How Important is Heel-to-Toe Drop in a Shoe?
The terms “heel drop” or “heel-to-toe drop” are relatively new buzzwords in the running shoe industry. If the terms are new to you, you may be able to guess at what they are. But what exactly is heel drop and is it critical to take into account when you purchase your next pair of running shoes?
What is Drop and How Is It Measured?
Historically, running shoes have been manufactured with the heel portion of the shoe higher, sometimes as much as two times higher, than the toe portion. Drop—the differential or offset—has been part of the lexicon for shoe manufactures for decades. The importance of drop was negligible until the boom of the minimalist running movement born in the early 2000s, specifically with the publication of Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run in 2009.
McDougall’s research and the book it spawned make a compelling argument for barefoot running and minimalist running shoes and many of its readers suddenly began paying attention to heel drop when selecting their next pair of running shoes.
Measured in millimeters because the amounts can be so small, typical ranges for heel drop are from 0 to 16mm. Zero drop means that the toe and heel of the shoe are the same distance from the ground. A shoe with a 4mm drop, which seems to be a popular heel drop these days, means that the difference between the height of the toe or forefoot of the shoe is 4mm less than the height of the heel portion of the shoe. According to the blog FootSmart.com, prior to the minimalist shoe movement, a traditional running shoe might have a drop of 12mm.
Does a Low Heel Drop Impact Running Performance?
According to author and contributing editor for Runner’s World, Scott Douglass, proponents of minimalist and low heel-to-toe drop running shoes assert that these types of shoes minimize injury. He further explains that minimalist shoe fans believe that running shoes with a high heel-to-toe drop encourage excessive heel striking which may lead to knee injuries. He also notes that minimalist supporters think that minimalist and low-drop shoes are closer to running barefoot and therefore the impact forces between the foot and the ground are more evenly distributed. Minimalists also claim that shoes with a high drop can cause the body to tilt forward during running, potentially leading to misalignment and injuries. Two 2017 research studies, one with a six-month follow-up period, seem to refute those claims however.
According to a study led by Benno Nigg and colleagues at the University of Calgary, the kinematics (the spatial and temporal aspects of motion1) of the knee and ankle were studied in 35 heel-to-toe striking runners wearing three different types of shoes and also running barefoot. The results of the study suggest that the motion of both the ankle and the knee varied only slightly among the three different types of shoes. Knee and ankle motion varied the most between a traditional running shoe and running barefoot.
A second study looked at more than 500 participants training in running shoes with varying heel-to-toe drops, ranging from 0 to 10mm, and focused on whether heel drop caused any changes in running technique over a six-month time span. Conducted by Laurent Malisoux and colleagues at the Luxembourg Institute of Health and published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, study results indicated that there were no significant changes in running biomechanics that correlated with the rate of heel-to-toe drop. They did find that it may slightly impact knee abduction however.
Do You Need to Pay Attention to Heel Drop?
So, if shoes with a low heel-to-toe drop don’t prevent injuries, should you bother to factor in heel drop when considering what running shoes to buy?
As with many other things running-related, it all comes down to personal preference. Some runners have always eschewed shoes with extra cushioning and a high drop in favor of those that are lower to the ground and less cushioned. Others, after reading Born to Run, jumped on the bandwagon and made the transition to minimalist or even barefoot running. Some tried it once, had a bad experience (i.e. couldn’t walk the next day) and went back to traditional running shoes. (I fall into this category.)
The key to embracing minimalist running shoes is to do it gradually. You can’t all of a sudden go from running in a traditional shoe to running barefoot successfully. (I tried that too. On the beach. Again, couldn’t walk the next day.)
Certified personal trainer, coach and author Jenny Hadfield likens it to relearning to run. She points out that it takes time to rework the mechanics of running with less shoe and she also notes that some never do.
I am one who never did. And in fact I went a completely different route to a maximalist shoe but interestingly, it still only has a 5mm heel drop, something I never even bothered to ask about when trying them on. I was lured by the hefty cushioning both in the forefoot and at the heel that accommodates for the low heel drop. Initially, I did notice that I was striking the ground more on my forefoot, which is a hallmark of the minimalist shoe, but I was able to walk the next day, which was a plus.
Whether you are shopping for shoes with no drop or low drop, minimal cushioning or the maximum amount of cushioning possible, make sure you are fitted by someone who is extremely knowledgeable and can recommend a shoe that is appropriate for your foot strike, gait, running style and frequency. Rather than letting you try the shoes on an in-store treadmill, many running specialty stores have generous return policies and will allow you to return shoes that you have run in but have decided are not right for you.
1Fundamentals of Sports Injury Management, 3rd ed., Marcia K. Anderson and Gail P. Parr, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2011.
- Fundamentals of Sports Injury Management, Book, Apr 18, 2019 ,
- Born to Run, Book, Apr 18, 2019 ,
- The Preferred Movement Path Paradigm: Influence of Running Shoes on Joint Movement, Journal, Aug 01, 2017 ,
- Adaptation of running pattern to the drop of standard cushioned shoes, Journal, Apr 18, 2019 ,
- Does a Shoe's Heel-to-Toe Drop Matter?, Web site, Oct 12, 2016 ,
- Running in Minimalist Shoes, Web site, Jul 24, 2014 ,