How to Transition to Zero Drop Shoes

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There are plenty of different types of running shoes out there. This is great because there are also many types of runners who all need something different from their shoes.

If you’re trying to improve your performance or comfort when running, you might have thought about switching to zero-drop shoes. It’s important to note that not everybody will benefit from zero-drop shoes, so you should consider why you want to switch to them.

We’ll discuss some benefits to help you decide, plus how to transition to zero-drop shoes from more traditional running shoes. Let’s dive in!

What Are Zero Drop Running Shoes?

Zero-drop running shoes place your heel and forefoot at the same height off the ground. Most running shoes have the heel slightly—or quite a bit—higher than the forefoot.

These shoes don’t necessarily differ from regular shoes in any other way. They often look the same from the outside and feature the same upper, midsole, and outsole technology as other shoes. There are some brands – like Altra – that emphasize a wide toebox to let your toes splay more naturally.

But for all zero-drop shoes, it’s the midsole—minus a heel-to-toe drop—that sets them apart from others. Sometimes, you can’t see this from the outside, so you may not know that a shoe is zero-drop until you examine it closely or find the information on the box or in a product description online.

Zero Drop vs Traditional Running Shoes: What’s the Difference?

Traditional running shoes place the heel higher than the toes. The extent to which this is depends on the shoe. Some shoes have a heel-to-toe drop of as little as 3 or 4 mm, while others have the more standard 12 mm drop.

This means regular running shoes have more cushioning in the heel than in the forefoot. While this protects those who heel-strike, it may actually encourage a heel strike due to the heavier heel section.

Zero-drop shoes often include good cushioning and the relevant arch support, but they just don’t place excess cushioning at the cushioning and less in the forefoot. The cushioning remains the same throughout the shoe—exactly the same thickness from heel to toe.

Are Zero Drop Shoes Minimalist Shoes?

This is a common misconception! Zero-drop shoes and minimalist shoes are NOT the same. Some zero-drop shoes are minimalist—but not all minimalist shoes are zero-drop.

Zero-drop shoes can have quite a bit of cushioning—so much so that they might be considered “max-cushioned” shoes. The only thing relevant in this context is that the sizable chunk of cushioning doesn’t change in thickness.

On the other hand, you could have a zero-drop shoe that’s got very little cushioning underneath and promotes a more “barefoot ground feeling.” In this case, it could be considered a minimalist shoe. It’s all about that cushion!

Don’t get confused between the two. If you want to switch to a minimalist shoe, you don’t necessarily need a zero-drop shoe. You just need a shoe with a thinner cushion underneath that offers a better ground contact feel.

And if your goal is to switch to a zero-drop shoe, you don’t need to forgo the cushioning! All you need is to find a shoe that places the heel height and the forefoot height at the same height above the ground. That could be 10 mm, or it could be 30 mm.

How Does It Affect Running Form?

Zero-drop shoes encourage a natural, “barefoot” stride. Your heel and forefoot are exactly the same height when you stand barefoot. Zero-drop shoes keep it that way—they just add a layer of cushioning underneath your barefoot stance.

While traditional shoes may “force” you into a heel strike due to the weight balance in the shoe, zero-drop shoes don’t do this.

This could encourage you to run with more of a midfoot or forefoot strike, but it’s important to note that if you’re a natural heel striker, even without extra weight in the heel, your strike pattern may not automatically change.

If you intend to change to a forefoot strike, you can still do so with effort and practice. And zero-drop shoes will definitely help!

But running in a pair of zero-drop shoes can distribute your weight more evenly across the midsole, helping to improve form and reducing the risk of injury.

The position of your foot in a zero-drop shoe helps to promote a better posture, as you don’t have that slight forward lean that comes with a regular shoe.

Better posture equals better form, but it’s still a good idea to pay attention to your form and ensure you’re landing with your feet under your pelvis and not out in front of you, automatically putting you back on your heel. The good news is that this will feel much more natural in a zero-drop shoe.

It’s important to note that the transition period can take some time, so you may not see positive performance results immediately. Keep at it, though, and they should come!

What Are the Benefits of Zero Drop Shoes?

Zero-drop shoes have certain benefits over traditional running shoes. Here’s what you can expect a pair of zero-drop running shoes to do for you.

