When minimalist running shoes started gaining in popularity a few years ago, the term “zero-drop” entered the running mainstream. What is zero-drop, and how does it help with a runner’s performance? What benefits can zero-drop shoes bring to our continually evolving sport?
There are many questions and opinions floating around the running world regarding these shoes. As a category, zero-drop shoes feature heels and toes that are the same distance off the ground. In theory, this allows the shoe to more exactly mimic how your foot would naturally move if barefoot. There are minimalist versions as well as very cushiony models. While they are not for everyone, there are certainly some benefits.
Before looking at the current state of zero-drop shoes, let’s take a quick look at the history of running. From there, we can see how zero-drop shoes evolved (or really, re-evolved).
Evolution of Running Footwear
Running, as a sport, has remained the same in principle through the ages. It’s the technology of the gear that changes. Some of these changes come with better material and design, and some follow current beliefs or fads.
If you go back far enough, all running was barefoot running. The human leg and foot are made for long-distance running, and running is a part of human history. Jump forward a few tens of thousands of years, and running was done competitively. Shoes were developed to protect runners’ feet, even if they were simple designs made of thin layers of leather. Running shoes stayed more or less like this until the introduction of vulcanized rubber in the 1800s.
This particular development saw the release of rubber-soled shoes. They started off as being ungainly and uncomfortable, but also started shoes down the path toward better traction and cushioning. With those soles and goals, shoe makers started seeing that shoe design itself could impact performance. It wasn’t simply a matter of protecting the foot.
Into the Modern Era
As shoes moved into the modern era, shoemakers started to look at how to help the foot run better.
Among a bevy of other support and comfort features, the heel was raised slightly, so that the foot was tilted. The rationale here was (and still is) two-fold. First, placing cushioning under the heel helps the leg absorb shock, reducing fatigue. Second, the elevated heel tips the runner forward slightly and supposedly improves running posture.
Nearly every running shoe was (and again, still is) eventually designed this way, with a typical shoe lifting the heel by half an inch or more. But this is also not really how the foot evolved to run.
Within the last ten years or so especially, certain shoemakers have started questioning shoe design. Their offerings pay more attention to what the foot can do without shoes. They argue that the elevated heel promotes bad running form, such as heel-striking, and that the cushioning does not actually reduce injury rates.
These companies want to make a shoe that is more like a barefoot. That sounds counter-intuitive, but it has a point: combine the comfort and support benefits of modern shoes with the natural anatomical ability of our feet to run and absorb shock. With this in mind, the zero-drop shoe was brought into mainstream running.
What Is Zero-Drop in Running Shoes?
Zero-drop running shoes start with aligning the ball of the foot evenly with the heel. The heel and the ball end up the same height from the ground, whether that is directly on the ground or sitting above a cushy midsole. The term “zero-drop” literally means that there is no drop from the heel to the toes. Just like there is no drop when you are barefoot.
This is how your foot is naturally aligned and is a substantial variation from traditional shoe designs, where there is a significant difference in height. This height difference gives traditional running shoes the appearance of being wedge-shaped, lifting the heel.
What Are Regular Running Shoes?
Traditionally designed footwear will elevate your heel to an average of 12-16mm, or just over half an inch. The purpose and results of this depend on your viewpoints on shoe design: either it helps with running form and allows for injury-preventing cushioning, or it throws off your posture and encourages a heel-striking stride, which reduces efficiency.
Zero-Drop vs Regular Running Shoes
These two types of shoes vary greatly in their construction, but mostly in their heel-to-toe drops. This will dictate the way your feet strike the pavement.
- Pain and Strain
The use of zero-drop shoes can prevent back, foot, and knee pain, as it can take away the strain from the knee and spread it to the calf muscles. Zero-drop shoes, in coaxing you toward a forefoot strike, try to get your feet to do more of the work in absorbing shock, as opposed to have the shoes do the cushioning. Shoes with high heel-to-toe drops can encourage heel striking. This may enhance your speed but consequently, affect your posture due to constant pushing in a forward position.
- Feet Movement
Because zero-drop shoes engage the foot itself in absorbing the impact of running, they very often allow for greater foot movement. For example, they might have wider toe boxes, to allow the toe-splaying action that the foot evolved to make when running. On the other hand, regular running shoes are more likely designed around structure and attempting to correct over- or under-pronation, to keep your foot aligned in a certain way.
Because zero-drop shoes don’t have extra cushioning or structure in them, they are made from less material. That helps maintain lighter weight, which can help your speed and improve your endurance.
Zero-drop shoes are more popular in the trail running and ultra-running worlds, where paces are slower but long endurance is paramount. Standard running shoes still rule in the road running and marathon world, where runners still prefer cushioning and comfort…at least for now.
