The Ultimate Guide to Running Shoe Terminology: Understand Key Features for Your Best Fit

All the terms you need to know.

Running Shoe Terminology

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Heel drop. Pronation. Upper...oh my! When it comes to buying running shoes, decoding the terminology can be trickier than finding your perfect-fitting, Cinderella-esque pair. Working with a running store shoe professional can bypass the need to know the lingo. However, if you're buying shoes online, or are simply looking to educate yourself on the buzzwords, here's a guide for all you need to know to walk ( the running shoe talk.


Pronation describes the way that your foot rolls for impact distribution while walking or running. There are three different ways to categorize this process:

  • Neutral: In this case, the foot rolls slightly inward and evenly during a stride. Neutral is deemed to be optimal, since it's associated with an efficient gait.
  • Overpronation: If your foot rolls excessively inward while you stride, you likely overpronate. This puts more stress on the arch, making the foot and ankle unstable, potentially leading to an increased risk of plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and knee pain. Running shoes with a medial post (AKA a plastic portion of the midsole) that focus on stability can help to correct and promote a more neutral gait.
  • Underpronation (AKA supination): With supination, the foot rolls outward, which can cause a lack of shock absorption and increased pressure on the outside edge of the foot. This may lead to an increased risk of IT band discomfort and ankle sprains. If you tend to underpronate, you'll likely want to select shoes with extra cushioning and flexibility.

Pronation is typically observed in a running store shoe assessment on a treadmill so that a trained professional can see how you walk or run and land on your feet.

You may think that any type of pronation is a bad thing; after all, runners tend to moan and groan about their specific gait and all its associated aches and pains. But pronation is a natural process that is highly individual and simply explains the way that your body moves. There's nothing that 'needs to be fixed' or 'right or wrong' — but rather ways that shoes may optimally fit and support your feet and gait. "I typically tell my runners not to worry too much about form unless there is a chronic issue that they are continually working through — if it is not broken, don't fix it," says John Honerkamp, RRCA and USATF certified running coach. "I see too many runners trying to 'perfect' their form only to create more injuries. One of my biggest pet peeves is when I see runners trying to run on their tippy toes because their doctor tells them not to heel strike. I say heel strike away if it works for you."

But if injuries sideline you frequently, it may be helpful to learn more about your gait. "If you are always dealing with injuries, it is way more important to understand how your feet perform when you run," explains Honerkamp. "You become a detective and you dial down on all of the particulars of over-pronation or supination and everything in between. Most runners will pronate to some degree as it is your body's natural form of shock absorption."

How to Identify Which Pronation Type You Are

Take a quick look at the position of your feet while you walk with bare feet. Do your feet stay parallel (neutral), point inward, or point outward? The positioning of the foot shows which part of the foot experiences force when it strikes the ground. This weight distribution affects the way that muscles and soft tissues respond to repeated interaction (i.e. when running or walking).

  • If you walk with toes turned in, your body puts more weight on the arch and lateral (inside) part of the forefoot. This is associated with overpronation.
  • If you walk with your toes turned out, the weight of the body is on the outside of the foot or the medial forefoot. This is associated with underpronation.
  • If you walk with your toes parallel, you likely have an even or neutral distribution.


Support refers to exactly what it sounds like. It describes how the shoe helps to provide structural correction, cushioning, and stability for your feet. Support itself can be broken down into two sub-categories: neutral and stability shoes. The primary difference between these types of shoes is their level of support and the amount of correction for the foot.

  • Neutral shoes: provide cushioning and support
  • Stability shoes: correct overpronation and provide stability/support

How to Determine Which Type of Support You Need

To figure out which type of support may be most helpful for you, try balancing on your non-dominant foot. If you wobble, you may benefit from a stability shoe that will stabilize your foot (and help to prevent injury). If you don't wobble, a neutral shoe may work well, as you don't require additional support. FWIW, more isn't always better, especially when it comes to shoes. Don't choose more cushioning and extra support, unless you need it.