Encourages Natural Foot Motion

When you walk barefoot through the house in the morning to get your morning coffee… That’s natural foot motion. Your heel and forefoot are at the same height—both ground height—so there’s no elevation in the heel.

This is what zero-drop shoes mimic. All they do is add an extra layer of protection and softness underneath your heel and forefoot. But they don’t raise one higher than the other.

This kind of foot strike has been natural for humans since the days of cavemen! It helps to distribute weight more evenly as you land and stops excess pressure from being placed on any particular part of the foot.

Strengthens Lower Leg Muscles

You may be surprised at how sore your lower legs and feet are after a few days in a pair of zero-drop shoes. This is because the muscles work slightly differently than in normal shoes… Which is a good thing.

Your muscles will start working in new ways—more natural ways—to stabilize and support the ankles and feet. This extra work helps to strengthen the calves, which can actually boost your running performance!

Improves Balance and Stability

Even though the difference between a heel-to-toe drop and a zero-drop is just a few millimeters, you’d be surprised at how much of a difference it causes to your posture. You’re standing back in your shoes—no longer leaning slightly forward, which means you must readjust to balancing in your shoes.

It might sound silly. We all know how to balance! But it will take a little getting used to, and you may feel unstable the first few times you wear them.

Ultimately, the more you wear zero-drop shoes, the better your balance and stability will become as your feet get used to their natural position once again.

Rather than fighting against an unnecessary heel lift that completely changes your weight distribution, your body can simply run with freedom, creating a better sense of proprioception and improving balance.

Reduces the Risk of Injury

We’re used to being in the barefoot position. It’s natural, which means that your joints align properly. And when your foot joints align properly, everything up the kinetic chain aligns too—ankles, knees, and hips.

This can effectively reduce your chance of injury, as your feet, knees, and hips are aligned and moving within a more natural range of motion. Better posture and improved running form make you more likely to stay injury-free.

Lightweight and Well-Balanced

Although zero-drop shoes are not necessarily minimalist, they tend to seem lighter than average. This is likely because the weight is distributed much more evenly across the shoe and not concentrated in the heel.

How Long Does It Take To Get Used to Zero Drop Shoes?

The time it takes to get used to zero-drop shoes depends on the individual. Things like your foot strength, running experience, existing injuries, and how much time you spend getting used to the shoes all play a role.

It usually takes a few weeks for your feet to adapt to the new shoes. However, it can take up to several months for some people, so be aware of this as you transition.

What Changes Can You Expect as You Transition?

Transitioning to zero-drop shoes comes with certain changes you should be aware of to have the best experience possible. It’s important to note that all your foot and leg problems aren’t just going to disappear when you put on a pair of zero-drop shoes!

During your transition period, your feet and lower legs will have to go through some discomfort as they get used to resting and moving in new ways. Here’s what you can expect as you go through the transitions—be patient, and don’t give up if you experience these things!

Muscle Soreness and Stiffness

Just a few millimeters in the sole of your shoe can make quite a difference to the position of your foot. As a result, this can put a lot more strain on muscles that aren’t used to working this hard!

Your calves and Achilles tendon, in particular, may feel sore, stiff, and tight in the days and weeks when you’re breaking in your new shoes. Keep them loose and feeling better by performing regular massages or using a foam roller.

Discomfort in the Arch of Your Foot

Even with the right arch support, the arch of your foot may feel achy and painful in the days and weeks of your transition. This isn’t because there’s no support there—instead, it’s because the foot is moving in an unusual way, and it might not be used to flexing that way!

Foot Fatigue

Your foot muscles will have to work harder to keep you stable and balanced in zero-drop shoes. In addition to muscle soreness, this could lead to “tired feet,” a feeling of fatigue in the muscles and tissues.

Knee Pain

When your foot joint is aligned differently from what it’s used to, it causes the knee joint to align differently. While zero-drop shoes may align the joints more naturally, it still might take some time for the feet and the knees to get used to it.

The pain should subside as your feet and knees adapt. It’s important to note that it usually shows up as an ache during or after a workout—if you feel a sharp, shooting, or throbbing pain, you should stop what you’re doing and rest the leg.

Why Is It Important to Transition Properly?

