What Exactly Are Zero-Drop Shoes and Should You Try Them?
"Zero Drop" may sound like a lame carnival ride, weight maintenance program, East Village bar, or Korean pop band. But they're actually 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 we should all 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, she explains. This puts your foot in the same position as if you were pawing around with bare feet. (Related: The Foot-Care Products and Creams Podiatrists Use On Themselves)
Zero Drop Shoes ≠ 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 (and who, BTW, coined the term 'zero drop'!) explains: "When Altra coined the term 'zero drop' it was never about minimalism, it was about getting your foot into natural and stable positions," he says. "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." (Related: Should You Wear Minimalist Running Shoes?)
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. (Related: Why You Should Consider Barefoot Training)
"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," he says. In fact, he says that the shoes runners usually wear are WHY, statistically speaking, running is one of the most injury-prone sports. 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, D.P.M., professor at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. Yikes. (Related: 5 Things Physical Therapists Want Runners to Start Doing Now).
So, does that mean we should all ditch our 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. Want to learn more? Keep reading!
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 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. Dr. Splichal adds that people will notice that their ankle mobility returns—which can help improve overall squat form and depth, as well as reduce calf strain. (Related: How Weak Ankles and Ankle Mobility Affect the Rest of Your Body)
Oh, and Robinson says that many folks who have experienced knee, back, ankle, lower-back, shin, and hip pain in the past may notice that the pain disappears entirely. NBD. (Related: These Realignment Exercises Will Help Fix Your Body's Imbalances)
When Can You 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 zero-drop style for almost any everyday activity or workout. "I lift weights, do obstacle course races, do CrossFit, go rock climbing, walk, do HIIT, and run in my zero-drop shoes," says Robinson. Ready to try a pair?
Zero-drop shoes for strength training: For a CrossFit and bootcamp pair, check out the Altra Women's Solstice for something slightly cushioned, or the Vibram Women's V-Train Crosstrainer for something more bare-boned. 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 running shoes: For running, check out the Escalante 2 Road Running Shoe and Dyani Sneaker from Altra or the Runventure 2 Trail Running Shoe, Magnify 2 Running Shoe, or ST-3 from Topo. Robinson says the Merrell Vapor Glove 3 Trail Runner offers "the perfect amount of padding for outdoor and trail running, while still being a minimalist shoe." (Any of these 10 zero-drop minimalist running shoes are all solid picks, too.)
Zero-drop shoes aren't just for workouts: New brands (see: Xero, Davinci, 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.