What Causes Heel Drag to Sneakers and Why Does It Happen?
Heel drag is a biomechanical inevitability when wearing sneakers. Ever since humans started protecting their feet with leather and rubber coverings, one of the first areas to bear the brunt of walking is the lateral corner of the heel.
For decades, cobblers, physiotherapists and sneakerheads alike have been trying to address this issue. And while this discussion is not the solution, it might help make things a little clearer to prevent things from dragging out for too long.
What is Heel Drag?
Good chances are most sneakerheads have experienced heel drag in their life, but for those fortunate enough to have never suffered it, here’s a quick refresher. As its name suggests, heel drag is the excessive wear on the heel of a shoe. It most often happens to the lateral corner, grinding away at the outsole and into the midsole, which only gets worse as time goes by.
What Causes Heel Drag?
The root causes of heel drag can be divided into either biomechanical issues or the result of ill-fitting shoes. Strap in, because it’s about to get technical…
The particular motion in which people walk is referred to as the gait. Everyone has a unique gait – and each leg/foot has its own way of moving and interacting with the ground. This is simply a physical response to distributing weight, load and impact throughout the feet and up the legs into the rest of the body.
Most people naturally land on the lateral side of their heel and roll the foot inwards to distribute the impact. This is known as pronation, and is perfectly normal. However, some people roll their weight disproportionately towards their midline, which is commonly considered to be over pronation. Over pronators will therefore create more wear on the medial side of the shoes. They also tend to exhibit collapsed arches/flat feet.
The opposite of this phenomenon is supination, whereby the foot is too rigid and does not roll enough to distribute impact. Therefore, most of the contact occurs on the lateral side of the foot, causing accelerated wear on this side of the shoes too – thus causing excessive heel drag. Conversely, supinators are likely to have high arches.
There is a third gait category: neutral. As this name suggests, motion is within a neutral range that’s not excessive in either direction to be classified as over pronation or supination. Of course, there will be some pronation, as that is how the human foot tends to work. This lucky category has less reason to blame biomechanics for heel drag!
Style Over Function
Before sneakers were worn for style, they were typically originally athletic footwear designed to offer support and protection across a range of dynamic movements. Over time, as sneakers became fashionable items, the ways of wearing them deviated from their performance intentions, such as ‘keeping your laces loose’. Loose-fitting shoes create all sorts of weird biomechanic adaptations, such as clawing the feet to keep the shoes from slipping off. People have gotten lazier with their gaits too. Everyone is guilty of dragging their feet – guess what a sneaker’s first point of contact is? Yep, the heel.
Counteracting Heel Drag
As much as heel drag is caused by biomechanical reasons, and functional transgressions, it can be alleviated. And in some cases it can reversed by the same factors.
Ever noticed the firmer foam or stiff insert on the medial midsole heel? This feature, mostly found on running shoes, is known as the medial post. It’s designed to stop over pronators from rolling their feet inwards excessively. People with this gait are better suited for stiffer/stability shoes.
When Nike introduced Free technology back in the early 2000s, they wanted to simulate the feeling of walking and running barefoot to promote natural motion and strengthen the feet and legs. However, there is an opposing camp that believes more cushioning is better. But that is a whole other can of worms.
Because heels are some of the highest wear areas on shoes, cobblers have been doing heel replacements for decades, if not centuries. The same can be done with sneakers by simply filling the worn area with foam, and then trimming the edge back in line with the original outsole. In fact, the classified section of Runner's World magazines dating back to the 1970s and 80s listed many cobblers and running stores that offered heel repairs as a standard practice.
Similarly, a DIY solution for thrifty sneakerheads and skaters looking to stretch the life out of their shoes was to fill in worn areas with grippy but durable Shoe Goo. Of course, it’s not as elegant as a fine Vibram sole installed by a skilled cobbler, but it still gets the job done. Prevention is the best cure, so Shoe Goo can be applied prematurely to the soles for extra durability at the cost of some style points. For some, that’s a worthwhile tradeoff.
The Future of Heel Drag
Unless humans undergo some sort of major evolutionary change that completely alters the way they walk, heel drag will remain an unfortunate reality of wearing shoes. At the end of the day, unless they’re intended to be shoe box queens, sneakers generally look better worn in anyway!