6 Benefits of Zero Drop Shoes + Potential Risks
While running is arguably one of the most minimalist sports on the planet, there’s at least one piece of equipment you absolutely need: running shoes.
For well over a century, the technology behind these shoes has been improving, but not everyone is on board.
Over the last decade, more and more athletes have decided that barefoot running is a preferable alternative to the traditional version.
But instead of actually running without any shoes on, these athletes have made the switch to zero drop shoes.
What Are Zero Drop Shoes?
Every shoe’s sole is designed at a downward angle from the heel to your toe.
This is actually known as your “heel-to-toe drop”, which – on average – is 10mm for a running shoe. For conventional and dress shoes, it can vary significantly more. Obviously, high heels would be an example of an extreme heel-to-toe drop.
On the other end of the spectrum is zero drop shoes.
These shoes have ZERO heel-to-toe drop. Their soles are completely flat.
For many people, trying on their first pair of zero drop shoes is a bit of a shock. They never realized that their favorite pair of shoes actually has a dramatic heel-to-toe angle compared to a shoe that has none at all.
It’s not that they’re uncomfortable – though they will take some getting used to – it’s just that the vast majority of us have gone through our entire lives wearing shoes that tilt our feet forward as we walk or run.
The idea behind zero drop shoes is that maybe this angle isn’t such a good idea?
Proponents believe that we should be walking around with our feet in their most natural state – even when we’re wearing shoes. By getting rid of any heel-to-toe drop, the argument goes, you can move around as nature intended even when you’re wearing shoes to work, out with friends, or running a trail.
In short, you can walk or run like you’re barefoot while still keeping your feet safe and protected.
Are Zero-Drop the Same as Minimalist Shoes?
Another type of shoe that’s become especially popular over the past decade are “minimalist shoes.”
Given their name, many people assume that zero drop and minimalist shoes are probably the same thing.
But minimalist shoes may have a heel-to-toe drop all the way up to 8mm. As we mentioned earlier, running shoes tend to be closer to 10mm. Conventional footwear will usually be 10mm or higher.
And despite their name, many minimalist shoes have extra cushioning to help new adherents deal with their otherwise minimalist traits.
But again, zero drop shoes have no drop or cushioning at all.
Their heels have absolutely no elevation to them.
So – technically – zero drop shoes fall under the minimalist category, but not all minimalist shoes are zero drop.
How Do Zero Drop Shoes Differ from Regular Running Shoes?
Okay, so we’ve already talked about this to some degree, but let’s look at some other important details to help you better understand how zero drop shoes stand out from the rest.
Aside from the lack of any heel-to-toe drop (compared to the 8-14mm average you’ll find across most shoes), zero drop shoes are also more flexible than other options.
This is another big difference you’ll have to get used to if you decide to switch to this footwear. Because there’s less material propping up your heel, these shoes also allow for a lot more movement. You might be surprised how much flexion the sole of your foot has when you try running without a large cushion between your feet and the ground.
That lack of material is also why zero drop shoes don’t weigh as much, but I’ll elaborate on that in the next section.
Finally, conventional shoes actually have a more minimalist design when it comes to their toe boxes – the part of the shoe where your toes go.
That’s because the larger toe boxes on zero drop shoes work to give your toes the space they need to function naturally. By tapering this area, conventional shoes force your toes into a tight space. Among other things, this unnatural positioning can cause bunions
The 6 Main Benefits of Wearing Zero Drop Shoes
Now that you know what zero drop shoes are, are you interested in making the switch to wearing them?
If so, I’ve included some important pointers at the end of this post to help you with the process.
However, if you’re still on the fence, it might help to consider the six biggest benefits of wearing zero drop shoes.
1. Zero Drop Shoes Support a More Natural Running Gait
As we’ve already talked about, a big benefit of wearing zero drop running shoes is that it allows you to run as if you were barefoot.
But why’s that so important?
Well, the big reason is that it will also make it easier to run with a more natural gait.
Proponents of these shoes would argue that most people’s running cadence is hindered by the unnatural position their feet are put in by conventional running shoes.
Zero drop shoes allow them to run more effectively – resulting in faster times – but also run more naturally, too.
This means a low-impact running gait, one where the middle of the foot lands first instead of the heel.
Many experts believe that landing heel first creates all kinds of health problems for runners. And yet, conventional shoes – with their elevated heels – practically force runners to step on the ground this way.
