The Anatomy of a Running Shoe:
The anatomy of a running shoe is a post I’ve wanted to write for a while.
Since I write a shoe review most weeks, it occurred to me that many people didn’t realize what the actual parts that made up a running shoe are. No shame in that; your only job is to make sure the shoe feels good when you wear it. It is easier to describe what you like or don’t like in a shoe if you know a few basic terms.
Pictured is the New Balance 1500 (a racing flat ideal for 5ks to marathons)
The upper part of a shoe is exactly what it sounds like: the top of the shoe. These days, most brands use an upper made of lightweight, breathable, engineered mesh. Although some uppers are made from leather or suede too. Some shoes are even waterproof and the upper can keep water out while still keeping it breathable.
Now, most uppers are seamless, so it doesn’t rub against a wider forefront or bunion. The upper and the shoelaces help secure the foot. The upper protects your feet and is also what helps keep dirt, rocks or debris out of a shoe.
The toe box of a running shoe is generally the widest part of the shoe and where your feet and toes are located. You always want movement in the toebox and don’t want your feet to feel squished.
You should be able to wiggle your toes before and after a run comfortably. There should also be about the width of your thumbs length from your longest toe (even if your longest toe is your second or third toe). Having the extra space helps reduce the loss of toenails and keeps your feet from going numb.
Also Included in the Upper Anatomy of a Running Shoe:
Shoe Laces: Shoelaces or Velcro are what hold the top of your foot securely into place. This portion of the shoe is one of the most important for fit in the anatomy of a running shoe.
Tongue: Many people don’t realize the tongue has a purpose! It protects the top of your foot from the pressure of shoelaces but also prevents debris from getting inside.
Heel counter: The heel counter is the firm cup in the back of your shoe to secure your heel. The heel counter makes sure your foot doesn’t slide around. It’s essential always to untie your shoes so you don’t damage the heel counter. Damaging it will bend the plastic and can cause Achilles tendon issues.
The midsole of a running shoe is located between the outsole and the upper. The upper is attached to the midsole of the shoe. Currently, the majority of midsoles are made of a foam called EVA (called ethyl vinyl acetate). Each brand uses different cushioning or EVA that they deem “the best.”
The outsole is a critical component of running shoes, especially when running in inclement weather. The outside is what provides traction on the roads. In trail shoes, the outsole is often thicker to offer more traction. Each brand has different traction in grooves to protect the feet.
Most road shoes are made from blown rubber, which is softer and more flexible. A trail shoe is usually more rigid and is often made of carbon rubber to keep it stiff.
Not every shoe has a medial post or stability piece to it. Many do, but not all. Most running shoes fall into one of the following combinations: motion control, neutral shoes, or stability shoes. Motion control shoes are designed with the most support, where neutral have zero support. (They can have cushion, but keep in mind support does equal cushion).Stability helps keep a collapsed arch propped in or someone who pronates back into neutral.
The medial post is one of the most important components to determining if a shoe will work for you. If you need a lot of stability and the shoe is neutral, chances are it won’t work. Not everyone needs medial support and using a shoe that has support when you don’t need it can lead to other issues. Most stability components of a shoe are made out of a dual-density combination of TPU (thermoplastic urethane) and EVA.
Not all stability pieces are the same. Some shoes provide minor stability where some is much more corrective. Each brand and each shoe within a brand are different.
Many people don’t even realize a running shoe “shank” exists. The shank is what controls the flexion and torsion of a shoe. It helps the bend naturally and helps with a smooth transition from heel to toe. The stiffer the shank, the less the shoe will flex.
One of the most common questions in the running world, is what a shoe heel to toe drop? I wrote a newsletter on it a few months ago. In short, the heel to toe drop is the height of the heel minus the height of the forefront (in millimeters). For example, a zero drop shoe (like the brand Altra) has the same height and cushion in the heel as the forefront. Most traditional shoes have between 10-12 mm.
Thicker heels will usually cause your heel to drop and hit the ground first, whereas a thinner heel will be easier to run more on your forefront. There is no right or wrong heel drop in the anatomy of a running shoe but it takes trial and error to figure out what works best for you.
When it comes to last, not every brand is the same. The last of the shoe is essentially the shape of the shoe. Most running shoe lasts curved, but shoe lasts can be curved, semi-curved, or straight. If you flip over and look at your Brooks shoe, you can see it curves in the front, pinches in the middle, and curves out in the back. Most traditional running shoes are semi-curved. Finding a last that matches the shape of your foot is just as important as finding a shoe that matches your needs structurally. In the anatomy of a running shoe, the last is what will help find the correct fit.
Why is the Anatomy of a Running Shoe Important for Runners?
Knowing the anatomy of a running shoe because you can find the shoe that works for you both structural and by shape. At the end of the day, you want to find the shoe you are most comfortable in.
Finally, have you subscribed to the LOLZletter? It’s a free newsletter that comes out each Monday. In the newsletter, I share running industry trends and things relevant to the sport.
Questions for you:
What is your favorite shoe? Why?
Were you familiar with the anatomy of a running shoe?
This is an awesome post that makes shoe talk make more sense to me. All I know about shoes is that I stay pretty uninjured in Brooks Adrenalines and Ravenas but it is helpful to have a better understanding of what is going on.
Plus the Brooks Adrenaline was just updated. You just need to make sure the shoe feels good. 🙂
I have been pretty loyal to my Hoka Cliftons and Bondis and lately have been very happy with Saucony Triumphs. The Triumphs have been helpful with my persistent knee pain.
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