Higher heels have been around for centuries initially with the intended function of stopping horse riders feet from slipping out of their stirrups. Then in some cultures it became fashionable. Flat or nearly flat running shoes were the norm until the 1970s when distance running took off in popularity and suddenly there was money to be made with new shoe technology. Footwear engineering geniuses decided that 2100 millions of years of evolution from cells with a nucleus to Homo Sapiens, had got it all wrong and it would be far more beneficial for runners to have more cushioning below the heel compared to the forefoot. The average running heel to forefoot height (‘ramp height’ or ‘drop’) is reportedly 12mm.
For a sedentary person who runs once a week for 20-30 minutes, perhaps this could be beneficial as there is good chance that they might be quite heavy from a typical modern Western lifestyle and/or they might not have conditioned their muscles to the rigours of running. A big wedge of cushioning underneath their heel just may prevent them from injury. Although using my usual method of very shallow internet research, I couldn’t find any real evidence that this has ever been the case.
For the majority, I struggle to see how a large ramp height could be beneficial to learning how to run properly and eventually allowing an athlete to reach their running potential. On race day, especially 4 hour plus events, or for a few very fast key sessions a larger heel to toe offset could be useful and certainly can be faster as I’ll discuss below. Similar to the growing theory for endurance events over 3 hours of training lower on carbs while fuelling higher on race day, running shoe ramp height is much the same.
Here are the problems of an overly large heel to toe running shoe offset as I see it:
- Throw significantly more cushioning under the heel compared to the forefoot and instinctively or perhaps because there is no choice, runners will use it. Most runners increase their ‘heel strike’ action, and begin ‘over-striding’ further out in front of their body simply the cushioning takes away the pain and degree of impact that would happen without the extra heel cushioning. It’s an inefficient way to run and places a lot of extra stress on your hips, knees and ankles.
- There will be some that argue that some great distance runners heel strike and they would be absolutely correct. It’s my understanding that a heel strike is not necessarily problematic provided the strike is still relatively underneath the weight of the body. It’s the over-striding that is the problem not whether the initial contact is on the heel or more mid-foot. When you’re watching a great distance runner heel striking slow down the video as much as possible and you’ll likely see their heel hit first but their leg speed is such that the majority of their body weight comes onto the midfoot as the foot moves under the body.
- Even if you try and run properly in a shoe with a large ramp height it’s almost impossible to strike where you naturally would because the heel gets in the way.
- A lot of downhill running can contribute to injuries. Wearing shoes with a large ramp height leave you effectively running down hill even when you’re running on the flat!
- A large ramp height means you’re missing out on some of your achilles and calf muscle propulsion potential. I’m not a fanatical barefoot advocate or anti-cushioning by any means. While I think there are certainly benefits to be gained by particular athletes incorporating occasional minimal footwear into their running training, the surface in which most of us urban dwellers run on is very different to what we likely evolved to run on. Footpaths and roads are a far cry from forest floors and grass plains.
I am not entirely against all structured shoes designed to help those with biomechanical deficiencies that would lead inevitably lead to injury without the provided support. There are exceptions to every rule. However I do believe it would be beneficial for ‘most’ athletes to lower the ramp height of their shoes for much of their running.
The major consideration to be taken into account when changing shoes to a lower drop is the chronically shortened range of motion in the posterior chain down our lower leg from years of wearing shoes with a significant ramp height. So jumping into shoes with a heel to forefoot drop of 0mm, 4mm or even 8mm could lead to a serious calf or achilles injury especially if you’re suddenly switching from a traditional drop of 12mm+. I can’t emphasise enough how gradual the process has to be. I would recommend finding out what the current heel to toe drop of your shoe is and incorporating a shoe that has a drop no more than 2mm lower than the shoes you’re used to at a time. Include that shoe into your running training gradually and initially only for slower runs. Gradually increase the frequency of the newer shoe. Only once you’ve got through months of training at the lower drop without issue would I then move to another shoe yet another 2mm lower.
I did mention that there might be a time that runners would want to include a bigger drop to a beneficial effect such as if you’re faster at race speeds in a higher drop shoe, it might be worth going with what’s fastest but then reverting to what’s safest longer term in training. In Ironman or Ultra running where a heel strike and the extra cushioning can help save the ‘glass in the quads’ feeling that can really slow your progress in a run of extended duration is another example where a higher drop can pay off short term. I typically only recommend this if the athlete has been unable to do the adequate milage to make the legs resilient enough for the inevitable impact so not to affect their marathon. I still don’t recommend the athlete do too much training in this shoe except for a few key sessions leading up to the race to make sure they are comfortable to race in.
Contrary to how shoes are often marketed, the slower the running, working slowly towards wearing more minimal shoes will help your run technique and running longer term. ‘Won’t that mean my legs are copping more impact?’ You would think so but actually the opposite happens. Check out some great research from Baur and Mayer published in the ‘International Journal of Sports Med here : https://www.researchgate.net/publication/7569094_Mechanical_Comparison_of_Barefoot_and_Shod_Running
In practice, less cushioning will also more than likely make you slow down as the body works to protect itself and run ‘properly’ but that’s not a bad thing for most athletes on their longer slower runs. A focus on technique and using your own muscles to cushion the impact of each foot strike in slow runs is hugely valuable.
While going in on key ‘fast’ run sessions where the the major goal is pushing the cardio-vascular system as hard as possible, moving to a more cushioned trainer to avoid injury and prevent excessive muscular damage makes much more sense especially if it’s less than 20% of your total run time.
An important consideration is that the measured heel to toe drop without bodyweight can be very different when foot strike happens and the full body weight hits the shoe. This is why highly cushioned 3-4mm drop shoes can quickly become 0mm drop shoes under load or if the foam underneath becomes particularly soft after only a few runs like the Nike Alphafly. Also to consider, many stated offsets/ramp heights are not what the shoe actually measures up to be but a quick google will tell you what the genuine ramp height is.
It may not be possible to train in 4mm-6mm shoes shoes without calf or achilles issues if you’ve spent your life in high drop footwear. However if you’re in 12mm + shoes, your knees, hips and back will thank you long term if you can very slowly work your way down to at least an 8mm drop over time.
Go forth, conquer.
Beware of the dragon.