Running shoes are probably the most important piece of equipment a runner invests in. Runners know that good shoes should offer cushioning, the right support, and the perfect fit.
But something that’s not often considered is the heel-to-toe drop. Many runners may not even know what heel-to-toe drop means and how it relates to the way you run.
In this article, we’ll cover what it means, why it’s important, and what sort of heel-to-toe drop is best for different runners.
What Is Heel-to-Toe Drop?
The heel-to-toe drop in a running shoe is the difference between the height of the forefoot and the height of the heel.
You may have noticed that the heel of most shoes sits a little higher than the toe. This is because there’s usually more cushioning in the heel. So your foot is angled slightly downwards from the heel.
For example, a shoe with a heel-to-toe drop of zero would have the forefoot and the heel at exactly the same height off the ground. On the other hand, a shoe with a forefoot height of 10 mm and a heel height of 22 mm would have a drop of 12 mm.
When running shoes were first manufactured, most of them were quite flat and also didn’t have a lot of cushioning. The first significant heel-to-toe drops started appearing in the 1970s, during a running boom.
While people run in different ways, it’s common for runners to land on their heel. To soften this, manufacturers started adding more cushioning to the heel. This also created a downward “ramp” midstride, making it feel like you are running downhill.
What’s the Difference Between Heel-to-Toe Drop And Stack Height?
The stack height of a shoe refers to the thickness of the sole. It’s usually measured at the thickest part—the heel—but you’ll also often see it split into heel stack height and forefoot stack height.
You may see shoes labeled as minimalist or maximalist, which refers to the stack height.
As an example, the Hoka Bondi is a maximalist shoe, with a forefoot stack height of 32 mm and a heel stack height of 36 mm—which means it has a heel-to-toe drop of 4 mm.
On the other hand, the Altra Duo has a stack height of 30 mm in both the forefoot and the heel, which makes it a zero-drop shoe.
Heel-to-Toe Drop Ranges
While shoes range from zero to 12 mm heel-to-toe drops, they are split into ranges depending on whether they’re high, medium, or low.
Zero-drop shoes have exactly the same forefoot and heel height.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re minimalist or “barefoot” shoes—like the example of the Altra Duo above, they can have a significant amount of cushioning underfoot.
There’s a belief that zero-drop shoes are the most natural design, as they mimic how your foot lies when you’re barefoot—with the heel and forefoot at the same height.
However, most zero-drop shoes still offer a good amount of cushioning and arch support. So while they may be “barefoot” style, if they have cushioning, they’re still highly shock-absorbing.
You do get true barefoot shoes, like the Vibram Five Fingers, but they’re specifically designed with very little cushioning so you truly feel like you’re running barefoot over the ground.
Low Drop: 1 to 4 mm
Shoes with a heel-to-toe drop of between one and four millimeters are considered to have a low drop. You don’t usually find shoes with a one, two, or three mm drop, but 4 mm can be seen in some shoes, like various Hoka and On Cloud models.
They can still offer a lot of cushioning and good arch support, or you can find shoes that are closer to “barefoot” style with little padding. A low drop encourages a forefoot or midfoot striking gait.
Medium Drop: 5 to 8 mm
Medium drop shoes are less common, as they’re sort of in-between the most used ranges.
However, for those trying to transition from high to low-drop shoes, spending some time in medium-drop shoes on your way down is worthwhile. This will help your feet to ease into the new drop with less risk of discomfort or injury.
High Drop: 8+ mm
Heel drops of 8 mm and above are considered to be classic running shoe drops. Most running shoes are made in this range, especially in the 10 to 12 mm range.
You might have heard that high heel-to-toe drops are best for heel strikers due to the cushion under the heel, but it’s also thought that the extra cushioning in the heel actually encourages a heel strike due to the weight distribution.
How to Choose the Right Heel Drop for You
There’s no specific heel-to-toe drop that’s considered to be the best. It depends on multiple factors that are specific to the individual.
It’s important to note that foot strike isn’t a great indicator of the drop you should get. In many cases, a high drop with its naturally chunky heel padding leads the runner into becoming a heel striker even if this isn’t their natural strike.
