Most running shoes have a reinforced heel counter, and with good reason. A molded stiffener – be it internal or external – addresses a couple of performance needs.
First, a counter that’s flush with the heel of the foot minimizes slippage during running.
Secondly, a stiff counter locks the foot over the midsole. Without a supportive heel, the foot could slide towards the back during runs (especially during uphill sections), and that will affect the ride quality and also increase the chances of getting blisters.
However, stiff heel counters are an ancient footwear feature that arrived long before running shoes did.
It then transferred to the earliest versions (think the 70s and 80s) of board-lasted running shoes, because at the time, running shoes were built using dress shoe techniques.
Moreover, heel stiffeners originated in a time before the invention of high-performance fabrics. In modern times, a secure heel fit can be achieved just through textiles alone.
For example, elastic mesh uppers like adidas Primeknit and Nike Flyknit grip the heel extremely well. Also, textiles with different stretch (or non-stretch) properties can be used together to create a snug heel fit.
Like everything in life, the merits and drawbacks of a heel-less running shoe can be debated ad infinitum. Nonetheless, this being a buyer’s guide for running shoes without a heel cup, we’re compelled to focus just on the advantages.
A running shoe without a heel counter is an excellent recovery shoe
Running-related injuries like Achilles Tendonitis can be frustrating. While a running shoe without a hard heel counter doesn’t make the recovery process quicker, it certainly makes it more comfortable.
A running shoe with a foldable heel is less likely to apply unwanted pressure on the Achilles.
A running shoe without a heel cup is easier to wear
There’s something freeing about a running shoe without a hard heel cup.
Some running shoes like the Nike Free Run 5.0 and Free RN Flyknit 2018 have a semi-stretchable upper, so you can leave the laces in a fixed position and take advantage of the elastic heel to slip on the shoe.
This way, you don’t have to tie and untie the laces every time you wear the shoe.
A running shoe with a soft heel results in distraction-free comfort
Heel counter or not, the modern approach towards designing a running shoe is rooted in minimalism. Just a decade ago, a typical running shoe upper was crowded with stitched and fused overlays. The midsole had various cushioning inserts and plastic shanks.
Today, a running shoe has a knit upper with very few seams. The sole design now relies on superior foam materials rather than layering and clunky TPU shanks. As a result, the upper fit is smoother and so is the ride quality.
The moral of the story is – the fewer the components, the lower the probability of irritation. The same applies to heel counters as well.
A running shoe with a collapsible heel is travel-friendly
A running shoe with a collapsible or foldable heel has a huge advantage during travel. It can be packed nearly flat to save precious space inside a checked bag.
(Related read: The best running shoes for travel)
Solereview recommends: The Nike Free RN Flyknit 2018 (no heel counter)
Four years after it was first released, the Nike Free RN Flyknit 2018 is still going strong. We can see why; it’s the next best thing to our favorite Nike shoe – the 2014 Free 4.0 Flyknit.
The stretch mesh of the one-piece upper creates a distraction-free fit experience. The large pores on the forefoot and tongue also allow the air to circulate. And of course, the elastic heel can be folded completely flat.
This 7.5-ounce shoe isn’t just about the soft heel. The dual-density midsole is extremely flexible and comfortable enough for runs up to 10K. This makes the Free RN Flyknit 2018 an ideal running shoe for travel.
2) The Nike Free Run 5.0 (no heel counter)
The Free Run 5.0 is Nike’s modern interpretation of the flexible shoe concept, but it stays true to its roots. The EVA foam midsole is generously grooved for a high level of flexibility, and the sock-like upper has a soft yet snug fit.
There’re a couple of important differences between the Free RN 2018 and Free Run 5.0. The newer model isn’t as deconstructed, and has a narrower fit due to the last shape and sock-like entry.
The heel is lined and padded with foam for comfort, but is completely foldable as it lacks a heel counter.
3) New Balance Fuelcell Rebel 2 (collapsible heel)
The New Balance Fuelcell Rebel V2 was the surprise hit of 2021, and that wasn’t just because of its collapsible heel design.
This wispy-light speed trainer uses the same lightweight midsole foam from the New Balance RC Elite, thus making it an excellent value proposition. It feels fast, and has sufficient ride comfort to be a marathon shoe.
It isn’t perfect, though. While we did not experience durability issues during our wear-test process, there are reports of the mesh tearing. Read our detailed review to find out more.
4) Nike Flex Experience Run 11 (Fully collapsible, no heel counter)
The Flex Experience 11 is a running shoe that’s inspired by the Nike Free form factor. Like the Free, the deep flex grooves of the midsole make the shoe very easy to bend – thus allowing the foot to flex naturally. The foam midsole is also cushioned enough for everyday runs and in-gym use.
The midsole isn’t the only thing that the Flex Experience borrows from the Free. The soft mesh upper is an exercise in deconstructed minimalism, so the lack of an internal counter makes the heel fully collapsible.
5) Asics Metaracer (soft semi-collapsible heel)
Though the Asics Metaracer is a Carbon-plated running shoe, it’s nothing like the Nike Vaporfly or Saucony Endorphin Pro.
The Asics Metaracer is a low-profile racer with a plate, and also happens to be surprisingly well-cushioned. We reviewed the Metaracer a while ago, and we think highly of this shoe.
The segmented Carbon plate blends in seamlessly with the slick rubber outsole, so all that one feels under the foot is the soft midsole. This ride quality makes the Asics Metaracer an excellent speed trainer as well as a race-day shoe.
The Metaracer’s upper is very breathable, and that includes the heel – there are mesh windows to let the air in. And you know what that means? There’s no hard heel cup in the rear.
As a side note, we’re also interested to know what the new Nike ZoomX Streakfly’s upper feels like. We’ll review it as soon as we get our hands on a pair – they’ve already sold out.
6) Saucony Endorphin Pro V2 (soft semi-collapsible heel)
The Saucony Endorphin Pro V2 is a worthy adversary to the Nike Vaporfly, because it’s based on a similar form factor and materials. Like Nike’s signature racing shoe, the Endorphin Pro has an S-curved Carbon plate inside a PEBA foam midsole.
The resulting ride delivers a heady blend of snappy responsiveness with a cushioned ride.
The ‘hanging’ end of the plate makes the rearfoot snappy, whereas the stiff forefoot rocker helps with quick transitions. The high-volume midsole contains a deep reservoir of cushioning that makes high-mileage runs less punishing on the feet.
This being a racer and all, the upper strips away unnecessary components – and that includes a stiff heel counter.
Also see: The adidas adizero adios Pro 2