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Heel-to-Toe Drop: What is It and What to Look For in Running Shoes

If you’re new to running like I was less than a year ago, I had never heard of heel-to-toe drop. But as I’ve gotten more involved in the running community, 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 Mean in Running Shoes?

Also known as offset, heel-to-toe drop simply means the amount of material under the heel relative to the amount of material under the forefoot of the shoe. Typically, the drop is given in millimeters.

As an example, if a shoe has 25 mm of material under the foot 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 the thickness of material under the entire foot from heel-to-toe. 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?

Heel-to-toe drop has become more well-known in recent years, thanks to the publication of Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, which talks about the world’s greatest distance runners who happen to come from a tribe in Mexico.

They don’t use any fancy footwear, so McDougall’s premise is that maybe we really don’t need all the cushioning from running shoes. We are born being ready to run. McDougall discussed the concept of barefoot running and how it had become popular throughout the United States.

As barefoot running began to sweep through America, there was increasing development of minimal and zero-drop shoes (and even five-fingered shoes like Vibrums) 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.

Zero drop

These are barefoot shoes. They often have no cushion in the heel pad and a very small layer of material between the shoe and the ground. And there is zero drop, meaning that your heel and your foot are level, encouraging a mid-foot or forefoot strike.

But 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 0 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.

 

4-6 mm

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 a 0 drop. Hoka One One features a 4-millimeter drop in that line.

A minimalist drop is going to encourage a forefoot or mid-foot strike. Shoes like these are lightweight with little arch support to provide both some cushioning and flexibility as well as encourage the natural running motion.

Shoes will a small drop tended to be fairly common until the 1970s when running became more popular, and 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.

7-10 mm

This heel-to-toe drop is pretty typical for running shoes, as it works for a 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 was 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.

11+ mm

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, it is because 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 in all cases, so 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 to toe running shoes

And 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 and then transitioning 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?

No, a zero or low drop shoe will not 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 that couldn’t be proven by science, including strengthening a runner’s muscles in the lower legs and feet.

Because fancy running shoes are a recent thing whether barefoot shoes or even cushioned shoes and science hasn’t really confirmed what shoe is best overall, 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.

heal to toe shoes

And not taking the time to transition properly to barefoot or 0 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.

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 0 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.

The Wired Runner