In technical terms, cushioning refers to the shock absorption provided by a shoe's midsole, AKA the cushioned middle layer of the shoe underneath your foot but above the sole. There are three different categories: minimalist, moderate, and maximalist.

  • Minimalist: These shoes are almost barefoot-like and feature a very thin midsole with zero or a very low heel-to-toe drop.
  • Moderate: Moderate cushioning shoes have a thicker midsole with more cushioning than a minimalist shoe but are also low-profile and lightweight. All-purpose running shoes typically fall into this category: they're comfortable and protective without sacrificing speed.
  • Maximalist: True to their name, maximalist shoes tend to be very 'extra.' They feature a very cushioned and thick midsole and offer the highest level of shock absorption, which is preferred for longer-distance running.

Still wondering what type of shoe fits your needs? "If you have a high arch, you are more likely to be OK with a neutral shoe and even minimalist shoes. Using a minimalist shoe can also be good to help strengthen your feet as they require more work from your foot and are less reliant on the shoe," explains Honerkamp. "Moderate and maximum cushioning come into play if you are looking for a more shock-absorbent ride. I will go with more cushioned shoes if my feet or heels start to hurt when I run. I will also opt for a more cushioned shoe if I am running on more concrete, sidewalks, or roads versus a nice soft trail." 

How to Determine Which Level of Cushioning is Right For You

Cushioning is very individual and should take into consideration a variety of factors, including pronation type, weekly mileage, and general feed. Do you want a shoe that is soft, springy, or fast and lightweight?

  • Minimalist: You want a barefoot shoe that is super lightweight and provides little to no cushioning or support.
  • Moderate: You want a shoe that can take you mid and longer-distances, but can still help you to feel light and springy during speedwork.
  • Maximalist: You crave that running-on-air feeling with tons of plush cushioning. You're looking for a marathon-training shoe to help support your feet over hundreds of miles.
Running Shoe Terminology

Shape / Mehroz Kapadia

Heel-to-Toe Drop

Also known as 'drop' or 'offset,' heel-to-toe drop (HTT drop) is the difference in height between the heel and the forefoot of a running shoe. Another way to think about it is the slope from the heel to the toe, or a comparison of the amount of cushioning beneath your heel to the amount of cushion below your toes. HTT drop affects running form by influencing the mechanics of a runner's gait.

  • Shoes with a higher HTT drop (over 7mm) have a thicker sole at the heel, which creates a steeper angle. This encourages a heel-strike landing.
  • Shoes with a lower HTT drop (0 to 6mm) are more like a platform and encourage a midfoot or forefoot landing.

How to Determine Which HTT Drop Is Right for You?

There are many factors to consider. Running shoes range from 0 to 15mm, but most land somewhere around 6 to 13mm. You'll want to consider your experience, usual running terrain, and injury history when choosing a HTT drop.

  • Experience Level: Beginners will likely want to stick with a standard HTT drop (which is typically 8 to 10mm). More advanced runners may experiment with a more minimalist shoe (closer to 0mm) or a super cushioned shoe for longer distance training (above 10mm)
  • Running Terrain: If you run on the road, you'll likely want a higher HTT drop because of the added cushioning. If you want a more barefoot-like experience, or you run frequently on soft trails, you may opt for a lower drop.
  • Injury History: If you are more prone to injury, you'll likely benefit from a shoe with a bit more cushioning and a standard heel drop.


Responsiveness describes how quickly and efficiently a shoe returns energy back to a runner during their stride. A more responsive shoe provides a sense of springiness and bounce, resulting in less fatigue and effort. This pep in your step is affected by a combination of the material used to make the sole, the cushioning system, and the overall shoe design. If you're looking for a more responsive shoe, you'll want something with midsole foam or a firm sole.

It's important to note that responsiveness is typically a trade-off with cushioning and stability. Super responsive shoes may have less stability, which isn't always great, particularly for those who require more support or shock absorption such as beginner runners or those with a history of joint and muscle pain.

Shoe Weight

The physical mass of a shoe, or the shoe weight, influences comfort, injury risk, and performance. The higher the weight of a shoe, the more energy is required from a runner (think: slower time and increased fatigue). The lighter the shoe, the more effortless and quick you may feel. Cushioning and stability design features may weigh a bit more, but they provide necessary injury protection and comfort.


