The Ultimate Guide to Zero-Drop Shoes
The Ultimate Guide to Zero-Drop Shoes
Traditional running shoes can cause injuries over time. To combat this zero-drop and minimalistic running shoes have made a comeback. This guide will answer what exactly zero-drop shoes are, why someone should switch from traditional running shoes, how to transition from traditional shoes, and how to find the right shoes for you.
What are Zero-Drop Shoes?
Zero-drop running shoes have a 0mm heel-to-toe drop.
They are flat shoes where the heel is not elevated over the toes. This includes minimalist shoes with zero-cushion or shoes with cushioning; it only matters whether or not the heel is elevated or not.
Low-drop running shoes are generally considered 0-8mm offset.
High-drop running shoes are typically considered anything over 8mm offset.
Why Switch to Zero-Drop Shoes?
There are several reasons to switch to running in zero-drop running shoes, but first, I need to highlight a very important point:
We will discuss the transition process later, but for now, we will answer why you should consider switching.
1. High-drop running shoes encourage an unnatural foot-strike
People argue that most recreational runners land on their heels when they run, therefore that is a natural way of running.
You know what else 95% of humans do (if given the resources)? They overeat, they treat others unkindly for their own short-term benefits, and they generally do not take the hard path to benefit themselves in the long-term. Just because most people naturally do something one way does not make it right or healthy.
Most of the time people take the path of least resistance, and in fact, that is exactly why people heel-strike when they run.
Is heel striking easier on slower-paced runs? Yes. There are even studies showing that heel-striking can be more efficient by 6% than mid-foot striking at speeds slower than a 7:36/minute mile pace.
That sounds great, but at what cost does that 6% efficiency boost get you?
Heel-striking while running can cause excessive stress on the body, especially your joints and knees.
Just because something is more efficient does not mean that it is better for you.
What’s the most efficient way to go get to the bottom of the mountain? Jump off.
What’s the best way to get to the bottom of the mountain? Build your strength up over time to slowly climb down it with the proper equipment and training.
If you want to talk about how people naturally run, then take your shoes off. What more natural state can you get in for running than being barefoot?
Have you ever tried running barefoot for at least a few hundred feet? Did you notice how your feet were landing on the ground? If you haven’t then go try it right now.
My guess is that you were not landing on your heel when you were running barefoot. Why is this the case? Physics.
When you land on the forefoot your body uses the muscles throughout the legs and the rest of the body to absorb the shock instead of when you land on your heel, which uses more of your skeletal system to absorb the shock.
Science Against Heel Striking
Here is a study from Harvard demonstrating the impact forces from both heel strikes and forefoot strikes with the foot. It shows that force is disseminated throughout the body more evenly when landing on the forefoot than when landing on the heel.
“We have found that even on hard surfaces (a steel force plate) runners who forefoot strike have impact forces that are 7 times lower than shod runners who heel strike. Rates of loading are equal to or less than rates of loading for shod runners.” (Lieberman).
This study explains with two analogies:
Heel striking analogy:
“It is like dropping a rod straight down on its end: it comes to a sudden, loud stop.” (Lieberman).
Heel Strike Demonstration
Forefoot striking analogy:
“It is like dropping a rod on its end at an angle: there is a sudden stop at one end of the rod, but it is much less loud because the rest of the rod continues to fall as it topples over.” (Lieberman).
Forefoot Strike Demonstration
If you were to jump off of a box would you want to land with your legs as straight as possible, or would you want to land so that your body can absorb the shock by squatting and rolling out of the force?
I’d pick the more efficient manner of absorbing the energy.
So how do zero-drop shoes help you not heel strike?
Zero-drop running shoes put your foot into a better position that allows you to land with a better forefoot or midfoot striking position.
High-drop shoes with a large, cushioned heel make it more comfortable and easier to overstride and heel-strike. The cushioned heel does not do enough to absorb shock, though.
According to Kelly Starrett (founder of MobilityWOD.com and the author of Ready to Run), shock absorption, load distribution, and shoe elevation are all acceptable modifications for shoes. This basically justifies zero-drop shoes with cushioning. Just because your body can naturally absorb energy while running barefoot does not necessarily mean that you should get rid of shoes or be in minimalist shoes all the time. (Your boss pry doesn’t want you to be barefoot and you don’t want to cut your feet while running).
2. Zero-Drop Shoes, With Proper Exercises, Can Help Correct Bad Joint Alignment (Which Causes Problems)
The key to a healthier foot and stride is….NOT orthotics, or stability control shoes, but rather the abductor hallucis.
Have you ever heard of it?
It is the muscle on the bottom of your foot along the arch. It is responsible for creating the “posture” of your foot. We will discuss foot-strengthening later.
For now, we will just show exactly what can happen when this muscle, along with other muscles in the feet and legs, are properly trained.
On Dr. Nick’s Running Blog you can find a 2-year case study with one of his clients. Dr. Nick is a podiatrist and former certified athletic trainer who specializes in foot and ankle surgery strength-training client’s feet with different exercises and minimalistic running/walking techniques.
You can find the two-year case study here. I highly recommend that you read it.
In this case study, Dr. Nick’s 34-year-old client (in 2012) had been running in stability-control shoes with stiff orthotics. She suffered from knee pain and lower back pain.
Dr. Nick helped transition her slowly from a stability-control shoe with stiff orthotics to minimalist shoes. After 2.5 years you can see the difference in her ankle alignment. You can see below that in 2012 her ankles were pulled inwards causing a collapse in the arch. In 2014, after strengthening the abductor hallucis in zero-drop, minimalistic running shoes she developed much better alignment in her heel alignment.
