Shoe Anatomy

As a kid I vividly remember my brother coming home from the store with a new pair of running shoes in a box, putting them on, and running around. He was always looking down at his shoes. When I asked what he was doing he said, “watching to see if they make me run faster!” “You’re crazy!” I thought. Turns out he wasn’t far off! There are multiple design adjustments to do just that, not only in running shoes but casual shoes too!

My name is Cheryl and I am one of the video gait specialists at The Center. I have worked at this fabulous company for almost twenty-one years! In that time, I have really grown a special interest in foot and ankle mechanics and the shoes we put on our feet. In part due to my own ailments (we are not impervious to being injured!) and in part because, come on…. shoes! What’s not to like? I have tried countless shoes, orthotics, and implements both for my own healing as well as to find what may be the best items to recommend for you, our wonderful patients.

There are several evaluative actions we execute when performing a gait analysis but the number one question I always get is, “am I in the right shoe?” Due to that constant question I thought I would break down some specific areas of the shoe that can either hinder or help your performance whether it be running, walking, dancing, or playing another sport. I bring you the anatomy of a shoe!

The Upper

The upper is the fabric or leather part of the shoe. In my brother’s case, the part he felt made him run fast because of the cool colors. This can either be sewn or glued on to midsole. It can have additional fabrics or plastics attached in certain areas to provide reinforcements, be breathable, or act as a water repellent. Depending on what activity you are wearing the shoes for, the upper material can make a difference.

The Midsole

Named for its position in the shoe, the midsole is in between the upper and the part of the shoe that touches the ground. This area also gives it the category it lives in when we refer to cushion, stability, or motion control. It can have material such as gel to provide more cushion or certain foams for more reinforcement and stiffness. Posting may also be applied to control any excessive motion, i.e., pronation.

The Outsole

The outsole is the only part of the shoe that should be hitting the ground. It’s usually made of some form of rubber that also varies in density designed to make the sole last longer. It can be smooth for activity on pavement or courts or lugged to provide more grip or traction. The outsole commonly has a design or pattern to it. This allows for the shoe to flex and bend in certain areas and certain times of your activity. It ordinarily bends where your toes bend in a running shoe but could also be very stiff in the case of a cleat to assist propulsion.

The Last

Straight, curved, or semi-curved, this describes the shape of the shoe as you view from underneath. Typically, the straighter the last the more stable the shoe. These shoes usually are designed to house orthotics more easily if needed. A curved last is just that, a subtle curve to the shoe meant to move the way your foot would commonly move if it had nothing on it and is classically a more flexible shoe. Although you can see the shape of the last from the bottom, it’s located above the midsole and below the sock liner (insert in the shoe covering the stitching).

Toe Box

This is the part of the shoe that houses the toes and forefoot. Most manufactures unfortunately design this area more for fashion than the shape of the foot. Thus, many problems can occur in this area. Bunions, blisters, calluses, neuromas, metatarsalgia to name a few. When purchasing a shoe, it should resemble the way your foot looks without wearing one. Don’t make it too narrow.

The Heel Counter and Collar

Found in the back of the shoe, the counter is embedded in the upper and the collar surrounds the top of the shoe. The counter helps to support the heel and provide stability when first hitting the ground while the collar helps to keep the shoe in place. It can also be a sight of irritation on the achilles depending on the height. Often times the collar will be notched out.

The Tongue and Laces

The tongue is found under the laces and can either be affixed to the upper or loose. It’s designed to reduce irritation from the lacing system on the top of the foot as well as prevent objects from getting into the shoe during activity. Shoes used for running or hiking on trails have a tongue that is not separated for this reason. The laces and eyelets they go in can be used in various techniques to avoid irritation or really lock the shoe in place. Laces can also have different shapes that provide more or less reinforcement.

The Rocker

The rocker system can be found at the toe or heel of the shoe and assists with distributing pressures from the bottom of the foot. It also reduces energy needs. Looking at the shoe from the side it can be either be completely flat, curved at the toe, curved at the heel, or curved at both ends. These curves reduce the needs of the foot to do work at certain times and can be very effective if there are mobility limitations in the foot and ankle. A stiff or fused big toe may benefit from an increased forefoot rocker while someone with reduced motion at the ankle may warrant an increased heel rocker. Disclaimer, shoes with rockers can be a challenge for someone with reduced balance as they may speed up motions!

The Drop

The distance in height between the heel and the toe. Shoes can have zero drop (think flip flop or minimalist shoes) or a significant drop as in the case of a high heel. Increased drops can be an irritant for someone with toe pain or pain right behind the toes as they will shift your weight in that direction. Landing mechanics can be affected by the height as well.

Learn about our recent visit to Gazelle on our Facebook page!

Need more help deciding what shoes to wear? We can assess your running form and find the shoe that is right for you. Check out our gait evaluations page here!

A big thank you to Gazelle Sports for using their excellent inventory to take these pictures! Gazelle is our “go to” shoe store. Not only do they have an excellent shoe selection but they also work with our patients very well to find a comfortable shoe that meets our recommendations. Visit their website here!

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