If you can figure out your natural foot strike without the influence of your shoes, then you can choose the right heel-to-toe drop for your natural foot strike.
Natural heel strikers will do better with a high heel-to-toe drop, which will provide more protective cushioning underneath the heel.
On the other hand, midfoot and forefoot strikers will find that lower-drop shoes boost their performance as they work with their natural foot strike.
It’s important to note that although wearing a shoe with a lot of cushion in the heel and high heel-to-toe drop is likely to force you into a heel strike, the same isn’t necessarily true for wearing low-drop shoes.
Wearing a lower drop won’t necessarily encourage a forefoot or midfoot strike if it’s not your natural strike. You’ll need to work on your form in order to switch to a different foot strike.
If you are often injured, you may want to consider choosing a different heel drop than what you usually wear. Your current heel drop may contribute to the strain on certain areas of your feet and legs, leading to pain.
Lower-drop shoes can help relieve pain in those suffering from ITB band syndrome, knee pain, and gluteal overuse syndrome.
However, you’ll get more ankle flexion in low-drop shoes, which means those with weak ankles or calves might be more prone to pain and injury.
High-drop shoes can help to alleviate the pain of plantar fasciitis, calf pain, and Achilles tendonitis. While they tend to keep the ankle more stable, they may not be great for those with knee or hip injuries.
Wearing the wrong heel-to-toe drop for your foot will show signs. Aside from potential injuries, aches, and pains, you may feel discomfort without knowing quite why. The heel-to-toe drop you choose should feel natural and comfortable.
However, keep in mind that switching from your current drop to another may be uncomfortable at first, even if the new drop is likely to be better for your feet. It’s important to base your choice on foot strike and injuries before comfort.
A lower-drop shoe offers a better chance to improve your cadence if that’s something you’re aiming for.
It encourages a forefoot strike and a shorter stride length as a result, which could make you a little faster. Just be aware that you’ll need to actively work on adapting your form.
If, however, you have a problem with overstriding on a forefoot strike, choosing a higher heel drop can help to eliminate this issue.
Should You Change Your Heel-to-Toe Drop?
You’ve been experiencing pain or an increase in injuries. In this case, you may want to switch to a different foot strike, and choosing a different heel-to-toe drop can help you do that.
It’s an especially good idea if you’ve been diagnosed with an injury or ankle, knee, or hip pain that can be traced to your gait.
If you’ve been running in a certain heel drop without any problems and you’re comfortable and happy with your own foot strike. Then there’s no need to change your foot strike.
In these cases, changing your foot strike may do more harm than good. If you want to try to improve your performance by switching to a forefoot strike, be aware that it’s a long process and you must be committed.
If You Choose to Change:
Don’t just buy a new pair of shoes with a lower drop and start running in them. This is the fastest way to injure yourself! You’ll need to switch gradually to allow your feet to get used to the new drop.
For example, if you’re transitioning from a 12 mm drop, go for a pair of shoes with a 10 mm drop first. Then, when you need a new pair, choose one with an 8 mm drop. From there, you can move to a 4 or 5 mm drop, and further down in your next pair if necessary. The same is true if you want to move from a low to a high drop.
Or, if you don’t have the patience or budget, buy shoes with the drop-height you want, but gradually ease into them. First, use them once or twice a week for a couple of miles at a time. Then, slowly increase that amount.
It may sound like a long process, but if you switch too quickly, you’re at a high risk of developing an injury, which could set you back weeks to months anyway.
If you are going from a high drop to low, you will likely notice calf muscles being engaged in ways they weren’t before. Expect soreness and fatigue.
Being patient is necessary if you want to make the change without pain and injury.
Remember That Insoles Contribute
It’s important to remember that the insoles you use with your shoes can also make a difference. Not all insoles are zero-drop, so if you’re using an orthotic, be aware that it could add a few mm to your drop.
It’s a good idea to try to find an insole with a zero drop so that it doesn’t make any difference to the drop in your shoes.