Dr. Nick compares correct foot alignment and strength to good posture with your back. These are both things that you can improve with exercise and hard work.
Did you notice how long this transition took? It took over two years to get these results, but in the end, she had a much healthier foot, ankle, and overall running system that would cause fewer problems.
I know that this is anecdotal evidence, but Dr. Nick can attest that many of his clients have seen similar improvements over the years. Though I am not one of his clients, I can attest to better foot alignment and strength after running in minimalist and zero-drop running shoes for over 6 years now. I used to have horribly low-arches and collapsed ankles, but over time my alignment and foot strength has increased significantly.
Good things take time. You can’t fix major problems instantly.
3. Zero-Drop Shoes Can Help Lengthen Your Heel Cord, Returning Power Back to Your Feet
The origins of the high-drop shoe are hard to tell, but Dr. Nick theorizes that a doctor elevated a patient’s heel due to an ankle or Achilles tendon pain. Heel elevation does, temporarily, help with heel pain. The problem is that it causes problems over time.
One of those problems is the compression of the heel cord.
This is a major reason why, if you spent a long period of time wearing high-drop shoes, you have to transition slowly to a lower drop shoe.
According to Dr. Kelly Starrett, when the heel cord is compressed you are being robbed of your natural foot power.
Imagine trying to sprint in a pair of high-heeled shoes vs. sprinting in a flat racing spike. Which shoe would provide the better performance?
For a variety of reasons, the flat racing spike would win out. One of the major reasons is that the heel cord is lengthened and functions like it is supposed to.
How to Transition to Zero-Drop Running Shoes
Why You Need to Take Time to Transition to a Zero-Drop Running Shoe.
Let’s agree that zero-drop and minimalist running is a hotly debated topic, so I’ll give a quick explanation as to why there is even a debate. There are two reasons:
- It takes time to transition to zero-drop running styles, so why waste so much time? (Hint, you can read why it’s worthwhile up above in the “Why Switch to Zero-Drop Shoes” Section).
- If you don’t take time to transition then you will get injured.
One of the biggest arguments against zero-drop and minimalistic running is the report of increased injury while transitioning to zero-drop shoes.
Imagine putting your toes up against a wall to stretch your calf out. Feel the strain? The same strain happens when you transition takes your heel from 12mm in the air and lower it to being level with your toes. That strain can cause injuries.
Switching means that you are going to be absorbing a bunch of shock-energy into a wide group of muscles that you are not used to using. You will most likely be using these muscles in a completely new way and will need to take time to allow them to become stronger.
According to Dr. Nick Campitelli, the keys to switching to a zero-drop or minimalist platform are:
1. Foot Strength
How You Transition
I know, I know. You don’t want to hear about the boring long process, but it is necessary. This is going to take a lot of hard work and time, but after we show you how to properly transition you’ll have a much healthier body for running.
Be Barefoot as Often as Possible
Instead of sliding on the slippers after work, or wearing the flip-flops to tend to your garden try going barefoot.
Because barefoot is the ultimate in zero-drop (zero cushion, zero heel drop, and zero protection). Being barefoot allows your feet to splay naturally, stretch, and strengthen. As mentioned earlier foot strength is incredibly important in the transition process.
Being barefoot can be kind of awkward in social situations, and can be dangerous in other situations. Your significant-other most likely does not want you barefoot while on your date night at the local fine-eatery, so be reasonable with when you’re barefoot.
Buy a Pair of Running Shoes with the Least Amount of Cushion You’re Comfortable With
The next step in the process is finding a pair of shoes for the actual running part. Luckily for you, we put together a search-engine to help you find zero-drop running shoes.
Use this Transition Schedule on Your Runs
Take 6-8 WEEKS to fully transition to a zero-drop or minimalist shoe.
Dr. Nick recommends doing your typical mileage every week, but wear your new zero-drop or minimalist shoes for part of it and then your old shoes for the rest.
For the First Run:
Wear your new zero-drop shoes for 10% of the run. Wear your old high-drop shoes for the last 90% of your run.
The next week run 20% of your total run in your new shoes; wear your old shoes for 80% of the run.
Add 10% to the total amount of time you’re running in your new shoes every week.
Dr. Campitelli says to listen to your body. If you are in a lot of pain and something doesn’t seem right, take some time off. Slow your transition down, or possibly work on mobility.
Avoid Heels and Flip-Flops
Wearing high-heels or flip flops are not good for you.
Flip-flops or “thongs” (if you’re a weirdo) force your feet into an unnatural position. Because your toes have to force the shoe to stay on, you strike your foot in a bad position. It is best to just stay out of flip-flops as much as you can.
High heels are the ultimate high-drop shoe and exacerbate all of the problems we mentioned above regarding high-drop shoes.
Train your foot strength
Overpronation, foot alignment, and a multitude of other common problems can be fixed with foot strengthening exercises and mobility work. The following video is a wealth of information for training your feet and legs.
How to Actually Run
Earlier we talked about how heel-striking could be bad, so how are we supposed to run?
We should be landing on our midfoot or our forefoot. Basically, anywhere besides the heel. When you start running like this you will notice a significant increase in muscle use. That is normal.
What to Do Next
Now that you know a little bit more about zero-drop running and minimalist running here are a couple of things that you can do:
Find a Pair of Zero-Drop Running Shoes
If you’re looking for a pair of zero-drop shoes I have built a simple-to-use search engine which searches for zero-drop shoes only. The search engine sorts through almost every single zero-drop running shoe on the market.
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Starrett, K., & Murphy, T. J. (2014). Ready to run: Unlocking your potential to run naturally. Las Vegas: Victory Belt Publishing.
Dr. Nick’s Running Blog. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.drnicksrunningblog.com/