What is Your Running Shoe Heel Drop?

Fitness Challenge Online - Fleet Feet Panel Discussion Running Shoe Heel Drop

Have you bought a pair of running shoes lately? I’m sure you’ve seen people on the road or trail with varying forms of footwear, including some that made me question whether it counted as “shoes”. You’ve seen the Vibram FiveFinger shoes right? Yeah. Those are a little out of my comfort zone.

But that style of shoe is part of a bigger movement. A movement that a lot of runners agree started with the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Barefoot running, or getting as close as you could to it, became the focus of runners everywhere. Very quickly the market started shifting to natural running. The conversation heated up about the height difference between the heel of your shoe and the toe.

What does running shoe heel drop mean for you?

A quick technical explanation of the stack heights. Simply put a “stack height” is a measure of how much material is between the bottom of your foot and the ground. Basically everything you are standing on when you have your running shoes on.

Check out the photo for a super simplified outline of where the heel, midsole and forefoot (or toe) measurements come from.

Fitness Challenge Online - Running Shoe Heel Drop
What makes a standard running shoe heel drop? Here’s a breakdown of the typical heights available now with the shift toward barefoot of zero-drop minimalist shoes.

  • 0 to 4 mm – typically this is referred to as “zero-drop’ or minimalist shoes like racing flats and have very little to no cushioning.
  • 4 to 8 mm – “low-drop” shoes are also typical for racing flats and can have cushioning offered from low to mid range.
  • 8 to 12 mm – the current standard for long distance of fast training racing shoes and their cushion ranges from mid to highly cushioned options.
  • 12 mm or more – the standard for years through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s these shoes are common for normal running and jogging shoes and are highly cushioned.

The local Santa Rosa Fleet Feet store had a round table discussion about this very subject last week. One of the panelist made a comment at the outset “I think it’s historic to have all these fields at one table without killing each other.”

The panelist included reps from Hoka, Newton, Altra and Saucony. It was interesting to hear the differences each brand focuses on.

Hoka One One design is driven by shaping and geometry of the stride to help you with a mid-sold strike. Based on comments from the crowd they are like running on pillows and clouds.

Newton has a completely different approach. Having always designed around a lower drop they are proponents of natural running. The goal is to have you come half way. Their shoe will help you with active conditioning to improve your running form.

Altra focuses support on the forefoot and has several zero drop shoes.

Saucony is a favorite of mine and I learned a few interesting facts about the company. One is that the company is 117 years old, and I’ve been saying the brand name wrong. It’s “sock-a-knee” as reported driectly from their sales rep, so now I know. The brand focus is a light shoe that supports smooth motion. In 2012 they introduced low drop shoes from 8mm and lower for their entire line.

The other side of the running shoe heel drop discussion came from the local sports medicine community.

Dr. Dave Townsend MPT helps clients improve their biomecanics whether running, cycling or other sports.

Dr. Caleb Ridgeway DC, ART is a doctor of chiropractic in Santa Rosa whose philosophy around shoes is that there is no one shoe. There is no one size fits all model of shoe for every runner.

Dr. Ty Affleck MD specializes in science based sports medicine with focus on biomechanics for ongoing injury prevention.

John Hollander DPM is a long standing local podiatrist whose background in sports medicine lets him approach orthotics in alternative ways.

All these brands and doctors had a very distinct view on the change in running with the running shoe heel drop. We started with some basic questions for the panel. At least I considered them basic until the discussions kicked up a notch.

Saucony running shoes - Fleet Feet Santa Rosa

Q: When did you see the value of shoes with non-traditional midsole rise of 10-12 mm vs. the lower drop of 8 mm or less?

Dr. Townsend noted that with the higher or traditional heel drop that he was continuing to see people have significant issues with heel strike issues, versus a lower drop or zero drop shoe. And the term of the evening was coined.

A better solution might be having a “quiver of shoes” with varying running shoe heel drop.

Most everyone on the panel agreed that the change in the industry, and approach to running happened with the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall that was first published in 2009.

Dr. Ridgway noted that most of the injuries in his office during 2012 when after the book had its firest reprint, were due to runners trying to make the change to zero drop or barefoot too quickly. He notes that it can take 3-4 weeks for muscles to adjust and up to 3 months for ligaments to catch up to a change in running support.

Dr. Affleck agreed with the issue that Born to Run caused a lot of confusion that led to injury. Quick transitions were impacting the calf muscles and ligaments, causing them to be used as shock absorption. John Hollander noted that his experience was a little different as he see’s injuries regardless of the shoe drop. He notes “functional adaptation” helps you adapt to the shoe in a unique way.

