Athletic Shoe Anatomy - 9 Parts You Need to Know

Definitions of Parts of Walking and Running Shoes

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

Shoe Upper

Athletic Shoes
Athletic Shoes. Nick Free/E+/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. 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 this is a problem.

Materials: For athletic shoes, the upper is usually made of a 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. Oddly enough, there are people who have shoe allergies to the materials used in various shoes, usually the glues, adhesives, leather tanning agents and dyes.


Midsole of Running Shoe
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 a variety of materials and elements to give the shoe various characteristics of cushioning, support, and flexibility.

Materials: Midsoles of athletic shoes are usually made of ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) and polyurethane. Different colors of materials show the different densities - usually the denser and more supportive polyurethane is in gray, with the lighter and cushier EVA in white. The more gray, the more support. The more white, the more flexible and cushioned.

Cushioning: The midsole also contains other cushioning elements such as gel and encapsulated air.

Support:  Motion control shoes and stability shoes may have a thermoplastic urethane (TPU) medial post to add extra stability and control overpronation.

Outer Sole - Outsole

Sole of Running Shoes
Sole of Running Shoes. P_Wei/E+/Getty Images

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


Lasting Inside Shoe
Lasting Inside Shoe with Insole Removed. Wendy Bumgardner ©

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

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Insole - Sockliner

Brooks Shoe with Insole Removed
Brooks Shoe with Insole Removed. Wendy Bumgardner &copy

The insole or sockliner 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
Back of Running Shoe. Carlos Alvarez/E+/Getty Images

The heel counter is a 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.

Heel Collar

Heel Collar of Athletic Shoe
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 it on easier.

Shoe Tongue

Shoe Tongue and Laces
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 in shoes such as minimalist shoes. In trail shoes, the tongue is often fully attached to each side of the shoe to prevent trail debris 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 in place and from slipping side to side.

Eyelets and Shoe Lacing System

Shoelaces. 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 farther 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.

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