If you rush through your transition, the above signs and pains will be more pronounced and continue for longer. It’s enough to make you stop enjoying running!

Transitioning too quickly can cause more severe injury to your feet and legs. Once you’re injured, you’ll need to take longer to break the shoes in as you have to recover first.

This can lengthen the whole process, but more importantly, you can cause damage to your legs and feet if you don’t transition smartly and with patience.

Preparing to Run in Zero Drop Shoes

Before transitioning to zero-drop shoes, here’s how to prepare yourself for the easiest experience possible.

Choose the Right Shoes

Choosing shoes that don’t match your arch type or aren’t supportive of your pronation type will only cause you pain and discomfort. Make sure you’ve chosen a pair that suits your feet.

Wear the Shoes for Short Durations

Before running in the shoes, wear them here and there. Around the house, to the store… This will get your feet and legs used to walking in them before you even try running in them.

Make sure you choose short durations. Don’t head out of the house for an entire morning in your new shoes—you don’t want to get caught with them hurting and be unable to change them.

Add Strengthening Exercises to Your Routine

Transitioning to zero-drop shoes can be easier if you strengthen your feet and lower leg muscles. If you take some time to incorporate leg exercises like calf raises, heel walks, and toe scrunches in your weekly routine, the transition may be easier.

Pay Attention to How Your Feet and Legs Feel

It’s important to pay attention to your legs and feet when wearing the new shoes. Does anything feel unnatural or painful? Is it chafing or causing pressure?

Be attentive to how your feet and lower legs feel in the new shoes. If anything feels wrong, switching them out for another pair might be worth it. If you’re trying them on in-store, don’t take them home if anything feels off!

How to Transition to Zero Drop Shoes

Are you planning on moving over to zero-drops? Here’s how to transition to zero-drop shoes with as little trouble as possible. It may take some time, but it’s worth being patient and doing it correctly.

Start With Short, Easy Runs

Go light on your new zero-drops at first. Start with short periods—try wearing them only for warm-ups and cool-downs at first. From there, slowly increase the time you wear them by just a few minutes every time you put them on.

It may sound tedious, but this is an excellent way to get your feet used to the fit and feel of the shoes without overdoing it. Keep them on for too long initially, and you may come away with aches and pains that deter you from putting them back on!

Be patient—transitioning from wearing them for just a few minutes each day to going for a full run in them can take a few weeks.

Focus On Your Running Form

Zero-drop shoes encourage a more natural foot strike, which means that many heel strikers will be more inclined to land on the midfoot or forefoot in these shoes. Pay attention to your form in these shoes; you should find that it naturally improves.

Focus on keeping your cadence quick, landing with your foot underneath your pelvis and not in front of your body, and maintaining an upright posture. You’ll find that your form comes more naturally the more you wear zero-drop shoes.

Listen to Your Body

While it will take a few weeks to transition fully, and you should expect some niggles as your muscles, tendons, and ligaments get used to this new position, you should still listen to your body.

If you feel sharp, sudden pain while wearing the shoes, take them off and return to your regular shoes for now. You may have been wearing them too long, so give your feet a break and return to them the following day.

Don’t try to push through pain or excessive discomfort. Instead, take the time to ease yourself in slowly—you’ll thank yourself later!

Choosing the Right Zero Drop Shoe

Not all zero-drop shoes are created equal! Here’s how to choose the right zero-drop to ensure comfort and the best performance.

Your Foot Type

Zero-drop doesn’t mean the shoe lacks arch support! It’s still important to choose a shoe that caters to your arch type and your pronation type.

You still need a shoe with appropriate arch support if you’ve got high arches. People who overpronate will still need a shoe with built-in support.

Comfort and Fit

Comfort is always important. You still need to choose a shoe with an appropriate level of cushioning based on how long your runs usually are and how much softness you like to feel underfoot.

Getting the right fit is also essential. Make sure you buy your correct size and research to determine if the brand fits true to size or runs a bit large, small, wide, or narrow.

Terrain and Conditions You Plan to Run In

You’ll need a road shoe if you’re running on the road. If you’re hitting the trails, you need a trail running shoe. Your comfort levels, the shoe’s lifespan, and performance will all increase if you choose the right shoe for your activity.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.

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