A decade ago runners became obsessed with a “new” trend of running barefoot, which lead to a huge spike in Achilles, calf, knee and foot injuries. Whoops. Luckily we now have a happy medium with zero drop running shoes.
One of the first to hit the market was Altra running shoes. started when founder Golden Harper ran a 3:08 marathon at age 10.
Yup, you read that correctly!
It should come as no surprise that a boy who runs that fast was raised in a family that owned a running shoe store.
Or that they would tinker with shoes at home in the toaster oven…hmm sound familiar, remember that whole waffle iron story and Nike?? It seems all shoes start in someone’s kitchen.
Golden found he didn’t love the skin to pavement feeling and that there was some benefit to still having cushion underfoot, which lead to a new running shoe type that has exploded.
What is a Zero Drop Running Shoe?
Drop refers to the distance a shoe slopes from the heel to the toebox.
The best visual is a high heel where it’s very easy to see to see that slope. In most running shoes, we’re talking about millimeters, so it’s not always hugely visible.
Example heel-to-toe-drop on different categories of shoes:
- Average running shoes used to be 12mm (Asics Gel Nimbus)
- Now more neutral cushioned shoes are closer to 10-8mm (Brooks Levitate)
- Lower drop lighter 6mm-4mm (Saucony Kinvara)
- Zero drop shoes remain even from heel to toe (Altra, Topo)
- Stack height is the measure of the cushion and doesn’t mean the shoe has a large heel to toe drop
- Minimalistic shoes like Vibram are different than zero drop shoes because they have no cushion
Checkout this article to fully understand all the different types of running shoes.
As you can see here the Altra (pictured on top) provides the desired cushion, but with a consistency to the shoe that removes the thicker heel seen in the bottom shoe with a 12mm drop.
And oh yes, I’m giving you photos from 5 years ago when I first tried them because I like it!
Are zero drop shoes better?
A thicker heel will naturally hit the ground first when you stride, thus turning you in to a heel striker whether you meant to or not. This is the big marketing discussion around most zero drop shoes.
But, let’s remember that being a heel-striking isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless you are overstriding.
So when they look at your foot on the treadmill at the running store, don’t let that one piece of information make you think you need a radically different shoe.
Switching to a zero drop or minimalist shoe will not automatically stop you from heel striking!
It will lead to injuries if you are overstriding regardless of the shoe, but more quickly with these shoes.
However, there are benefits for some runners who transition to a shoe like Altra Zero Drop.
Benefits of Zero Drop Shoes
- You already land under your body with a midfoot strike (or you’re willing to work on this piece of your running form)
- They allow you to feel more connected to the ground. This feedback can enhance stability and helps many increase power in their stride
- Increased activation of muscles for less reliance on the shoe to correct your weaknesses
- Less cushion foam means the shoes actually last closer to 1,000 miles instead of the standard 500
- Less cushion often means a lighter shoe (though many now have quite a bit of cushion)
- Lower heel to toe drop can help improve things like IT Band Syndrome
Pictured is Jenny an ultra running friend, who loves her Zero Drop.
Drawbacks of a traditional running shoe
A few of the other issues they site (and are a correct about) with more built up shoes:
- Wearing a stability shoe actually weakens your arch. Overtime you consistently need more support.
- Wearing a thicker heel changes your stride.
- No scientific studies actually show that a stability or motion control shoe prevents injury…but many show they cause injury.
Downside to Zero Drop Shoes
Podiatrists have gone on record that they think going barefoot all day long on hard surfaces leads to issues as the arch collapses. Which is why shoes like Altra have started to add some light arch support, plus you’re getting the cushion.
So I think much of the “podiatrists hate zero drop” is confusing barefoot and minimal shoes with zero drop.
Are barefoot shoes bad for your feet?
Not inherently, but especially for older runners who have less fat pad in their feet it can increase pain. Additionally, many distance runners simply find the little bit of cushion in a zero drop shoe to provide more comfort to the body as it absorbs impact.
You should NOT use them if you have:
- A tendency to develop Achilles Tendonitis
- Ankle Pain while running
- Possibly if you have Plantar Fasciitis
Are Zero Drop shoes good for Plantar Fasciitis?
While I don’t like barefoot or minimal shoes for Plantar Fasciitis, Zero Drop shoes with the right cushion and arch support can be a good choice. This is going to come down to personal preference and what feels good for your foot.
You’ll still need to do all of the foot stretches and truly make sure you transition the right way to avoid additional calf tightness pulling on the feet.
But if you transition slowly and continue with the stretching, then they can be a good option.
How to Transition to Zero Drop Running Shoes?
While the transition is not as intense as for barefoot and minimal shoes, there is still a smart process to follow to avoid risk of injury.
With the shorter heel height, your Achilles will actually stretch farther and your muscles will need to adjust. Many runners find their calves are suddenly working a great deal harder.
- Start with a shoe that has a smaller heel drop than your current shoe before jumping to zero
- Alternate the new shoe with your original running shoes for while on shorter runs
- Once you can comfortably do most of your miles in the lower shoe, add a zero drop to the rotation
- Again alternate the low drop and zero drop for a few months
Ideally, you want to make this a slow footwear transition over a number of months allowing your muscles to slowly adjust and build up to the new effort required.
Think about going for a run on the beach and how sore you might be the next day from all kinds of tiny muscles or big muscles being worked by the different terrain.
If you jump to the new shoe with no transition those muscles become overworked which leads to strains or changes to your gain that cause other injuries.
What is the Best Zero Drop Running Shoe?
This is always a subjective topic, but as always I’m going to wade in to the deep in to give you as much information as possible to make your selection!
- Vibram Five Fingers – The Original shoe for running with as much of your foot contacting the ground as possible. Just a thin durable layer of rubber protects your foot. I do know folks who have run marathons in them….not me.
- Altra Running Shoes – These have a evolved a great deal and now offer a great range of cushion and even some with a small heel drop.
- Topo Athletic Running Shoes – Good selection of trail shoes and hiking boots with light cushioning.
- Running Sandals – If you really want to get back to your running roots, take it to a sandal. Oh yes that’s right a leather bottomed thong.
Hopefully this gives you a place to start with understanding this style of shoe and if it’s even right for you!
Looking for more running shoe reviews? We’ve got them on our running gear reviews page!
- In depth review of Altra shoe models
- Comparing Hoka Models
- When to replace running shoes
- Lessons from Barefoot Runners
Have you ever tried these shoes?
What do you think of all the talk about shoes changing our natural stride?
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