Running became popular in the 1970s, but back then, shoes weren’t as tech-heavy or as cushioned as they are now! They were minimalist and designed just to barely protect your feet, so runners ran with no support or cushioning underneath their feet.
In the 1970s, Nike broke the mold and created the Cortez, the first proper cushioned running shoe. From there, other brands started creating the same designs until almost all running shoes come with cushioning and support.
Somewhere along the way, minimalist and zero-drop running shoes came back into fashion. These are a throwback to the old days, and they’ve become quite popular.
But are they good for your feet? Can they improve your performance? How do they stack up against regular running shoes? That’s what we’re exploring in this article.
What Is Heel-to-Toe Drop?
To understand zero-drop running shoes, it’s important to first know what a heel-to-toe drop is.
Regular running shoes usually have more cushioning in the heel and less in the forefoot. This means the height of the heel is higher than the forefoot, leading to your foot sitting at a slight downward angle when you’re wearing the shoe.
The heel-to-toe drop is the measured difference between the heel’s height and the forefoot’s height. For example, if the heel height is 30 mm and the height of the forefoot is 22 mm, the shoe has an 8 mm drop.
What Are Zero-Drop Running Shoes?
Zero-drop running shoes have no height difference between the heel and the forefoot. It doesn’t matter how much cushioning in the midsole; the heel and forefoot are at the same height.
For example, there may be 20 mm of foam in the forefoot and 20 mm of foam in the heel. Or, 30 mm of foam in the forefoot and the same in the heel.
There’s no difference; therefore, there is a heel-to-toe drop of zero mm. And there’s no downward angle when your foot is in the shoe.
Are Zero-Drop Shoes the Same As Minimalist Shoes?
Not necessarily. Many use these terms interchangeably, but zero-drop and minimalist shoes aren’t exactly the same.
Technically, a minimalist running shoe aims to make running more natural, i.e. like you were running without shoes. That means they usually have less cushioning, but they can still have a heel-to-toe drop of up to 8 mm. Minimalist shoes don’t usually have higher heel drops than that.
Zero-drop running shoes MAY be minimalist if they have only a small amount of cushioning. But you can still get maximalist running shoes—ultra-cushioned running shoes—that have a zero drop.
In a nutshell, minimalist shoes are more about the amount of cushioning, while zero-drop shoes refer specifically to the difference between the heel and forefoot cushioning.
Potential Benefits of Zero-Drop Running Shoes
Zero-drop running shoes may have some benefits for certain runners. However, it’s important to note that these won’t necessarily affect all runners. It depends on your foot strike, the type of running you do, and even the strength of your leg muscles.
With that being said, here are some potential benefits of wearing zero-drop running shoes.
1. They Support a More Natural Gait
The whole point of zero-drop running shoes is to keep your foot in a more natural position. When you run barefoot, your heel and ball of the foot are at the same height, and that’s what zero-drop shoes aim to do.
With the introduction of highly cushioned running shoes, the extra cushioning in the heel can make the rearfoot heavier and lead to runners developing a heel strike, even if it isn’t their natural way of running.
Zero-drop shoes eliminate this problem. Without the heavy heel, you’re more inclined to land on your midfoot, which can fix issues you didn’t even know you had with your form and may improve your running efficiency.
With your heel and your ball of foot at the same height, your foot is in a more natural position for your joints to stay aligned. It’s more unnatural to walk or run with a raised heel, which can throw your whole foot out of alignment.
2. They Can Strengthen Your Feet
Wearing zero-drop shoes can encourage your feet to build strength without relying on the shoes to support them. And when your foot joints are properly aligned, you’re more likely to build muscle in your lower legs, which can also help.
It’s important to note that “zero-drop” doesn’t mean the shoe is without arch support. There’s a misconception that these shoes lack support for the arch, but that’s not always true.
Your arch should still be well-supported, but the position of your feet can help to strengthen them more naturally.
3. They May Reduce Certain Joint Pains
The natural alignment of the foot joints can reduce your risk of injury and may even eliminate joint pain that you feel when wearing traditional running shoes.
A misaligned foot joint can lead to ankle, knee, hip, and even lower back pain. This occurs because the entire leg from the foot is slightly out of alignment, which places extra strain on the joints and muscles.
When you’re wearing zero-drop running shoes and your foot joints are aligned, you might find that your lower body pain suddenly disappears.
Potential Risks of Zero-Drop Running Shoes
Although there are some potential benefits to zero-drop running shoes, they’re not without their risks. Keep these in mind if you’re considering switching to zero-drop.
