The Ultimate Guide to Running Shoe Terminology: Boost Your Footwear Vocabulary
Learn the Key Terms to Choose the Right Running Shoes for You
Reviewed by John Honerkamp
If you have ever shopped for running shoes, you may have been overwhelmed by the vast variety of terminology that accompanies each make. And reading the descriptions online might feel like trying to decipher another language. Yet, you know that you need to decide on the type of cushioning, toe box, sole, weight, and upper that is best for your body and running style.
Visiting a local running store and getting a running analysis with a professional can demystify some of these features. In the meantime, though, we can help you get acclimated to common running shoe terminology. Here's a guide that reviews everything you need to know to find the perfect pair of shoes.
Pronation is the direction that your foot rolls to distribute the impact of your foot hitting the ground as you run. The way your foot pronates can be described in three different ways: neutral, overpronation, or underpronation (or supination).
Neutral pronation is when the foot lands inward by about 15%, comes in full contact with the ground, and supports your body weight as you run. This type of pronation is considered optimal because it promotes maximum shock absorption and prevents injuries.
Overpronation or underpronation is caused by the size and strength of a runner's arch, which can affect the foot's ability to roll when it hits the ground. If you are an overpronator, that means that the out of your heel hits the ground first followed by the rest of your foot—but by more than the ideal 15%. Shock may not be absorbed as efficiently and can lead to shin splints, runner's knee, plantar fasciitis, and Achilles tendinitis.
In underpronation, or supination, the foot rolls inward less than the 15%. Because of this, force is absorbed in a smaller area of the foot and can lead to stress on the IT band and Achilles tendon. You may notice you are a supinator if the outer edge of your shoes become worn out faster.
The way you pronate isn't necessarily wrong or something to be fixed, it just explains the way your body moves and helps inform the shoes you need to best support your gait. You can determine how you pronate by taking a look at the position of your feet when you walk. A running coach or professional at a running store can help guide you on what type of running is best for you.
Related:The Best Women’s Running Shoes for Overpronators, According to a Running Coach
Support describes the kind of cushioning and stability that your shoe gives you. Depending on your type and degree of pronation, you may want shoes that help you to stabilize better in order to prevent injuries.
You can find neutral or stability running shoes. Neutral shoes work well for runners with normal pronation or underpronation and provide less support. Stability shoes provide extra support and more well, stability, to counter overpronation. It is recommended to get a gait analysis at a speciality running store to best determine what type of support you need.
Related:The 12 Best Arch Support Running Shoes for More Pain-Free Miles
When it comes to cushioning, this varies greatly from runner to runner. You'll want a cushioned running shoe for maximum spring and support while running. Different levels of cushioning will be beneficial for you at different points in your running as well.
You may want maximum cushion for long runs or if you have a preference for that squishy feeling, whereas you may prefer moderate or minimal cushioning if you want to feel the connection to the ground beneath you. Determine what type of runner you are and your preferences. You may even want to try out a variety of different shoe types before coming to a decision.
Related:The 7 Best Cushioned Running Shoes for Women
The heel-to-toe drop, sometimes called just "drop," is the difference in the thickness of the cushioning between your heels and your toes. This measurement is depicted in millimeters and is usually between 0 to 14 millimeters. The higher the heel-to-toe drop, the steeper the slope between the heel to the toes. Typically, running shoes have a heel-to-toe drop of around 10 millimeters.
When it comes to heel-to-toe drop and running, there is no magic number as everyone has different feet and styles of running. In order to find the drop that's right for you, you have to consider how your feet strike the ground.
You may want a higher heel-to-toe drop if you are a heel striker, aka you strike the ground with your heel first. Further, a higher heel drop may be helpful if you have a history of foot or ankle pain, Achilles tendinitis, and tight calf muscles. Meanwhile, you might want a lower drop if you hit the ground with the middle or front of your first first and you have trouble with knee or hip pain.
Responsiveness of running shoes refers to the experience or feeling of your shoes returning the energy back to you with each step. Think of that springy feeling you feel with each stride rather than feeling like you're sinking into the ground. Good shoe responsiveness is a sign that your shoe isn't absorbing as much energy and therefore improves your running efficiency and prevents injuries.
While responsiveness is more of a physical feeling than a specific element in your shoe model, there are a few factors that contribute to high responsiveness. These elements include foam resiliency, stiffness, geometry of your shoe, and the grip of the outsole.
Another factor that contributes to your responsiveness experience is how you run. If you have a short stride and a quick cadence, you will feel your shoes giving you energy and spring back with each step.
