Making an Athletic Shoe

The Anatomy of a Walking or Running Shoe

The anatomy of a shoe might not be something you prioritize when shopping for new athletic shoes, but familiarizing yourself with certain terms and parts could help ensure you're choosing the best fit for your individual feet and biomechanics.

Whether you are buying running shoes or walking shoes, they have terminology in common. Let's dissect the making of an athletic shoe and basic shoe anatomy.


Shoe Upper

Close-Up Of Sports Shoes On Road
Sawitree Pamee / EyeEm / Getty Images

The shoe upper is the fabric or leather portion of the shoe that encases your foot. It is sewn or glued to the midsole. An important part of the shoe upper is the toe box, which houses your toes and allows them send force forward. If the toe box feels tight and you often end up with blisters around your toenails, you would likely benefit from wide-fit shoes that offer a wider toe box.

Shoe uppers often have elements stitched on for reinforcement or just for style. To avoid irritation from these, some shoes have them molded on without seams inside. Look for seamless designs if irritation is a problem for you.

The shoe upper keeps your foot secure and often provides built-in technology that allows sweat to evaporate.

Materials: For athletic shoes, the upper is usually made of breathable mesh fabric. You may see leather or synthetics that imitate leather for walking shoes, comfort shoes, trail shoes, and boots. Waterproof uppers have a liner of Goretex or similar material.

It's possible to have shoe allergies to the materials used in shoes, such as glues, adhesives, leather tanning agents, and dyes.



Midsole of Running Shoe

Carlos Alvarez / E+ / Getty Images

The midsole is between the outer sole (which contacts the ground) and the shoe upper. It is made of materials and elements designed to give the shoe various degrees of cushioning, support, and flexibility. The midsole provides added comfort and cushioning for your foot, and is especially critical when you're logging long miles.

Materials: Midsoles of athletic shoes are usually made of ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) and polyurethane.

Different colors of materials show the different densities. In general, the denser and more supportive polyurethane is gray, with the lighter and cushier EVA in white. The more gray they have, the more support they offer. The more white you see, the more flexible and cushioned your shoes are.

The midsole also contains other cushioning elements such as gel and encapsulated air. Motion control shoes and stability shoes may have a thermoplastic urethane (TPU) medial post to add extra stability and control overpronation.


Outer Sole or Outsole

Sole of Running Shoes

P_Wei / E+ / Getty Images

The shoe sole, found on the bottom of an athletic shoe, is where the foot meets the ground. It is usually made of carbon rubber, blown rubber or a combination of both. Carbon rubber is stiffer, lasts longer, and may be used in the high-wear areas of the sole, with the softer blown rubber in other areas.

Since the outsole is the part of your shoe that touches the ground—whether that's pavement, rubber, or trail—it provides traction for grip and protection from the elements.



Lasting Inside Shoe

Wendy Bumgardner

The shoe lasting is the final layer between the midsole and the insole or sock liner. It is where the upper is attached to the sole. There are different types, with Strobel lasting being the most common in athletic shoes. If you remove the sock liner, you can usually see the stitching of the upper to the last.

Shoe lasting keeps your foot comfortable and serves as a springboard each time you step down, allowing you to maintain energy as you move.


Insole or Sockliner

Brooks Shoe with Insole Removed

Wendy Bumgardner

The insole or sock liner is a thin foam layer or insert inside the shoe above the midsole and lasting. It protects your foot from rubbing against the seams or glued connection of the lasting to the upper. It is often removable and you may want to replace it with the insole of your choice or an orthotic or arch support.


Heel Counter

Back of Running Shoe

Carlos Alvarez / E+ / Getty Images

The heel counter is rigid support at the back of the heel above the sole. It is encased in the back of the upper. It provides stability to the movement of the heel, keeping the back of your foot secure in the shoe.


Heel Collar

Heel Collar of Athletic Shoe

Olivier Blondeau / E+ / Getty Images

The heel collar or heel cuff surrounds your ankle at the top of the shoe. It keeps the shoe in place. The collar is usually thicker than the rest of the upper and may be padded for extra comfort.

The heel collar often extends farther up the back of the ankle and may have an Achilles notch to support the Achilles tendon. It may have a finger loop to allow you to pull the shoe on more easily.


Shoe Tongue

Shoe Tongue and Laces

Creative Crop / Photodisc / Getty Images

The tongue of the shoe is attached to the shoe upper under the lacing and eyelets. It protects the top of the foot from rubbing against the lacing system. It may be padded to provide extra comfort, or it may be very thin (as seen in minimalist shoes). In trail shoes, the tongue is often fully attached to each side of the shoe to prevent trail debris from getting into the shoe.

The shoe tongue may have slits and a flap or a sewn piece to allow you to thread your shoelaces through it at the midpoint of the tongue. This is used to help keep the tongue from slipping from side to side.


Eyelets and Shoe Lacing System


Glowimages / Getty Images 

The lacing system allows you to customize the fit of the shoe. The number and arrangement of the eyelets allow more or less adjustment.

Eyelets that extend further into the heel collar allow you more flexibility in getting a secure lacing using various lacing techniques. Shoelaces may be round or flat and have some degree of elasticity.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Matthys E, Zahir A, Ehrlich A. Shoe allergic contact dermatitis. Dermatitis. 2014;25(4):163-71. doi:10.1097/DER.0000000000000049

  2. Malisoux L, Chambon N, Delattre N, Gueguen N, Urhausen A, Theisen D. Injury risk in runners using standard or motion control shoes: a randomised controlled trial with participant and assessor blindingBr J Sports Med. 2016;50(8):481–487. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095031

By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.