
Heel Drop and the Experienced Runner
Even if you’re experienced, you’ll want to give yourself some time to get used to barefoot or minimalist shoes. Experts recommend running first on softer surfaces like grass and sand if you decide to try a barefoot running shoe. Then transition to harder surfaces like asphalt and concrete.
You may even want to think about switching the heel drop on your shoe every time you have to get a new pair so that your foot will react differently to different drops and may reduce stress injuries that you can experience from running.
Or you might consider buying two (or more!) pairs of shoes for different types of runs. Maybe you love a low-drop shoe for intervals but one with a higher drop is best for long runs. Do what’s best for you.
Do remember, though, that it’s important to transition slowly to new shoes, especially if you’ve selected a shoe that has a drop that is greater than 4 mm different from your current shoes or if you’re dropping down.
Will a Zero or Low Drop Shoe Prevent Running Injuries?
Despite what some shoe companies claim, there is not strong evidence that a zero or low drop shoe can prevent running injuries. In 2014, Vibram, a company that produces five-fingered barefoot running shoes, settled a class-action lawsuit of over $3 million due to a customer’s claim that Vibram was using deceptive marketing claims that couldn’t be proven by science, including a claim that running in their shoes strengthened a runner’s muscles in the lower legs and feet.
Fancy running shoes are a recent thing, whether barefoot or plushly cushioned. Science hasn’t really confirmed which shoe is best overall, so it’s better to focus on maintaining good form and taking care of yourself instead of relying on your shoes to prevent injuries.
Shoes with different drops might encourage you to run better, but you’re going to have to actually make some gait, strike, cadence changes in order for any shoe to help you, barefoot or not.
Retraining Your Feet
And not taking the time to transition properly to barefoot or zero-drop shoes will also impact your running and may even cause injuries like plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinopathy, and stress fractures.
Even so, you might consider changing the drop in your running shoes (or even better, changing your running form) if you’re getting chronically injured. It’s worth talking to your doctor or physical therapist about what kind of drop would be a good fit for you. Your local running store is also an excellent resource on how to match shoes to runners.
In the end, while barefoot running has become quite the movement and as a result many people have learned about heel-to-toe drop, you don’t necessarily need to rush out the door and purchase a pair of zer0-drop shoes.
Instead, as we hope that we’ve shown through this article, it’s worth considering how you run and what’s going to be best for you. Knowing your heel-to-toe drop will help you make good decisions in the future about your running shoes.