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Anatomy of a Shoe

Updated: Feb 3

Cypress Foot and Ankle specialist Dr. Christopher Correa discusses shoe anatomy and what constitutes a good shoe. Below you will find the naming and explanation of different parts of a shoe. Matching the proper shoe with the planned activity is important in preventing injury. Many people present to podiatry offices all over the country with foot ailments that stem from shoes that are too old, the wrong size, or simply not the right shoe for the intended activity. After all, this is why you do not see LeBron James playing basketball in pumps!


Shoes on a wall

The toe box is the end of the shoe which houses the toes. Depending on the type of shoe toe boxes may be rounded, pointed, or squared. Generally speaking, podiatrist prefer rounded and squared because this tends to allow for more room for the toes. The depth of the toe box often determines how much room is allowed for the toes. This because a big issue for putting in orthotics or insoles in the shoe. If there is limited toe box space it will limit the range of devices that shoe can accept.


The Upper is a generic term that refers to the top portion of the shoe and includes everything above the sole and heel. This can be made of mesh, cloth, leather or synthetic materials. In running shoes the inside portion of the upper that abuts against the arch is usually build with firmer materials and heavier stitching to help support the arch. This is one of the areas where a shoe tends to break down and loosening up as it wears out.

The counter is the back portion of the upper which contacts directly with the back of the heel. When present this section can either be softer or more rigid. A good stiff counter can help control the heel area and conversely the side-to-side motion of the foot. This can be useful for preventing ankle sprains and helping maintain an upright position of the foot. Deep heel counters are necessary for helping customs orthotics function properly. the high, relatively stiff back of the shoe is necessary to controlling your foot posture and hold the shoe onto your foot properly. Jamming your foot into a shoe without untying it can damage the counter and make it nonfunctional.


The vamp is the upper middle part of the shoe in front of where the laces or Velcro are commonly placed. The depth and width of this section houses the mid foot and can be narrow wide or extra wide. This is important in determining how snug a shoe will fit around mid to forefoot.

Parts of a shoe
Parts of a shoe

The sole consists of an insole, midsole and an outsole. The insole is inside the shoe and is often times removable and replaceable, ideal for orthotics. The outsole contacts the ground and is usually made of leather or rubber. While this section can be replaceable it often requires special tools and know how. The mid sole is a layer that exists between the in and out sole and typically is made up of a combination of materials to determine the shape, support, and shock absorption of the shoe. The softer the sole, the greater the shoe's ability to absorb shock. The stiffer the mid sole the greater the ability to support. This section is built off of a shoe’s last and determines the overall shape of the shoe.


The heel is the bottom part of the rear of the shoe that provides elevation. The higher the heel, the greater the pressure on the front of the foot. The “drop” is the change in height between the heel of the shoe and the toes. Even in shoes that do not look like they have an elevated heel they often times have a small drop, even in tennis shoes. We recommended in general as little of a drop as possible.


Aglet - The plastic part at the end of a shoelace.


Tongue – Slip of material that is under the laces or Velcro.

Parts of a shoe

The material from which a shoe is made can affect fit and comfort. Softer materials decrease the amount of pressure the shoe places on the foot. Support is derived from the mid sole but to make sure that the foot stays in place to benefit from that support you need a stiff counter and an upper that provides resistance the sliding. Think how in effective sandals are at keeping your foot in place, the most supportive mid sole in the world will not matter if the foot slides right off of it. Stiff materials can cause blisters and often times need to be broken in. A shoe with a soft upper and flexible mid sole may be very light and comfortable but often times does not provide and support and tend to break down quickly. For this reason, we do not recommend minimalist running shoes for exercise or sports for most people.


Determining the anatomy of a good shoe from a bad one


Place one hand on the toe and one hand on the counter and compress. The shoe should only bend less than 60 degrees at the toe and not bend in the mid foot region at all. If you can fold the shoes in half like a taco it is not a supportive one.

Good shoe
Bad shoe
Bad shoe, foot pain

The dish towel test – If you can grab a shoe and ring it out like a dish towel it is not a supportive shoe.

Good shoe
Bad shoe
Bad shoe foot pain


Fit – When wearing the shoe, you should have a single thumb’s width (your thumb not Andre the Giant's) between the end of your longest toe and the tip of the shoe. For more info on properly fitting a shoe check out blog on the topic here.


So much foot and ankle pain is as a result of mismatching non supportive shoes with high levels of activity. Making sure you can recognize a supportive shoe and use it when you are playing sports doing a high level of walking or standing will go a long way to preventing foot pain. The unfortunate truth is that pretty shoes are meant to be looked at and not worn. This doesn't mean you cannot wear pretty shoes, just that you are going for a jog or shopping at store you should probably leave them on the shelf. If you are experiencing foot or ankle pain contact the experts at Select Foot and Ankle Specialists and schedule an appointment today.

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