What is heel-to-toe drop and why does it matter?

A group of runners wearing Karhu running shoes.

You may hear a lot of what sounds like gobbledy-gook at your local running store. If you don’t have a handy runner’s dictionary, your head might be spinning trying to choose a pair of shoes. There are many different factors to weigh when choosing a running shoe, such as the shoe’s weight, cushioning level and heel-to-toe drop.

What is heel-to-toe drop?

The heel-to-toe drop on a running shoe, often referred to simply as the drop, is the difference between the height of the heel and the height of the forefoot. It’s typically measured in millimeters, and it’s easy to find this information by reading a Fleet Feet shoe review or by asking your outfitter.

Two runners wearing Altra running shoes.

What is a normal heel-to-toe drop?

There is no single “normal” heel-to-toe drop for running shoes as they largely vary by brand and model. HOKA shoes are known for having relatively low heel-to-toe drops, usually between four to five millimeters. Shoes like Brooks and ASICS, which are considered more traditional, usually have about an eight to 10 millimeter difference between the heel and forefoot.

Altra, a popular running brand, has made a name for themselves by offering zero-drop running shoes, meaning your heel sits at the exact same level as your forefoot. Altra surprised runners this year when they introduced their first ever low drop shoe, the Altra FWD Experience, which offers a 4-millimeter drop.

“We heard from some runners out there that our zero-drop shoes were a hard transition and, for some, it was a reason not to try Altra shoes,” says Alex Lind, Senior Product Line Manager of Altra Running. “The Altra FWD Experience isn’t just an existing Altra model with added foam, it delivers a completely different ride experience. The shoe both breaks down the barriers for consumers apprehensive about getting into the brand, and also provides a different experience for Altra loyalists.”

Does heel-to-toe drop affect your run?

Two runners run on the sidewalk wearing New Balance running shoes.

Now that you know what heel-to-toe drop means, you may be wondering if it affects the way you run. Medical professionals and shoe designers say it does.

Different heel-to-toe drops can affect kinematics and kinetic patterns,” says John Dewey, Physical Therapist and owner of Fleet Feet Greensboro & High Point. “Simply put, heel drop can affect the way a person runs as well as the forces associated with their running.”

“Before the introduction of high stack height shoes and following the barefoot running boom, it was proposed that the lower drop shoes encouraged a more midfoot strike, which many believe to be a more efficient running gait,” says Dewey. “Also, a higher drop might encourage a heel strike, which may place more stress on certain lower extremity joints.”

This was certainly the idea behind the evolution of zero-drop running shoes from Altra, according to Lind.

“The founders of Altra focused on running form and really built a shoe around that,” Lind says. “By lowering the heel of the running shoe, you land a little bit more naturally by centering your body mass below you. You're landing more on your midfoot and forefoot, bending your knees more and using your joints as a suspension mechanism.”

However, Dewey stresses that the research isn’t conclusive enough to suggest whether or not heel-to-toe drop influences injury rates among runners.

“Every runner is different and may benefit from shoes with different drops,” he says. “Fleet Feet outfitters and medical practitioners take into account these differences when suggesting footwear.”

What heel-to-toe drop is best for me?

A runner stretches wearing HOKA shoes.

As Dewey emphasizes, every runner is different and there’s no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to heel-to-toe drops (or shoes, for that matter). We recommend heading into your local Fleet Feet for an expert, one-on-one outfitting to learn about the shape of your feet, the way they move and what type of shoes might be best.

It’s also important to take into account your injury history and any pain points you may be experiencing. A higher drop shoe can relieve pressure from your calves and achilles tendon, helping to manage common running injuries like tendonitis. Shoes with a lower heel-to-toe drop can reduce strain on your knees and hips.

“I think most shoe manufacturers are using lower drops in their shoes today, versus a decade ago, because it improves the feel of the transition to the forefoot,” says Dewey. “It can also attempt to decrease the impact for runners who are heel strikers, which is still the majority of the running population.”

This is a trend Fleet Feet reviewers have seen over the past year. The ASICS GEL-Nimbus 25, one of ASICS’ best selling models, transitioned from a 12-millimeter drop to an 8-millimeter drop. The New Balance SuperComp Elite v3, New Balance’s racing super-shoe, has slowly transitioned over the years from a 10-millimeter drop during its debut, to an 8-millimeter drop in the second iteration, and finally to a 4-millimeter drop in the current version.

While we can’t predict where the trends will take us in the next year, it’s safe to say that brands are creating more options to appeal to a variety of customers, as is the case with the new Altra FWD Experience, which Lind calls “just another tool in a runner’s toolbox.”

Keep Reading