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The Mystery of Zero-Drop Footwear Revealed

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

What Is a Zero-Drop Shoe?

Begin by envisioning a pair of high heels. Those are the complete opposite of zero-drop shoes. “When we discuss a zero-drop shoe, we’re referring to the angle between your heel and toe when wearing a pair,” explains podiatrist Emily Splichal, D.P.M. Most shoes — pumps, sneakers, work footwear, etc. — elevate your heel above your toes, resulting in some level of drop. Zero-drop shoes align your toes and heel so that they’re on the same level, Splichal clarifies. This places your foot in a position akin to being barefoot.

Zero-Drop Shoes vs. Minimalist Shoes

It’s a popular misconception, but “zero-drop shoes” and “minimalist shoes” are not actually interchangeable. It’s a classic example of “a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always a square” scenario: All minimalist shoes are zero-drop, but not all zero-drop shoes are minimalist shoes.

Allow me to elaborate: In addition to having a zero-drop heel, minimalist shoes also possess reduced cushioning and arch support. However, this is not always the case with zero-drop shoes. Some zero-drop shoes still offer relatively ample cushioning.

Brian Beckstead, co-founder of the Altra Running brand, coined the phrase. “When Altra coined the term ‘zero drop,’ it was never about minimalism, it was about placing your foot in a natural and stable position,” he explains. “Many minimalist companies started using the term ‘zero drop’ for their shoes because they indeed have no heel drop — but just because a shoe is zero-drop doesn’t mean it’s minimalist. Altra’s shoes, for instance, provide cushioning.”

If you decide to invest in a pair of zero-drop shoes, you’ll need to determine whether you want zero-drop shoes or zero-drop minimalist shoes. Understand?

The Theory Behind Zero-Drop Shoes

The most crucial aspect to remember about zero-drop shoes is that they maintain your feet in the same position as if you were barefoot. It may not appear that way, but our unadorned feet are inherently strong and agile, shares Dave Robinson, a personal trainer and competitive obstacle course race athlete. Frequent use of shoes, particularly those with an elevated heel, can make our feet weaker and less flexible, alter our walking and movement form, and lead to injuries, he explains.

“Shoes function like a cast on your feet,” says Robinson. “The issue is that your feet are the foundation of your body, so if they lack strength, a chain reaction occurs throughout your body, which increases your susceptibility to various injuries.” In fact, the shoes that runners typically wear are the reason why, statistically speaking, running is one of the sports most prone to injury, he notes.

Most running trainers possess a heel-drop, which can effectively modify your stride, render you more prone to misalignment (particularly in the knees and lower back), and thus result in harm, affirms foot specialist Mark Cucuzzella, M.D., educator at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. Goodness gracious.

So, does that mean everyone should all discard their footwear and start going shoeless? Technically, yes. The issue? “Most individuals’ feet aren’t robust enough to handle it,” says Beckstead. “If your feet have adapted to wearing cushioned sneakers that have a raised heel, and then when you remove the shoe, it can lead to its own set of injuries because the foot is too feeble to manage it.”

Think about it like this: The foot is comprised of muscles (20, to be precise), just like any other part of the body. You wouldn’t load up a barbell with your own bodyweight and attempt to back squat it if you haven’t been training for it. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to go shoeless all the time without conditioning your foot for it. (Plus, most gyms — and public spaces, for that matter — aren’t going to allow you to walk around without footwear.)

This is where zero-drop shoes come in. “Zero drop shoes offer the best of both worlds, allowing you to experience the benefits of going shoeless while still having the support of a traditional cushioned shoe,” says Beckstead.

The Advantages of Zero-Drop Shoes

“The main advantage of zero-drop shoes is that, unlike regular shoes, they maintain your foot in its natural position: level from heel to toe,” says Dr. Cucuzzella.

When people begin wearing zero-drop shoes, their posture and overall alignment improve, they become more stable and have better balance, and their foot regains its natural function and strength, he says. Individuals will observe that their ankle mobility returns upon switching to a zero-drop shoe — which can enhance overall squat form and depth, as well as alleviate calf strain, adds Splichal.

Oh, and many individuals who have previously experienced knee, back, ankle, lower-back, shin, and hip pain may notice that the pain completely vanishes after they switch to zero-drop shoes, says Robinson. No big deal.

When Can You Wear Zero-Drop Shoes?

You can wear zero-drop shoes for anything and everything! Seriously, that’s what the experts say. “Zero-drop shoes are suitable for anyone and any exercise or activity,” says Robinson. You can lace up in the finest zero-drop running shoes or shoes designed for weightlifting, depending on your planned workout. “I lift weights, engage in obstacle course races, do CrossFit, go rock climbing, walk, do HIIT, and run in my zero-drop shoes,” says Robinson.

Just don’t be surprised if you experience some significant gains. “When you do CrossFit or lift weights in zero-drop sneakers, you’ll feel more steady, which is fantastic for pursuing personal records,” says Beckstead.

Zero-drop shoes aren’t solely for workouts: Some brands (see: Xero and Lems) have even begun producing zero-drop sandals, work-appropriate shoes, and everyday sneakers.

Don’t fret: You needn’t alter your footwear assortment entirely.

“If I’m attending a wedding, I won’t fuss over donning a shoe with an incline, but I sport shoes with no incline whenever possible, and it has enhanced my mobility and efficiency,” asserts Robinson.

Before You Attempt Zero-Drop Footwear

“If you have been wearing weighty, supportive shoes and switch directly to a zero-drop shoe, you might experience some discomfort in your lower leg and calf as your muscles regain strength,” explains Beckstead. That’s why he (and the other specialists) recommend a gradual transition period to allow your feet (and your entire body) sufficient time to adapt to the new shoes. “The majority of individuals who alternate between wearing zero-drop shoes one day and not the next can fully adjust within four to six weeks.”

If you are transitioning to zero-drop running shoes, Robinson advises taking an even slower approach. Begin with one or two miles, then gradually increase your distance by one week at a time. “For some individuals, it may take four to six months to transition, depending on the level of underdevelopment in your foot muscles,” adds Beckstead.

“They serve as an excellent tool for alleviating discomfort, enhancing mobility and stability, refining your overall movement patterns, and even safeguarding against injuries,” states Robinson. Consequently, the wait is undoubtedly worthwhile.

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