2. Zero Drop Shoes Disperse Impact Better
This isn’t to say that zero drop shoes mean zero impact.
Your foot still needs to touch the ground and if you’re running when that happens, there’s going to be plenty of impact, too – even if you’re not landing heel first.
But another big benefit of wearing zero drop shoes is that they do a better job of dispersing that impact, so it’s absorbed throughout your entire leg. With traditional shoes, the brunt of that force is sent right to your knees, which can cause major problems over time.
This healthier running gait protects your knees by ensuring that your calves run interference for them. Those muscles are designed to take this kind of impact over and over again. Your knees aren’t.
3. Zero Drop Shoes Will Give You a Natural Feel
There’s that word again: “natural.”
For many people, this is enough of a benefit to switch to zero drop shoes.
As I mentioned earlier, putting this footwear on for the first time often provides a bit of a shock, but that’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll even be uncomfortable.
In fact, you might immediately realize the appeal.
And for a lot of people, that appeal is the sense that their feet are almost touching the ground with every step. You might feel as though your toes are really able to spread for the first time, especially when you run. Don’t be surprised if the soles of your feet feel like they’re pleasantly expanding, too.
Many proponents also believe that this kind of natural freedom-of-motion gives them a greater sense of stability, too – something that’s always welcomed during long runs or other athletic activities.
4. Zero Drop Shoes Are Lighter Than Conventional Shoes
Like I said earlier, zero drop shoes don’t weigh as much as the kind you’re probably used to wearing.
It’s not hard to find a pair that weighs less than 7 oz. Compare that to the average weight of a running shoe, which is 9.4 oz.
Of course, the kinds of shoes you wear to work and for nonathletic activities probably weigh considerably more.
This is another reason zero drop shoes lead to a more natural gait. By shedding this extra weight, you’ll be able to move a lot more freely.
Obviously, this is a big plus for competitive runners who are looking for any advantage in their pursuit of the fastest possible run times.
But everyone should be avoiding shoes that are too heavy as they can lead to a whole host of problems – affecting everything from your joints to your tendons to your muscles. Even your lower back – a major problem area for many of us – can take a serious beating if you’re walking around in shoes that are too heavy.
5. Zero Drop Shoes Will Make Your Feet Stronger
There’s evidence that suggests conventional shoes are actually weakening your feet – this even includes running shoes and others designed for sports.
On the other hand, zero drop shoes may make your feet stronger.
Without the artificial help provided by shoes with arch support, your feet need to work harder for every step – whether you’re walking or running. This leads to stronger feet but also stronger ankles and legs, too.
As one study on minimalist shoes concluded:
“Minimalist shoe walking is as effective as foot strengthening exercises in increasing foot muscle size and strength.”
Remember that “zero drop” falls under the “minimalist” category of shoe here.
6. Zero Drop Shoes Reduce Injuries
Not surprisingly, stronger feet are less prone to injuries.
Although there are no long-term studies specific to zero drop shoes yet, there is plenty of research that proves strong feet are a great investment in your overall health.
And, as we just covered, zero drop shoes definitely give your feet a workout.
But that’s not all.
To return to our favorite word, by allowing your foot, ankle, and leg to work NATURALLY, zero drop shoes don’t force any part of your body to pick up the slack. These types of unnatural workarounds are often the catalyst that leads to unnecessary pain and suffering.
The Potential Risks of Wearing Zero Drop Shoes
At this point, it may seem like the verdict is in. The jury has spoken. The evidence is clear: zero drop shoes are amazing and are the only footwear you should ever entrust your feet to.
Unfortunately, not everyone is sold on their benefits.
Even worse, some of those people are really smart.
So, before you rush off to purchase a pair for yourself, I want to cover two of the common arguments against wearing zero drop shoes.
1. Our Feet Weren’t Designed for Hard Surfaces
As you’ve probably noticed, a lot of the support for wearing these unique shoes is based on a very specific word.
Time and time again, I’ve referenced how proponents for zero drop shoes base a lot of their support on the idea that this footwear is the only option that lets you move around naturally.
The counterargument is that the hard surfaces we walk and run on aren’t natural, either.
Think about it.
Cavemen probably didn’t spend a lot of time on concrete, cement, or hardwood.
In fact, many podiatrists recommend wearing shoes even when walking inside your own house.
So, when it comes to running around a track, down the street, or on a court, these podiatrists are even more adamant about this advice.
