What Exactly Are Zero-Drop Shoes and Should You Try Them?

Zero-drop shoes might just solve all your problems.

Zero Drop Shoes
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"Zero Drop" may sound like a lame carnival ride, weight maintenance program, East Village bar, or Korean pop band. But it actually describes a kind of shoe. And people are into them.

Turns out, it's for good reason; According to trainers and even podiatrists, wearing zero-drop shoes is something everyone should be doing. Here, everything you need to know.

What Is a Zero-Drop Shoe?

Start by visualizing a pair of stilettos. Those are the exact opposite of zero-drop shoes. "When we talk about a zero-drop shoe, we're talking about the angle between your heel and your toe when it's in a shoe," explains podiatrist Emily Splichal, D.P.M. Most shoes — heels, sneakers, work shoes, etc. — place your heel higher than your toes, and therefore have some drop. Zero-drop shoes position your toes and heel so that they're level, explains Splichal. This puts your foot in the same position as if you were pawing around with bare feet.

Zero-Drop Shoes vs. Minimalist Shoes

It's a common misconception, but "zero-drop shoes" and "minimalist shoes" actually aren't synonymous. It's a classic one of those "a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always a square" situations: All minimalist shoes are zero-drop, but not all zero-drop shoes are minimalist shoes.

Let me explain: In addition to having a zero-drop heel, minimalist shoes also have reduced cushioning and reduced arch support. That's not always the case with zero-drop shoes. Some zero-drop shoes are still relatively cushioned.

Brian Beckstead, co-founder of the Altra Running brand coined the term. "When Altra coined the term 'zero drop' it was never about minimalism, it was about getting your foot into natural and stable positions," he explains. "A lot of minimalist companies started using the term 'zero drop' for their shoes because they do have no heel drop — but just because a shoe is zero-drop doesn't mean it's minimalist. Altra's, for instance, are cushion-y."

If you decide to invest in a pair of zero-drop shoes, you'll need to decide whether or not you want zero-drop shoes or zero-drop minimalist shoes. Got it?

The Theory Behind Zero-Drop Shoes

The most important thing to remember about zero-drop shoes is that they keep your feet in the same position they would be in if you were barefoot. It might not seem that way, but our naked feet are naturally very strong and mobile, says Dave Robinson, personal trainer and competitive obstacle course race athlete. Regularly wearing shoes, especially shoes with a heel drop, can make your feet less strong and less flexible, change your form as you walk and move, and cause injury, he explains.

"Shoes act like a cast on your feet," says Robinson. "The problem is that your feet are the foundation of your body, so if they're weak, a chain reaction happens up the body that increases your risk of all kinds of injury." In fact, the shoes runners usually wear are WHY, statistically speaking, running is one of the most injury-prone sports, he says. Most running sneakers have a heel-drop, which can actually alter your gate, make you more susceptible to misalignment (especially in the knees and low back), and therefore lead to injury, says podiatrist Mark Cucuzzella, M.D., professor at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. Yikes.

So, does that mean everyone should all ditch their shoes and start going barefoot? Technicallyyyy, yes. The trouble? "Most people's feet aren't strong enough to handle it," says Beckstead. "If your feet have adapted to wearing cushioned sneakers that have a heel drop, and then when you take the shoe away, it can cause its own set of injuries because the foot is too weak to handle it."

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

This is where zero-drop shoes come in. "Zero drop shoes are the best of both worlds, being barefoot and being in your standard cushioned shoe," says Beckstead.

The Benefits of Zero-Drop Shoes

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

When people start wearing zero-drop shoes, their posture and overall alignment improves, they're more stable and able to balance better, and their foot returns to its natural function and strength, he says. People will notice that their ankle mobility returns from switching to a zero-drop shoe — which can help improve overall squat form and depth, as well as reduce calf strain, adds Splichal.

Oh, and many folks who have experienced knee, back, ankle, lower-back, shin, and hip pain in the past may notice that the pain disappears entirely after they switch to zero-drop shoes, says Robinson. NBD.

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 for anybody and any exercise or activity," says Robinson. You can lace-up in the best zero-drop running shoes or shoes made for lifting, depending on what workout you have planned. "I lift weights, do 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 major #gains. "When you do CrossFit or lift weights in zero-drop sneakers, you're going to feel more stable which is fantastic for going after PR's," says Beckstead.

Zero-drop shoes aren't just for workouts: Some brands (see: Xero and Lems) have even started to make zero-drop sandals, work-appropriate shoes, and every-day sneaks. Don't worry: You don't have to change your shoe collection completely. "If I'm going to a wedding, I'm not going to stress about wearing a shoe with a heel-drop, but I wear zero-drop shoes as much as I can and it's helped me move and perform better," says Robinson.

Before You Try Zero-Drop Shoes

"If you've been wearing heavy, supportive shoes and go right to a zero-drop shoe, you may have some lower leg and calf soreness as your muscles redevelop," says Beckstead. That's why he (and the other experts) recommend a transition period to give your feet (and whole body) time to adjust to the new sneaks. "Most people who wear zero-drop shoes one day on/one day off are able to fully transition within four to six weeks."

If you're swapping to zero-drop running shoes, Robinson suggests transitioning even more slowly. Start with one or two miles, and then slowly increase your mileage one week at a time. "It may take some folks four to six months to transition, depending on how under-developed your foot muscles have become," says Beckstead.

"They're an awesome tool for reducing pain, improving mobility and balance, improving your overall movement patterns, and even preventing injury," says Robinson. So waiting is 100 percent worth it.

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