1. They May Not Be Cushioned Enough for Heel Strikers
Although some people “accidentally” become heel strikers due to the heavy heel in regular running shoes, some people naturally run that way. If you’re one of them, and a zero-drop shoe doesn’t change your strike to a midfoot strike, you probably shouldn’t be wearing them.
The lack of extra cushioning in the heel may mean insufficient shock absorption to protect the heel as you land. Of course, if there’s still plenty of cushioning underfoot, it might be okay, but it’s something you’ll need to figure out depending on you and how you run.
2. They’re Not the Best Choice for New Runners
While zero-drop shoes can help you to get your form right from the start, they can also be difficult for new runners to wear if they DON’T have the correct form.
Of course, even experienced runners can have form problems, but it might be more of an issue for those new to running.
It may be best to choose a shoe with a little more support in the beginning, until you’ve got your form right.
3. They May Worsen Existing Foot Conditions
If you tend to struggle with foot pain, a zero-drop shoe could worsen it. Your foot is realigned, which can help with some things but may cause others to flare up due to pressure suddenly being on different parts of the foot. You might feel more pain if you suffer from the following:
- Achilles tendonitis
- Plantar fasciitis
- Fat pad atrophy
4. They’re Not Always Suitable for Overpronators
Although there is light arch support in most zero-drop shoes, some come with less arch support than other shoes. In cases where zero-drop and minimalist shoes overlap, you may wear flat shoes with very little arch support.
If you overpronate—your feet roll inwards when you walk—you might find that zero-drop shoes don’t offer enough support.
There’s also often less space in the midsole for support technology, which could mean that overpronators are more at risk of injury when wearing zero-drop shoes.
5. They Can Put Strain On Your Calf Muscles
Even if you have strong calf muscles, switching from regular shoes to zero-drop shoes can strain them in a different way than usual. You’ll likely experience calf muscle pain, strains, tendonitis, and shin splints.
6. They Can Be Hard to Transition To
There’s quite a curve when switching from traditional running shoes to zero-drop shoes. It takes time for your feet and the rest of your body to get used to it, so if you plan to change, be prepared for at least a few weeks of discomfort.
How to Transition to Zero-Drop Shoes
Thinking of switching from regular shoes to zero-drop shoes? Here’s how to do it so you don’t hurt yourself or hate every moment.
1. Start Slowly
Don’t strap on your new zero-drop shoes and run 10 miles. You’re asking for pain! Start small. We recommend wearing your zero-drop shoes only for walking at first and for shorter distances or periods of time.
This will give your feet time to adjust to the feeling. Wear them when walking through the store or visiting a friend. When you feel like your feet have adjusted, you can take them out for a short run.
Try half a mile at first and see how it feels. Make sure to stretch your calves well before you start, and don’t overdo it! If half a mile feels good, do a full mile the next day. You can slowly increase until you’re running like normal without noticing the difference.
2. Work On Your Form
When you start wearing your zero-drop shoes, even to walk in, practice landing on your midfoot instead of your heel. It should be easier, considering there isn’t a heavier heel in these shoes, but it may still take some work.
It’s easier to get this right if you shorten your stride. Your foot shouldn’t stretch out in front of your body as you run; it should land directly underneath your pelvis on every step you take. The easiest way to do this is to intentionally shorten your stride and focus on where you’re placing your foot.
It will take some practice. Make sure you concentrate on this both when you’re walking and when you’re running. It should feel more natural with a zero-drop shoe, but you’ll still need to not land with your heel first.
3. Choose Shoes That Are Still Well-Cushioned
Keep in mind that you don’t need to choose a minimalist or barefoot shoe, unless you specifically want to. To make transitioning to zero-drop easier, we recommend choosing a zero-drop shoe that still offers a good amount of cushioning underfoot.
Some excellent options include:
- Altra Paradigm (30 mm, great for flat feet)
- Altra Torin (28 mm, great for high arches)
- Topo Pursuit (28 mm, nice for trail runs)
4. Pay Attention to Injuries
Many runners want to try zero-drop shoes because high-drop shoes are causing them to become injured. While the shoe may or may not be causing the injury, remember you can still get hurt with a zero-drop shoe (especially if you don’t ease into it!)
The stress points and force from running hasn’t changed. But the areas in your legs and feet that feel that pressure have moved when you switch to zero-drop shoes.
If you feel any new twinges or areas that are starting to hurt, back off. Cut your mileage and ease back into it again. The worst thing you can do with zero-drop running shoes is solve one injury issue but create another!