Related:8 Tips for Proper Running Form
Running shoes are typically between 6.5 ounces and 13 ounces. Depending on your running style and types of runs you like to do, you may prefer a lighter or heavier shoe. In order to be called a lightweight shoe, the shoe needs to be less than 8 ounces. Heavy shoes usually weigh more than 10.5 ounces.
A number of factors come into play when choosing the best shoe weight for you. First off, consider the type of running you are doing. Research shows that as the shoe weight increases, we tend to run slower. So lightweight shoes may be best for sprinting or racing. Lightweight shoes also may be beneficial if you have any foot pain or discomfort. Body weight, arch type, and personal preference are factors to take into consideration as well.
Related:The 10 Best Lightweight Running Shoes to Help You Run a Faster Mile
The upper refers to the whole top of the shoe that sits on top of the rubber role. In other words, the upper is what gives your shoe its "look" and is there for aesthetic purposes. At the same time, it also serves to protect your foot and provide comfort.
The most important parts of the upper include the tongue, laces, heel counter, and toe box. Uppers are frequently made out of mesh, which provides breathability and helps prevent blisters. There also may be some reflective patches, which are placed for visibility while running.
Related:The Best Reflective Running Gear of 2023
The heel counter, or collar, wraps around your heel in the back of your shoe. This part of your shoe is often more rigid than the rest of the upper in order to increase support and hold up against the impact that area receives during running.
The heel counter also helps keep the shoe in shape and stabilizes your foot. Different brands make varying widths, so its best to try a few to see what is most comfortable and makes your feet feel secure.
The sole of a running shoe has two parts, the outsole and the midsole. The outsole is the layer of foam on the bottom and this is the part that gives you traction and grip. When there is more rubber on the bottom, the more durable and long lasting your shoe will be.
Depending on where you run, you may want more or less rubber and grip. The outsole can also give clues about your gait based on wear patterns.
The midsole is just above the outsole and under the upper. It is a layer of foam that provides cushioning. The stability elements of running shoes live in the midsole and provide the support for pronation as well as arch support.
The toe box is exactly what it sounds like—the place in front of your shoes where your toes go. It is important to have enough room in the toe box to allow your toes to splay. Allowing more space prevents bruised toenails, blisters, and gives room for your feet to swell during running. Everyone has different preferences regarding the amount of room in a toe box. Try on a few different pairs of running shoes to see what feels right for your running style.
Related:Stride Pain-Free With The Best Wide Toe Box Shoes For Walking, Running, and More
Many runners may not consider the tongue when buying running shoes, but it actually serves some important purposes. The tongue is typically built into the upper and protects your feet from dirt, rocks, and debris. Some tongues are cushioned more than others or may move around. See which brands' tongue works best for your personal preference.
The toe spring is the upward curvature of the sole of your shoe under the toes. It helps to facilitate the forward motion of your running through the front of the shoe. Including toe spring in your shoes may be helpful if you have some restriction in your metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joints.
The MTP joints allow your heel to rise and body to roll over the front of your foot in a constant and efficient forward motion. Limited motion here may be caused by arthritis or stiff joints, so moving over the area will be difficult or painful. Toe spring helps facilitate this motion so your body doesn't have to do as much work.
If the sole of the shoe isn't flexible forward motion may be more difficult, but adequate toe spring can help alleviate this issue. Including toe spring in thicker soled shoes allows some flexibility in the area needed for the foot to roll forward.
The medial post is located on the inside part of the shoe. It is usually made of plastic and is placed there to help reduce overpronation. In stability shoes, the medial post is located in the midsole to provide that extra support.
The sockliner—also called the insole—is the first layer of foam that hits your feet inside your running shoe. The purpose is twofold, providing cushioning and wicking moisture to prevent blisters. Sockliners are also removable to allow for custom orthotics if necessary.
Heel Crash Pad
The heel crash pad provides extra support specifically for heel strikers. It extends off from the midsole to the heel counter and provides more stability to accommodate those who land on their heels first. It is found more often in shoes with thick midsoles.
There is more than meets the eye when it comes to choosing running shoes. Being informed about all the different parts of a running shoe and their purposes can help you make an informed decision based on your personal running style and preferences. It also can be extremely helpful to visit a running store and have a specialist take a look at your feet and gait to help you pick the best fitting shoe for your running style. Additionally, if you have any recurring injuries or troubles with your gait, it also can be beneficial to speak with a healthcare provider.