The upper, or the top part of the shoe that covers the foot, plays an incredibly important role for overall shoe fit (but doesn't typically get a lot of love). This key feature holds the foot in place, providing a snug, custom fit that carries you (and the shoe) for miles. There are four key factors you'll likely want to consider with the upper: breathability, durability, flexibility, and fit.

  • Breathability: To keep feet cool and dry and reduce the risk of blisters, air needs to circulate. The upper should be snug, but not overly tight.
  • Durability: The upper needs to be tough and durable material to withstand multiple miles, varying terrains, and all types of weather.
  • Flexibility: The upper should move with the foot. If an upper doesn't fit well, you'll likely feel uncomfortable rubbing or develop blisters.
  • Fit: An upper plays a large role in determining the fit of a shoe. If it is stretchy, it can accommodate various foot sizes and shapes, whereas a more rigid material may provide more stability and support.

Heel Counter

Heel counter is the name for the piece of material at the back of a running shoe that supports the heel and ankle. It enhances the fit of a shoe and prevents excessive pronation and supination. Runners who struggle with plantar fasciitis or shin splints may want to choose shoes with a solid heel counter.


Important for traction, cushioning, and support, the sole of a running shoe is the bottom part that contacts the ground. Soles for running shoes are made from different materials. The sole you select is usually related to the use case of the shoe. For example, a rubber sole has excellent traction and grip, making it perfect for running on a variety of surfaces. A carbon fiber sole is very lightweight and strong, but has very little cushioning, making it most ideal for competitive, shorter-distance runners.

Foam soles are typically used in many running shoes. Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate (EVA) foam is lightweight, flexible foam (usually used in the midsole), whereas polyurethane (PU) foam is denser, providing more stability and support. Highly responsive shoes typically use thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU plastic) in the mid or outsole.

Toe Box

The toe box is exactly what it sounds like. It's the front part of the shoe where the toes go. It serves a very important purpose: It allows the toes to flex during the running stride. While the size and fit of a toe box are highly individual (some people prefer a snug fit, while others love to wiggle their piggies in a roomy toe box), finding the right size can improve overall foot function in the shoe and cut down on injury. A cramped and narrow toe box may result in calluses, bunions, and blisters, whereas a toe box that's too big may have you feeling like you're sliding around.


The tongue of the shoe is the part below the laces and on top of the instep (and between the upper and the foot) that looks similar to it's name. The purpose is to protect the feet from the laces and enhance the fit and comfort of a shoe. If you're looking for comfort, choose a thicker tongue. However, if you're not into the super-cushiony, padded feeling, a slim tongue that fits flush against your foot can offer a more aerodynamic feel.

Toe Spring

The toe spring is a key design feature in a running shoe that causes an arch in the forefoot of the shoe. This arch allows for a smoother transition in your stride, particularly as the foot rolls forward and pushes off the ground. The natural shape mimics a foot's contour and improves the efficiency of a runner's gait. Some runners may not like the extra spring in their step, however, the toe spring does reduce the amount of stress on the metatarsal bones and toes, which can be helpful for those who have frequent foot or toe pain.

Medial Post

The medial post is the part of the running shoe that provides additional support on the inside (AKA medial) side of the foot. It helps to control overpronation (that is, when the foot rolls inward), improving foot stability and reducing the risk of injuries associated with overpronating, including plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and knee pain.


A sockliner (AKA insole) is the fancy term for the insert that provides an extra layer of support and cushioning on the interior of the shoe. In most simple terms, it's the part you take out when you put in your own orthotic.

Heel Crash Pad

Heel crash pads are helpful to improve cushioning for runners with a heel-toe gait. They maximize the efficiency of the foot landing, particularly during the heel strike phase of the stride. This shock absorber is great for runners who train mostly on hard surfaces like asphalt or concrete and is typically found in maximal shoes (AKA those with very thick midsoles). In simplistic terms, it's like an extra bouncy pad underneath your heel.

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