Why Should Heel-to-Toe Drop Matter?
Heel-to-toe drop, at least in theory, helps dictate the way your feet strike the pavement with each step. Some prefer the raised heel of standard running shoes, especially when racing. It helps propel you forward, and gives space for extra cushioning. If that configuration is so popular and beneficial, what does a zero-drop shoe do differently?
Gives a Natural Feel
Zero-drop running shoes emulate running sandals, which are essentially the first running footwear created. This means that regardless of what rubber is between your feet and the ground, you would feel more natural movements, since you are running similarly to how your ancestors ran.
Reduces the Risk of Injury
Shoes with a high heel-to-toe drop encourage heel striking, to a certain extent. This can play a major factor when it comes to analyzing sports-related knee injuries. Elevated heels also mean that you are constantly being pushed to be in a more forward-leaning position, which can stress your body’s natural posture.
Zero-drop shoes supposedly reduce pain in the waist and lower back, as well as foot and knee pain. Zero-drop shoes are said to take away the strain from the knee area and spread it around the calf muscles, reducing injury risk. But, just as traditional running shoes have not been shown to reduce injury with their extra padding and support, the science on zero-drop and injury is still out.
Spreads the Movement Around
As previously mentioned, zero-drop running shoes are said to move pressure away from the knees and spread it around to lessen the risk of injury. This effectively transforms your calf muscle into a shock absorber that directly intercepts the impact from the stride and evenly distributes it through the leg.
The flat design of the zero-drop shoe ensures that every part of your foot gets to land firmly on the ground, spreading the initial shock before transferring it to the calf muscles and knees. This also lets your feet move more freely as compared with heeled running shoes.
Zero-drop running shoes are the outcome of minimalist design, and this means that less material is used to create each shoe. The result is lighter footwear, and lighter means faster, more efficient, and less fatiguing. This is especially important in competitive running, where every edge you can gain is important.
Better Stability and Makes You Go Zoom
Proponents of zero-drop running shoes say that they allow your feet a more natural position, and this natural stance gives you better stability. In terms of performance, this means you can run faster than in traditional running shoes.
The natural feel of zero-drop shoes may encourage your body to adapt better, which may help performance. Again, this is open to debate. Some runners strongly prefer the zero-drop feel. These shoes are hugely popular in trail and ultra-running. They are substantially less common in road running. Give them a try to see if they are your cup of tea.
Transitioning to Zero Drop Running Shoes
Zero-drop running shoes may have piqued your interest, but always consider that different shoe designs can affect your performance. Each person has their own take about running and what shoes work best.
But a change from a traditional shoe to a zero-drop shoe is a major change, and it will ask quite a bit of your muscles, especially your calves. If you are already set on getting a zero-drop running shoe, then make sure to transition gradually.
You may be thinking that a simple heel-to-toe height drop is basic, and no transition is needed, but the aftermath of one or two runs will show the need clearly. If you have spent your life running with a substantial heel-to-toe height, then you might need more time to adjust than most.
Easing Into It
What you need to do is to use zero drop running shoes during short, easy training runs once a week at the start. Take your zero-drop shoes to the track for a set of 100m striders. Or do your warm-up miles in them before a tempo run, then switch to the shoes you are used to.
Then, gradually trade in more days with your zero-drop shoes. Go for a short trail run. Wear them for an easy day or recovery run. Work them in slowly until you truly feel comfortable running with them. And, of course, stretch.
The time between the initial set of runs and full integration may take months. It takes more than just changing your shoes. You need to rewire your brain’s impression of how you run and how your body responds to running. It can be compared to writing with your right hand and then being forced to write with your left, so be patient with yourself. And remember: some may never fully transition into using zero drop running shoes, and that’s perfectly fine.
Zero-drop shoes are here to stay. And they certainly are worthy of your consideration. Many runners have made the switch and are not looking back to the days of traditional running shoes with raised heels. Especially in the trail and ultra-running communities, zero-drop shoes are worn by hobbyists and elites alike.
They are designed from an obvious principle: let your feet do what they were made to do. Your feet evolved to run, and don’t need big wedges of foam and heavily designed footwear to do their job. Zero-drop shoes let your feet do their thing without interference, and might just be better for your feet and leg muscles in the end.
That being said, the science is inconclusive at this point. Wearers of zero-drop shoes do not appear to suffer fewer injuries, nor do they see sudden jumps in performance.
Take them as one more option in the wide selection of shoes we runners can choose from. In that regard, zero-drop shoes are a welcome addition to the running landscape. Do your research, go for a couple test runs, and see if this hot new trend is right for you.