What Is Heel to Toe Drop And What Do You Need As A Runner

pair of altra lone peak zero drop trail shoes

As someone who runs on both the road and the trails, I have found myself using many different shoes over the years with varying degrees of success. One of the key things I look for in my shoe nowadays is the heel to toe drop.

What is heel to toe drop? Quite simply, the heel to toe drop in a running shoe is the difference in height between the heel and the forefoot. For example, if a running shoe has 25mm of material under the heel but only 17mm under the forefoot, then the drop will 8mm.

With this is mind, lets dive further into the question to help understand more about heel to toe drop and which one might be best for you.

What Is The Best Heel to Toe Drop?

There is no simple answer to this question as each individual runner will have a different running style that is better suited to the drop of a shoe.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that just because you run in a certain way will determine the shoe drop you should use, in fact I have tried many over the years and eventually settled on the drop that suites me best.

Don’t confuse heel to toe drop with the stack height of a shoe as these are very different. The stack height is the amount of cushioning underfoot, so a zero drop shoe can, and does, have stack heights greater than 20mm.

Let’s take a quick look at the table below to look at the different drops used by manufacturers today.

Heel To Toe Drop (mm)Best ForPopular
0 mm (Zero Drop)Promoting Mid-foot & Forefoot strikes.
More natural running form.
Can help reduce knee pain.
3 mm – 6 mm (Minimalist)Could help to improve cadence.
Still promote a more natural running form.
Hoka, Inov-8
7 mm – 10 mm (Standard)Good for new runners.
Can help avoid calf injuries.
11 mm+ (Maximal)Better for heel strikers.
Less stress on achilles and ankles.

Zero Heel Drop Shoes

In recent times, the zero drop shoe has become more popular due to the likes of Altra, the biggest zero drop shoe company. All of their shoe range is zero-drop with a variety of stack heights.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking that all zero drop shoes are built this way. Whilst Altra goes a long way to mimic a more natural running form, you will find that a lot of zero drop shoes are completely minimalist and offer a more barefoot running experience – this is not for everyone for sure.

The zero-drop shoe definitely promotes a more natural running form due to the runner striking the ground at either the mid or fore part of the foot.

If trail running is your thing then a lower drop shoe might be more suitable. They are more helpful for optimising stride which is essential when you are running a variety of terrains.

If you are thinking of transitioning to a zero drop shoe, my advice would be to do it slowly. Moving from a 10mm drop to zero could cause stress on the calves and Achilles that you are not used to.

Try using them on shorter runs at the beginning and slowly increase usage and distance over time. That’s what I did because I can tell you now, the difference in feel with the two drop sizes is significant.

Standard to Maximum Heel Drop

As I stated earlier, this is a good starting point for any new runner or those that don’t have any running issues that force the change in drop.

I higher drop shoe is generally better for those that strike the ground with the heel first, mainly because the shoe will be well cushioned around that area, which in turn will soften the strike.

Personally, I have run with higher heel drop shoes in the past and found that they have given me issues with my knees, especially if I run on the roads. I am more of a mid-foot striker so I found myself pushing my toes forwards when I ran to avoid striking with my heel – it all became quite uncomfortable on the longer runs.

Should You Change Your Shoe Drop

When you are new to running it might take a while to find the right shoe for you. There may be a little trial and error over time, but eventually you will settle on the right drop for you.

If you are going to change your drop, it is advisable to try and not do a big step change. Limit it to around 4mm to avoid any potential injury.

Always transition slowly and avoid long runs straight after the change as you may injure yourself.

A change in drop may be beneficial to someone recovering from any injury, but again, be careful of the transition so as not to have any negative impact by doing this.

What Heel to Toe Drop Do I Need

Seriously, if you are completely new to running then I would suggest something around the 8 – 10 mm region. Purely because this is a very common drop size for most runners and is great starting point.

The other thing to consider with the 8 – 10 mm drop is that you will find a much greater choice of shoe to choose from. Many of the popular shoe companies do a variety of models in this drop.

If you are an experienced runner then the heel drop might be important if you are recovering from an injury. For example, if you have had a recent knee problem, or there is an ITB issue, then a lower drop shoe will put less stress on those areas.

If you have, or are suffering from ankle or achilles issues then a higher drop might work due to the fact there is less stress on the body.

Ultimately, knowing the right heel to toe drop for you is merely one factor in what constitutes the right running shoe. There are many other things to consider as each and every one of us is different.

My advice is to start at the mid-range of shoe drop and take it from there. That’s exactly what I did and eventually settled on shoes that fall into the zero to 6mm range as they suit my running style the best.

Mark Emmerson

Mark loves everything outdoors, especially trail and ultra running. He has competed in many events ranging from half marathon up to an 86 mile ultra. He also follows a primarily plant-based diet.

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