Their reasoning is that our feet were not designed to make impact with these surfaces again and again, which is why sufficient arch support is so important. Without this extra help, your foot may be forced into unnaturally collapsing again and again, placing a terrible amount of stress on your feet and everything above it.
While many people wear zero drop shoes to avoid potential problems like arch pain, hammer toes, bunions, and other foot-related pain, detractors actually believe they do the exact opposite. By leaving our feet defenseless against hard surfaces, they argue that these nagging injuries become inevitable.
2. Some People Grew Up with “Minimalist” Shoes
What about all those incredible runners who have basically always worn “minimalist” shoes simply out of necessity?
For example, many runners switched to zero drop shoes after learning about studies that focused on the success of long-distance Kenyan runners.
But what many podiatrists argue is that these men and women also grew up wearing shoes that are a far cry from the padded, supportive versions that have become the norm elsewhere. They also didn’t grow up running on concrete or cement.
This means their feet are stronger and more adept at being able to run without these bulky shoes. For those of us who didn’t grow up with the same conditions, switching to minimalist shoes may be a major mistake.
How to Transition to Zero Drop Shoes
That being said, if you’re still curious about trying out zero drop shoes, you need to take the transition slowly. Switching from typical running shoes to those with no heel-to-toe drop carries the risk of injury if you’re not careful. After all, it’s a big adjustment.
So, before I finish, let’s cover some expert tips you’ll want to follow to keep your feet safe.
1. Start Small
Even if you’re someone who regularly goes for long runs, you’ll want to take it slow when you first switch to zero drop shoes.
This means no running right away. Instead, start by walking around in these new shoes first, so your feet can acclimate to this major change.
Start with about a half-mile and see how your feet and legs feel the next day. If you’re up for more, go ahead and make incremental increases.
Be sure to do lots of stretching – especially of your calves – while transitioning to these new shoes.
Once you’re able to do 30-60 minutes of walking in zero drop shoes without any discomfort the next day, you can start running – albeit slowly.
2. Practice Landing on Your Midfoot
As we’ve mentioned, switching to zero drop shoes will mean switching your normal running form, too.
Specifically, you want to begin landing on your midfoot first and then letting your heel touch the ground.
A big part of this transition will mean taking shorter strides, too, which means your running cadence will increase, as well. These shorter strides will make it easier to focus on landing midfoot first.
It sometimes helps to imagine running “quietly” because the goal is not to let the soles of your feet slap on the ground over and over. Landing on your midfoot should keep this from happening and give you a “quieter” overall stride.
3. Increase Your Distance Slowly
After a few easy runs, it might be tempting to return to your typical distances, but experts recommend you take it slow. In fact, you probably shouldn’t increase your running distance by anymore than 10% per week. Once you’re back to running at your normal range, you can afford to be a little more ambitious.
While being patient during this time can certainly be challenging, it’s essential. Expect that it will probably take you four-to-six weeks before you’re covering your normal distances again.
The good news is that you should only have to go through this process once. After your feet have acclimated to zero drop shoes and you’ve adjusted your stride, you’ll be able to continue with normal training.
Bonus Tip: Try Wearing Toe Spreaders
If you’ve been a serious runner for more than a decade or so, wearing shoes with a narrow toe box may have resulted in some of those common problems we’ve mentioned – things like bunions, hammertoes, or plantar fasciitis.
In that case, wearing zero drop shoes may agitate these problems or cause even worse injuries.
While you should definitely speak with a podiatrist, look into toe separators, too. These little running accessories will stretch your toes, which in turn will strengthen them, as well as your muscles, ligaments, and joints. Realigning your anatomy this way will restore their natural functioning and can even reverse some of these common injuries.
The Final Word on Zero Drop Shoes
Are zero drop shoes the best possible choice for every single runner?
It’s tough to say.
But plenty of runners certainly feel that making the switch has led to better times and – more importantly – healthier bodies.
So, if you’re someone who’s been injury prone in the past or you’re you simply want to take some steps (no pun intended) to ensure that doesn’t happen, zero drop shoes are definitely worth a shot.
Just to echo what Raoul said, some zero drop options these days almost look like platform shoes! For the most part, the article seems to be describing what are known as barefoot shoes.
This article is no longer accurate. There are now plenty of zero drop shoes that also offer abundant cushioning, Altra have several for example. So now zero drop does not always mean minimalist.