Zero-Drop vs Regular Running Shoes: Which Is Better?

Running is an evolving, healthy sport that helps burn calories, improves fitness, and promotes lots of fun. Unfortunately, this sport can also be uncomfortable if you are not wearing the proper gear – especially shoes. Running shoes should hold your feet firmly, giving comfort and reducing the chance of injury. With the thousands of shoe types available, you must be confused as to what to buy. Read on, and learn which is better: zero-drop or regular running shoes.

Evolution of Footwear

Running, as a sport, is basic enough that it has not changed much over the years. As time has gone by, the only thing changing is the equipment, and in particular, the shoes.

The footwear used in running has adapted to advanced manufacturing techniques, integrated features, and overall construction. With new models coming out all the time, today’s runner is faced with a wealth of choices. This can be both good and bad.

Running footwear started with nothing more than thin protective soles on the feet. This later evolved to wearing sandals that made it more bearable to run. The sandals became the top choice for runners until the introduction of rubber vulcanizing techniques. This development lead to the release of rubber-soled shoes which at first were uncomfortable, even if they improved traction. Continuous innovations gradually fixed the problems of the earliest rubber running shoes, slowly improving comfort, fit, and performance.

One of these “improvements” was the slight elevation of the heel in relation to the toe. The theory is that in doing so, the shoe can provide more comfort and protection with extra cushioning under the heel. This also tips the body forward slightly, which was thought to help in running form. For decades, running shoes adhered to this standard of design.

But in the last decade or so, the orthodoxy of raising the heel has been challenged. Not only does the standard heel elevation not actually protect from injury any more than running barefoot, there is actually some evidence it results in more injury. While the research can be debated, the shoe industry has eagerly created a new genre of shoe that returns the heel to the same level as the forefoot. We are officially in the era of the zero-drop shoe.

What Is Heel-to-Toe Drop?

The heel-to-toe drop refers to the difference between how high the shoe is in the heel and the forefoot. It is measured in millimeters, and the difference can range from 0 to 16mm. This is different from stack height, or the distance between the foot and the ground when the shoe is worn. While many zero-drop shoes also have very small stack heights (and therefore very little cushioning), there are some zero-drop shoes with very thick soles. Again, today’s runner has many options.

What Are Zero Drop Shoes?

Zer- drop shoes refer to the alignment of the sole from the ball of the foot moving towards the heel. “Zero-drop” means that the heel and the ball have the same height with reference to the ground. The term zero-drop literally means that there is no drop present from your heel to your toes. Advocates of these shoes argue that this will ensure correct posture and spine alignment for a healthier midfoot to forefoot strike.

What Are Regular Running Shoes?

Traditionally designed footwear will elevate your heel to an average of 12-16mm, or just over half and 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.

  • Material

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.

Transitioning to Different Types of Shoes

Each person has their own take about running and preference for what shoes to use. But if you have already decided to shift to a new type of shoes – regular to zero drop or vice versa, the transition should be done gradually.

At first, you might think that a simple increase or decrease in shoe height wouldn’t matter that much, but you would be wrong. Switching suddenly – especially switching into zero-drop shoes – can stretch muscles and tendons in ways they are not used to, which can result in injury. Start slowly, using your new shoes for small distances and warm-ups once or twice a weak. The, progress to a couple easy runs before graduating to full-time use after a month or so.

The time required between the initial run to the full integration may take more than a month. You need to rewire your brain on how you run and how your body adjusts to these brain signals. So, the secret in transition to different types of shoes is to be patient.

Final Thoughts

Several studies have been done to examine whether zero drop or regular running shoes have a distinct advantage. The scientific results don’t point to either style as being inherently better. What is true is that there are excellent shoes in both zero-drop and standard drop, and there are runners who strongly love both as well.

Zero-drop shoes are for the minimalist at heart who wants their feet to move more naturally.

Regular running shoes offer more structure and cushioning, and might befit runners who are less exacting about their running stride, or who prioritize cushiony shoes.

Overall, your shoe style is your choice. It is a matter of preference, and there is never one single shoe that is right for you, and certainly no shoe design that is right for everyone. If you have never tried zero-drop shoes, they are certainly worth the experiment, and you just might find that they change your running for the better. If you decide to change your shoes, then slow transitioning should be practiced.

The Wired Runner