Athletics, like any discipline, comes with its own unique lexicon. And if you hang around committed walkers, hikers, or any shoe-dependent athlete, you’ll probably hear phrases like “toe box,” “arch support,” and “heel drop” from time to time. The latter of which—the heel drop—can have significant impacts on the health of your feet, ankles, and knees when exercising.
So, what is heel drop in shoes and how does it fit within shoe terminology?
Simply put, the heel drop is the height difference between the heel and toe of your shoe. If you’re not sure what level of heel drop you might need to take your exercising to the next level, follow along as we break down everything you need to know.
The Heel Drop Explained
Whether you’re walking on a treadmill, the pavement, or a rocky terrain, your goal is to work up a sweat and get the blood pumping with no unexpected snafus or discomfort along the way. While there’s no guarantee that every walk or hike will be flawless, one way to increase your chances is by wearing the right performance shoes—and that includes ensuring they come equipped with a comfortable heel drop for you.
To determine what level of heel drop you need, it’s helpful to have a general understanding of what a heel drop is and why it’s important.
What Is Heel Drop in Shoes, Really?
Think about the way your feet feel in your current pair of athletic shoes. Now think about your walking strike while wearing those shoes. Do you land on the forefoot (front), the midfoot (middle), or the rearfoot (heel of your foot)?
The heel drop plays a big role in where your foot lands during each stride. And when you do strike pavement, the heel drop determines how much higher the heel is than the forefoot.
For example, let’s say your shoe’s heel is 25mm thick and the forefoot (the area near the toes) is 15mm. The difference between the two is 10mm—this is the heel drop.
Heel drop typically varies from 0 millimeters (mm) to 16mm, with the average athletic shoe providing a 10mm drop.1
Why Is the Heel Drop Important?
You might not think that a quarter inch or half an inch of extra height in the heels of your shoes is that important in the grand scheme of exercising. But that quarter inch could be the difference between giving you ample arch support and finding yourself with unexpected calf cramps or knee pain midway through your walk.
In other words, the heel drop of your shoes is important because it determines how you move.
Let’s say you prefer to hit the ground with your forefoot. However, before you knew that the “heel drop” existed, you switched to a shoe with a high drop. This makes it much more challenging to strike with your forefoot. Instead, you’d be much more likely to land on your rearfoot (on your heel), which could change the entire way you walk, including:
- Altering your cadence
- Challenging your normal level of comfort
- Decreasing your confidence in your pace and landing
It’s critical to note that when it comes to heel drops, we’re talking about millimeters of a difference—so accuracy matters. A change to cadence, pace, or comfort can alter your walking gait, potentially causing issues with your ankles, knees, and hips.
Walking, hiking, and playing sports use every muscle in your legs. As such, the heel drop has cascading effects (both positive and negative).
How to Choose the Right Heel Drop for You
So how do you find a different heel drop that will complement your walking strike and give you plenty of support? To help you determine whether you’d benefit from a high drop, a low drop, or a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, here are some important factors to consider:
- Foot strike – If you’re a long-time hiker or walker, you probably know where your foot strikes as it hits the ground. Knowing whether you’re a forefoot, midfoot, or rearfoot striker can help you decide the level of heel drop to aim for when buying new shoes. If you typically land on your forefoot or midfoot, a low heel drop is ideal. However, if you’re a heel striker, a high drop will ensure you continue to land on your heels.
- Foot injuries – If you have any prior injuries like shin splints or pain in your knees when you exercise, incorporating certain heel drop heights can help remove some of the impacts in those injured areas.
- A change in heel drop – Some athletes decide to switch up their routine by buying a significantly higher drop or lower drop shoe than the one they’re used to. If you’re considering a change of 4mm or more, try giving yourself an adaptation period.2 You can begin by exercising in a pair of shoes that are only 2mm higher or lower than your original drop. Once the muscles in your legs and feet adjust, you can incorporate the new pair.
Heel Drop FAQs
After learning the fundamentals of a heel drop, it’s only natural to come up with more questions. To that end, here are some FAQs regarding heel drops:
What Are the Different Types of Heel Drop Levels?
From high to low to no-drop, there are several types of heel drop levels to choose from, including:3
- 0mm – Also known as the zero drop, this is the lowest type of drop around—as in there’s no difference in height between your forefoot and heel. It’s similar to walking barefoot because your feet are completely flat on the ground in zero-drop shoes. This is the most natural heel drop but are flat shoes good for walking and hiking? Zero drop shoes can feel jarring to first-time wearers who may need time to adjust to walking on a completely flat surface.