Q: Was there a special reason or event that started the company to explore different running shoe heel drop heights?

This question was posed to the shoe reps and the information were are varied as the shoe brands. Hoka started with a foocus on natural body positioning and always designed low heel drop shoes. Altra has also provided low drop shoes for years to “encourage healthy foot positioning”.

Newtons approach truly is that the shoe does not drive your running efficiency. Since the late 1990’s, before the Born to Run book and discussion about low-drop shoes, the company has been helping runners improve their running efficiency with running clinics held at their flagship store in Boulder, Colorado.

Saucony has always provided traditional drop shoes in the approximate 12 mm range until 2012. They explored running shoe heel drop ranges 8 mm and less in all their products lines to offer a variety of options so you can slowly transition.

Again the topic of having a “quiver of shoes” turned to the sports medicine panelist with the next question.

Q: What suggestions would you offer for midsole heights to lower drop shoes for consumers?

All the sports medicine panelist agreed that the number one issue when making a change in your running shoes was to take it easy. Don’t make too many changes too quickly, don’t go too far too fast. John Hollander brought up the important point that your weight and stability effects the drop of the shoe directly and is unique to each person.

Every question opened up several more. Dr. Affleck ramped up the discussion that there are multiple factors in determining shoe type. What type of foot do you have? Do you pronate or are their more issues with your stride?

What type of surface do you run on? Do you vary your stride length or stay steady?

All agreed there will come a time when you should have a professional look at your feet. Giving yourself an acclimation period to any new shoe is more valuable than anything.

Dr. Ridgway recommends even an hour a day to start, just to start the process of adjusting. Of course that’s not all he recommends. Taking care of your body along the way with foam rolling and stretching is vital.

Using a variation in running and walking is another great way to transition. John Hollander notes that this works well with footwear transitions or recovery from injury to get back to full mileage. Specific exercises for foot strengthening are another great tip.

Answers from the shoe reps were about on par and agreed with the overall message.

Find Your Strong with Saucony - Fitness Challenge Online

Any change you make in running shoe, take it slow

Getting assistance from experts on how you are running, and how you can improve your stride. From Saucony matching the shoe to your type of training, to Altra suggesting you make sure biomechanics is working now, no matter what your shoe.

Newton shoe’s recommends having someone watch you run, at the very least, video yourself. I did like this tip and have been using it myself since.

Use your ears. If you can hear that your footfalls are heavy, you may be hitting the ground too hard.

Of course so far there are a lot of ideas around the question of why you should try alternate running shoe heel drop heights. Most of the panel agree that the old adage of “pick one shoe and stick with it” is probably not the best for your running improvement or health.

The types of shoes you try – more cushioned, lower heel drop, inserts – have to feel good to you. It will take several runs to see if they feel good. You won’t magically know the first time out. And it will depend on your goals with running. Are you looking to get faster or improve your running form?

Having these ideas in mind makes everything from choosing a shoe to working with a professional much easier.

Tons of variables for your running and running shoe heel drop is one of them

A few questions from the audience continued the controversy whether the impact of shoe choice has a bigger impact on your running health. This was my favorite.

Q: How does aging impact the issues of running?

The sports medicine panel agreed that as we lose muscle mass with aging, that includes muscles in our feet. Older runners may experience tighter muscles which can mean a higher heel drop could assist in a more natural stride.

Being aware that elastic tissues can more easily fray after menopause for women makes strength training an important factor. Everything changes, even the thickness of the fat pad under your heel.

We knew it wasn’t easy getting older, but you also need to give yourself additional time to adjust to any modifications in your running tools. This includes recovery time after injury. Anyone over the age of 40 will tell you we already know we don’t bounce back the way we could at 20 years old.

What running shoe heel drop are you ready to try?

I never paid attention to the heel drop of my shoes I’ve already been using, but I did find it interesting to look it up when I got home. The last couple pairs of shoes I tried where Mizuno Wave and Asics Gel Noosa Tri, were both in the 10 mm traditional range. Now my curiosity is peaked. Time to try something a little lower. Especially as part of my new “quiver of shoes”.

What have you tried? Are you a traditional show runner or have you transitioned to low heel drop or zero drop shoe?

Share how it worked out for you in the comments!

Heather Montgomery
Go get your fit on

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About Heather Montgomery

Sharing my journey of becoming healthy after age 40. The process of 80+ pounds of weight loss through changing my diet and working exercise into my busy life, and loving a fitness challenge.

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