When choosing running shoes, one important feature to consider is the heel to toe drop, also called the heel drop or toe drop.
Some runners may be familiar with the term “zero drop running shoes,” which indeed is referring to the heel to toe drop of the running shoes.
But, what is heel to toe drop? What are zero drop running shoes? Does the heel toe drop of running shoes matter? And, what is the ideal heel drop for running shoes?
In this article, we will discuss what heel to toe drop in running shoes means, how the heel drop affects the feel and function of running shoes, and how to determine the best heel drop measurement for your own running shoes.
We will cover:
- What Is Heel to Toe Drop?
- Heel Drop vs Heel Stack Height
- Should I Try Zero Drop Running Shoes?
Let’s dive in!
What Is Heel to Toe Drop?
The heel to toe drop of running shoes, or any type of casual or athletic footwear, refers to the difference in height between the heel and forefoot of the shoe.
Heel to toe drop may also be referred to as heel drop, heel toe drop, toe drop, shoe offset, heel differential, or just shoe drop.
The heel drop measurement is given in millimeters and usually ranges from about 0 to 15 mm for most running shoes, though most conventional running shoes fall somewhere between the 6 to 13 mm heel to toe drop range.
Although you will find some variability in the categories of heel to toe drop differentials, running shoes are typically split into four categories based on the heel drop measurements as follows:
- Zero-drop running shoes: 0 mm
- Low-drop running shoes: 1-4 mm
- Mid-drop running shoes: 5–8 mm
- High-drop running shoes: 9 mm or more
The higher the heel to toe drop of the shoe, the greater the difference in thickness or height between the heel portion of the running shoe and the toe or forefoot region.
With a zero drop running shoe, there is no difference in height between the heel of the shoe and the toe. The shoe is completely flat along its entire length.
When comparing a running shoe with a heel drop of 6 mm with a running shoe with a heel drop of 13 mm, the running shoe with the higher heel drop measurement has a bigger difference in the thickness of the sole at the heel compared to the toe region.
For example, if the heel to toe drop is 6 mm, the heel thickness is 6 mm more than the thickness of the shoe at the toe.
The toe drop of a shoe measurement does not necessarily mean that the heel or toe portion of the shoe is that number of millimeters off of the ground. Rather, it is merely a number that quantifies the differential in the height of the two ends of the shoe.
There are some potential benefits of zero drop running shoes and low drop running shoes.
Zero drop running shoes are said to promote a more natural running stride because they encourage you to land on your midfoot, which is more optimal from a biomechanical standpoint.
Because there is less material built up around the heel, the heel of the shoe isn’t necessarily the first part that will land.
Heel Drop vs Heel Stack Height
Heel drop, or the heel to toe drop of a running shoe, is often confused with stack height.
Although the stack height will affect the heel drop of a running shoe, stack height and heel drop are independent features of the shoe.
The stack height of a shoe refers to how much material is between your foot and the ground. A running shoe with a large stack height will have thick cushioning, such as a maximalist running shoe so that your foot is elevated on more of a platform above the ground.
A minimalist running shoe will have virtually no stack height, which means that there is very little material between your feet and the ground.
With that said, it is possible to have a shoe with a large stack height with a low heel to toe drop.
If the amount of cushioning is relatively uniform from the heel to the toe, the heel toe differential, or heel to toe drop of the running shoe, will be low, but if the shoe is built on a thicker platform, the stack height of the shoe could still be high.
However, barefoot running shoes or minimalist running shoes will typically have a very low stack height and will also be zero drop running shoes or low heel drop running shoes.
Should I Try Zero Drop Running Shoes?
As with any factor pertinent to running shoes, such as the amount of cushioning or stability provided by the shoe, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the best heel drop for all runners.
Rather, the ideal heel-to-toe drop for running shoes for your own needs will depend on numerous factors.
Let’s look at the factors to consider when deciding what type of heel drop running shoes are best for you.
#1: Experience Level
There are no rules about whether beginners or advanced runners should be in a particular toe drop running shoe, but beginners are generally most comfortable in a standard heel drop running shoe. This usually falls around 8 to 10 mm.
This is the standard heel drop measurement that you will find in most athletic shoes, and it will feel most familiar on your foot.
However, you are certainly welcome to start right off the bat with zero drop running shoes if that is your preference.
Zero drop running shoes or running shoes with a low toe drop are particularly common among trail runners.
First of all, when you are running on the trails, the ground is naturally more forgiving than hard asphalt or concrete.
This means that even if you are heel striking or landing closer to the back of your foot, you do not necessarily need as much cushioning under your heel.
With that said, the amount of cushioning under the heel is also influenced by the stack height, so it is possible to have low toe drop running shoes with a high stack height.
However, generally speaking, Altra running shoes are very popular among trail runners. Altra running shoes are designed to be zero drop running shoes.
One reason that trail runners tend to gravitate towards low heel drop running shoes is that a lower toe drop and smaller stack height help your foot receive more proprioceptive feedback about the terrain so that you can adapt your stride accordingly.
Because trails are uneven surfaces, having greater proprioceptive awareness of how your foot is landing and contacting the surface of the ground will help you better navigate the ever-changing terrain and optimize your stride.
#3: Injury History
If you have a history of certain running injuries, you should consider your injuries when deciding what type of heel to toe drop running shoes are best for you.
The heel drop in a running shoe will affect the relative stress on different regions of the foot at impact.
Keep in mind that running subjects the body to about 2 to 3 times the force of your body weight upon landing, so the structures of your foot are prone to significant impact stress.
Shoes with a high toe drop measurement will have a thicker heel. These can be ideal for runners who have a history of Achilles tendinitis because the higher heel height reduces the stretch and strain on the calf muscles and Achilles tendons.
Even though it might be ideal to land closer to your midfoot when you run, if you have a bunion or Morton’s neuroma, you might be more comfortable offloading the highest impact forces when you run.
Because impact forces are highest at the moment of ground contact, you might prefer a running shoe with a higher toe drop. The thicker heel will allow you to land more toward the back of your foot.
Again, although biomechanists and running experts would discourage a heel striking pattern from both a running economy and injury risk standpoint, the reality is that the vast majority of runners are heel strikers.
For example, a study examining the running foot strike patterns of 936 recreational distance runners at the 10 km point of a half-marathon/marathon road race found that 88.9% of the runners were heel strikers, 3.4% were midfoot strikers, 1.8% were forefoot strikers, and 5.9% of runners exhibited notable foot strike asymmetry.
Plus, although heel striking tends to reduce forward velocity and momentum by placing a braking force into the stride, there is some evidence to suggest that for recreational runners, heel striking can actually improve running economy.
As a general guideline, if you are not interested in spending a lot of dedicated time trying to change your running stride, you will be better served to stick with a conventional running shoe with a standard heel drop that helps attenuate impact forces when you land on your heel.
Unilaterally deciding to switch to zero drop running shoes because they are “better“ and you “should” be landing on your midfoot will only increase the risk of injury if you can’t actually change your running stride.
It can also be a good idea to include conventional heel drop and low or zero drop shoes in your rotation to decrease injury risk.
To learn more about a running shoe rotation to decrease your risk of injury, check out our guide here.