- 4mm to 8 mm – These are considered low drop shoes. They’re ideal for those who like to hit the ground midfoot. If you’re working your way up to a higher drop, 8mm is an excellent starting point.
- 10mm – Ahh, the drop that’s not too tall, not too short—it’s just right. If you’re not sure where to start, a drop of 10mm is ideal (and it’s also the go-to drop for most types of athletic shoes).
- 12mm to 16 mm – These high drops are a solid choice for athletes who prefer to walk with a heel strike. Once you reach a 16mm drop, you almost have no choice but to land on your heel.
What Are the Pros and Cons of High-Drop Shoes?
Like everything in life, there are pros and cons to each heel drop level. Here, we discuss the benefits and drawbacks of a high drop:
- Pro – An elevated heel may help to decrease the impact of your foot coming into contact with the ground.
- Pro – It may prevent overstriding, which can occur when your foot hits the ground too far ahead of you rather than directly under your body near your center of gravity. Overstriding can lead to increased shock impact and a decrease in your overall performance.4
- Pro – A high drop may help with injuries such as plantar fasciitis, calf injuries, and stiff Achilles tendons.
- Con – The extra height may put extra pressure on your forefoot, which can be uncomfortable if you have certain foot conditions.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Low-Drop Shoes?
It wouldn’t be fair to share the pros and cons of high-drop shoes without giving you all the details about low drop shoe options as well:
- Pro – Low drop shoes may decrease the impact on your knees, which can be helpful for individuals with knee weakness or pain.
- Pro – They might be a better fit for beginner hikers and walkers. While experienced athletes may be more attuned to their stride and pace, beginners may find the low drop more convenient and comfortable to get into a rhythm.
- Con – Though low drop shoes may help the midfoot strike, they could be more likely to put more stress on the foot and ankle each time your foot hits the ground during a walk.
Are Heel Drop and Stack Height the Same Thing?
Some people assume that heel drop and stack height are synonyms—and we can see how there might be some confusion. But while they’re both found at the bottom of the shoe, they’re not the same.
Unlike a heel drop, stack height is the amount of material between the shoe cushioning and the ground. For example, there may be more stack height in the heel of a shoe if that particular shoe has a high drop, or there could be less stack height if it’s a low or zero drop shoe.
What Are Other Names For the Heel Drop?
While many refer to the difference in height between the heel and forefoot as a “heel drop,” it goes by many other names. Some common monikers include:
- Shoe offset
- Toe drop
- Heel differential
Vionic: A Performance Shoe for Every Foot
Whether you’re still perfecting your cadence or you’ve worn out your sneakers from your last 10-mile hike, a supportive pair of athletic shoes can bring your exercise game up a notch (or three).
That’s where Vionic comes in. From walking tennis shoes to waterproof and lace-free sneakers, we offer a wide selection of active shoes that cater to your unique needs. With features like arch support, shock-absorbing cushioning, and more, our shoes can provide all-day comfort no matter what foot conditions come your way.
Step with confidence and comfort in a pair of Vionic sneakers.
- Subic, Jovana. “Heel to Toe Drop: The Ultimate Guide.” Run Repeat. 6 August, 2021. https://runrepeat.com/guides/heel-to-toe-drop
- Warne, Joe P, and Allison H Gruber. “Transitioning to Minimal Footwear: a Systematic Review of Methods and Future Clinical Recommendations.” Sports medicine – open vol. 3,1 33. 15 Sep. 2017, doi:10.1186/s40798-017-0096-x
- Nyberg, Justin. “What Is Heel Drop and How Much Do You Need?” Gear Institute. 21 January, 2013. https://gearinstitute.com/what-is-heel-drop/
- Kreaft, Al. “Five ways to reduce over-striding.” Sanford Health. https://news.sanfordhealth.org/orthopedics/over-striding/
- Malisoux, Laurent et al. “Influence of the Heel-to-Toe Drop of Standard Cushioned Running Shoes on Injury Risk in Leisure-Time Runners: A Randomized Controlled Trial With 6-Month Follow-up.” The American journal of sports medicine vol. 44,11 (2016): 2933-2940. doi:10.1177/0363546516654690