This post contains affiliate links.
The heel-to-toe drop is a common sight in most running shoe descriptions. It seems like a very important piece of information but hardly any beginners know what it is.
Like you, I’ve been in that exact same spot before. I listened to sales representatives talk about heel-to-toe drops and stack height not understanding a single thing.
If you’re one of those I just described above, don’t worry! This article will give you all the information that you need to understand heel-to-toe drops and how it affects your running.
If you’re in a rush, I will give you the basics of heel-to-toe drops upfront so you can get on with your life and buy that running shoe.
Heel-toe drop is simply the difference between the amount of stack at the heel and the amount of stack in the forefoot. The table below represents the classification of drops and who it is best for.
|Type of Drop||Amount of Drop||Type of striker|
|Zero Drop||0mm||Midfoot & Forefoot strikers|
|Low Drop||1mm – 4mm||Midfoot & Forefoot strikers|
|Mid Drop||5mm – 8mm||Midfoot strikers|
|High Drop||Over 8 mm||Heel strikers|
If you need to find out more about what it is, what it does and how to choose the right heel-to-toe drop for you, stick along cause we’re going to get into detail.
What is Heel-to-Toe Drop?
The heel-to-toe drop is simply the difference between the amount of midsole material in the heel and the amount of midsole material in the forefoot. That said, a running shoe with a 32mm stack height on the heel and a 20mm stack height on the forefoot is considered a high 12mm drop.
The heel-to-toe drop has a bunch of different names that all mean the same thing. Heel drop, drop, and offset are some of the most common ones.
One thing that is very related but has a different meaning with heel-to-toe drop is the stack height. The drop means the difference between the stack height of the heel and the forefoot while stack height is the cushioning material itself.
In other words, stack height is how thick the cushioning is while heel-to-toe drop is how high your heel rises relative to your forefoot.
A running shoe can have a high stack height with a low drop and vice versa. To put this in a clear example, the Saucony Endorphin Shift has a high stack height of 38mm in the heel and 34mm in the forefoot giving it a low 4mm drop. In contrast, Asics Gel Cumulus has a low stack height of 23mm in the heel, 13 mm in the forefoot but a higher stack height of 10mm.
The Different Categories of Heel Drop
Heel drop can be classified into 4 categories:
- Zero drop (0mm drop) – commonly advertised as “natural running” or “barefoot running” and is popularized like Altra and Vibram
- Low drop (1-4mm drop) – Common for trail running shoes
- Mid drop (5-8mm)
- High drop (8+mm) – The most common drop range of most running shoes (10-12mm)
For the sake of this discussion, let’s classify 0-6mm into low drop shoes and anything more than that into high drop running shoes.
Let’s discuss the pros and cons of the two categories.
Low Drop Shoes (0-6mm)
Low drop shoes decrease the load in the hips and knees and transfer them to the foot making them a better option for athletes recovering from hip and knee injuries.
This is backed by a 2019 study where a team of researchers collected full-body kinematics and ground reaction force data from a group of participants who ran 4m/s in 3 different conditions (4 mm, 8 mm, and 12 mm) and found a decrease maximum knee moment in a 4mm drop shoe compared to those running with a higher drop.
Low drop running shoes are common for trail runners as well. In a 2020 study in France, researchers have found an increase in downhill performance for athletes using a 4mm heel-to-toe drop. According to the researchers, this is due to the modification of foot strike pattern from heel strike to forefoot striking during downhill trail running which contributed to the overall performance of the athletes.
High Drop Shoes (7-14mm)
Running in a higher heel-to-toe drop results in the transfer of loading knees and decreases the load in the foot and Achilles tendon and the lower leg muscles.
Therefore, using higher drop running shoes is best for runners experiencing lower leg and foot problems such as plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis.
Heel strikers may benefit from high drop running shoes as well. Running shoes with a high heel-to drop have a higher stack height at the heel area and therefore, more cushioning that will absorb the impact from initial contact. It also helps provide a rolling momentum for heel strikers to roll from heel-strike to toe-off.
Does Heel-toe Drop Matter?
Minimalists claim that low and zero heel drop is the way to go because running shoes with a higher heel drop promote heel strike which causes knee injuries. But science doesn’t agree on this.
According to a 2018 study in Hong Kong, the heel-toe drop does not have enough influence on the foot strike angle to cause a switch in the foot strike pattern. In other words, running in a high drop running shoe does not have enough influence to make you a forefoot striker.
Heel-to-toe drop, however, has an effect on your stride length. A similar study in 2020 from China suggests an increase in stride length in low drop shoes with a standard stack height.
Running shoe matter depending from person to person. I would suggest those who are born heel strikers stick to running shoes with a high stack height while forefoot strikers try running shoes with a lower stack height and then make adjustments from there.
I would also point out if you’re a trail runner engaging in downhill activities, you should choose a running shoe with a lower heel drop. This reduces the forward tilting of your body and improves your downhill running performance.
How To Choose a Heel-toe Drop
If this is your first time buying a pair of running shoes for yourself, then you shouldn’t concern yourself too much with these details. I suggest you pick up a shoe with a standard drop of 10-12mm like the Brooks Ghost 13 (12mm) or ASICS Gel-Cumulus 23 (10mm) and see how you feel, what type of foot strike pattern you have and any discomfort you’re feeling. You can buy any of those shoes on Amazon.
If you have been running on a 10mm for quite some time and are not experiencing any type of pain or discomfort whatsoever, I suggest you stick with 10mm until you feel otherwise.
The main thing you should consider is comfort rather than what the advertisements say. There’s no study confirming that one is better than the other. So I suggest you choose the most comfortable running shoes for you.
Another tip you can apply if you already know your foot strike pattern is to find a shoe that supports it rather than correct it. If you’re a heel striker, choose a running shoe with a high stack height to give you more cushioning in the heel area. In contrast, if you’re a midfoot/forefoot striker, that extra cushioning on the heel may feel like an obstruction, so you’re better off with the low drop running shoes.
Here are a few pointers to look at when deciding on the heel drop
- Focus on what feels most comfortable
- Support your foot strike pattern rather than correct it
- If you’re in a store, try shoes with different heel drops to find which works best for you
If you need pointers beyond heel-toe drops in choosing the right shoe, I made a separate article on that topic. Make sure to check it out.
How To Change Your Running Shoe Drop
In some instances, you might want to explore different heel drops and find out which one works the best for you. After all, slight adjustments may lead to a faster 5k or a more comfortable marathon run.
If you’re transitioning from a low drop like 4mm to a higher drop shoe like 12mm, your body is gonna feel the difference in stack height pretty instantly. Having a change that big may either feel really good or really awkward depending on how your body will adapt to the change.
Here are my few tips in transitioning your running shoe heel-to-toe drop.
- Don’t make drastic changes – If you haven’t bought the shoe yet, don’t jump for more than 4mm at a time. It is best if you add or subtract 2mm from your current heel drop to try to find what works best for you
- Ease into your running routine – After you bought a new pair, don’t expect to feel the same with your new shoes. It’s possible to sometimes feel more beat up than usual. If you do, reduce your training schedule for a few weeks and work your way back up
- Listen to your body – You can’t expect to beat your personal record instantly after buying a totally different shoe(well, sometimes you do). If you’re having a hard time running faster, adjust your pace and let your body adapt to your new shoes.
The Wrap Up
Heel-toe drop preference varies from person to person. You can’t have a universal heel toe drop and expect everyone to like it.
In choosing the best running shoe for you, it is important to focus on your own comfort rather than what anyone else tells you. Find a shoe that matches your foot strike pattern rather than finding a shoe that could change the way you run.