The Important Anatomy of a Running Shoe

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

The most frequently asked questions that I get from runners are about the right shoe. Even my most experienced and elite runners don’t have a great grasp on the makeup of a running shoe and how to go about selecting the right one. In their defense, there's an endless amount of options and rhetoric out there.

Just 10 years ago, around the release of the book “Born to Run”, the barefoot and minimalist shoes exploded onto the scene. Fast forward to present and we seem to have gone in the complete opposite direction with the popularity of the highly cushioned “maximalist” style shoe. So if the running shoe industry can’t seem to nail down the best option, how can you be expected to?

An Anatomy Lesson

Toe Box

Your forefoot is meant to have a malleable gripping effect that moves and adapts as your foot comes in contact with the ground. A shoe that doesn’t allow this natural spreading of the foot can contribute to numerous foot pathologies such as bunions, bone stress injuries, plantar fasciitis and Morton’s neuroma. Look for a toe box wide enough to accommodate this.

The Midsole

The inner layer of foam creating the cushion and support of your shoe. Guidelines to replace your shoes every 300-500 miles stem from deformation of this foam. If your knees are aching after having your shoes for a while, it may be because of this reduction in shock absorption capacity. This also means that for 100’s of miles, you’re providing your foot with support and then taking it away. If your foot doesn’t have the capacity to maintain its integrity for many miles, this can lead to injury. Most runners can’t perceive this change, so track your mileage and look for signs of deformation like creasing in the midsole. If you’re in a true minimal shoe, you don’t have a midsole, run those things into the ground.

Stack Height

The amount of material between your foot and the ground. There are typically two figures, for the heel and the forefoot. Numbers range from 0mm - 37+mm and is what differentiates your minimalist and maximalist shoes. Use these general ranges as a guide:

Minimal: 0 mm - 20 mm

Neutral: ~20 mm - 28-30 mm

Maximalist: 30+ mm

Heel-toe drop

The drop or heel counter of a shoe is the difference between your two stack heights. For most traditional running shoes, the heel will have a slightly higher stack height than the forefoot creating the ramped down look of the shoe. This is the most important variable to pay attention to in regards to foot strike pattern. Zero to very low drop shoes are meant for forefoot strikers while higher numbers with thick heels are designed for heel striking, midfoot strikers have a little more flexibility. Use these general ranges:

Minimal, Neutral and Maximalist vs. Motion Control


Defining a true minimal shoe is both a low stack height and drop, without arch support. Think light and flexible with either no midsole or a very thin, soft layer allowing them to be folded up. These should have very little material protruding around the sole including any flaring out around the forefoot or heel.

Strike Pattern: forefoot or midfoot


The compromise between the extremes of your Vibrams and Hoka’s. A shoe that’s hard to define because really it can have some components of both sides. Generally, think moderate foam material in the midsole, with a moderate drop height and may have some motion control in the arch.

Strike Pattern: midfoot or heel

Maximalist vs. Motion Control

Motion control defines the intent to reduce the collapse of your midfoot called pronation. It is the raised, firmer material at the inside of your shoe supporting the arch. The extent of support/motion control can range. The “maximalist” term refers specifically to the large midsole creating a high stack height of the shoe. Heel to toe drop is actually often similar to minimalist, encouraging a midfoot to forefoot strike pattern. In fact, most Hoka’s fall in the 4-5mm drop range intended for forefoot striking.

Strike Pattern: midfoot or heel, depending on drop

Hopefully this helps make you a more educated consumer and encourages you to check out the specs before buying your next pair of shoes. I encourage you to comment and discuss or contact me with questions! You can also schedule a gait analysis to get a more informed prescription about what might be the best shoe/foot strike for you.

Check in for a future blog where I lay out the opposing opinions of the right shoe type and strike pattern, when/how to use each type of shoe and discuss some case studies from my own experience treating runners!

2 Alpine St

Somerville, Massachusetts

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