When it comes to running footwear, the shoe’s drop height plays an integral role in dictating the movement forces and where they are primarily located during each stride. An unsuitable drop height can increase the risk of injury and impede performance, shifting the forces to either the Achilles tendon, knees, or hips. Therefore, it is paramount that runners, coaches and practitioners alike comprehend the importance of diligently exploring the correct drop height in running shoes to ensure optimal biomechanical functioning and performance.
What is Drop Height?
First, let’s understand what drop height means. The drop height, often referred to as the ‘heel-to-toe drop’, ‘offset’, or ‘differential’, is the difference in the cushioning height between the heel and the forefoot in a running shoe. It is typically measured in millimetres (mm) and can vary widely, from 0mm (in minimalist or barefoot shoes) to 12mm or more (in traditional running shoes).
The Balancing Act: Achilles Tendon Vs. Knees and Hips
An unsuitable drop height can lead to undue stress on various parts of the runner’s body. When the drop height is too low (i.e., the heel and forefoot are at the same level), the Achilles tendon and calf muscles may be placed under increased strain. This strain is due to the increased stretch required from these structures during the foot strike and the push-off phase of the gait cycle.
On the other hand, if the drop height is too high (i.e., the heel is significantly higher than the forefoot), it may cause an unnatural forward lean, which can put extra pressure on the knees and hips. This shift in forces can lead to an increased risk of joint issues and soft tissue injuries in these areas over time. Moreover, a higher drop may also promote a heel strike pattern, which has been associated with increased ground reaction forces and, therefore, potential injury risk.
Tailoring Drop Height: A Personalised Approach
Given the differential impacts of drop height on the body, it becomes clear that a personalised approach to selecting the appropriate drop is crucial. However, what factors should one consider when determining the suitable drop height?
- Individual Biomechanics: Every runner’s gait is unique and the biomechanics involved vary from person to person. Factors such as foot strike pattern, ankle flexibility and overall running technique play significant roles in determining the appropriate shoe drop. For instance, runners with a natural forefoot or mid foot strike may benefit from a lower drop, while those with a heel strike pattern might find a higher drop more comfortable.
- Injury History: Prior injuries should also be taken into account when selecting the right drop height. Runners with a history of Achilles tendon issues might want to avoid low drop shoes, whereas those with knee or hip problems should be cautious of high drop footwear.
- Training Load and Intensity: The type and intensity of training can also influence the suitable drop height. Lower drop shoes might be beneficial for speed work and shorter races, where a more forward foot strike is advantageous. In contrast, higher drop shoes could provide more comfort and support during long runs or endurance races.
Moving Forward: Advice for Exploring the Correct Drop Height
Choosing the correct drop height is an individualised process that requires careful consideration and experimentation. Here are some tips to explore the correct drop height:
- Gradual Transition: When changing shoe drop, it’s essential to transition gradually to avoid injury. A sudden change can put additional stress on certain parts of your body, depending on whether the drop is increased or decreased. A higher drop can lead to increased forces on the knees or hips, while a lower drop can shift these forces towards the Achilles tendon. This sudden change in forces can increase the risk of injury. For example, transitioning too quickly to shoes with a lower drop can put too much stress on the Achilles and calf muscles. Therefore, consider decreasing the drop height gradually over time to allow your body to adapt to the new running style. Similarly, if you’re moving to a shoe with a higher drop, do so gradually to allow your body to adapt to the increased forces on the knees and hips
- Try Before You Buy: Spend some time running in the shoes before making a purchase. Many shops allow you to utilise their treadmill to try out a shoe. This will give you a better idea of whether the drop height suits your running style and feels comfortable.
- Seek Professional Guidance: Consider seeking advice from your coach, a sports therapist, a physiotherapist, or podiatrist. They can provide a more informed recommendation based on a detailed understanding of your running biomechanics and injury history.
- Listen to Your Body: Lastly and most importantly, listen to your body. If a particular shoe or drop height causes discomfort or exacerbates an old injury, it’s a clear sign that it might not be the right choice for you.
In conclusion, understanding and selecting the correct drop in running shoes is a critical aspect of running performance and injury prevention. It’s a personal and individual process that should be approached with careful thought and consideration. Armed with the information in this brief guide, you should be better equipped to make an informed decision about the most suitable drop height for your running shoes. If you need more help, remember to speak with your coach at a training session.
- Malisoux, L., Chambon, N., Urhausen, A., & Theisen, D. (2016). 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. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(11), 2933–2940. Link to study
- Richert, F. C., Stein, T., Ringhof, S., and Stetter, B. J. (2019). The Effect of the Heel-To-Toe Drop of Standard Running Shoes on Lower Limb Biomechanics. Footwear Sci. 11, 161–170. doi:10.1080/19424280.2019.1630016 Link to study
- Peimin Yu, Yuhuan He, Yaodong Gu, Yuwei Liu, Rongrong Xuan, and Justin Fernandez (2022). Acute Effects of Heel-to-Toe Drop and Speed on Running Biomechanics and Strike Pattern in Male Recreational Runners: Application of Statistical Nonparametric Mapping in Lower Limb Biomechanics. Link to the study
- Laurent Malisoux & Daniel Theisen. (2020). Can the “Appropriate” Footwear Prevent Injury in Leisure-Time Running? Evidence Versus Beliefs. Journal of Athletic Training, 55(12), 1215–1223. DOI: 10.4085/1062-6050-523-19. Link to the study
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