Is the trend toward minimalist or zero-drop shoes for you? Here’s what you should know before making the switch.
When Teage O’Connor runs, whether in shoes or barefoot, he runs with an enviable fluidity and ease. In 2017, the Burlington-based educator broke the world record for most continuous miles logged barefoot: 100 kilometers. The same year, he won the Vermont City Marathon. Of the nearly 3,000 miles he logged that year, about 1,000 were barefoot.
O’Connor learned to run barefoot because he wanted to improve his running form. “I was doing a lot of tracking for work, and when you look at animal footprints, you can see pressure releases, the places where a foot slips and indicates an inefficiency in the stride. I watched the way coyotes ran, forward, on their toes, moving lightly.” Ten years later, he’s earned PRs barefoot and hopes to qualify for the Olympics in marathon.
Barefoot running is nothing new— elite track athletes and marathoners have been running barefoot or in ultralight, minimalist racing flats since the early part of the twentieth century.
This sparked fascination among some ultramarathoners and in 2004, Vibram came out with the FiveFingers, a rubber-soled shoe with separate toe compartments designed to protect the pads of your feet while simulating the experience of running barefoot.
After Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book Born to Run launched running barefoot or with minimalist shoes into the mainstream in 2009, even recreational runners began looking to minimalist shoes as a way to run faster and with fewer injuries.
Altra launched its first minimalist shoe in 2010, coining the phrase “zero- drop,” which refers to the difference in elevation between where a runner’s toes sit in a shoe and where their heel sits. In contrast, a traditional running shoe has a drop of about 12mm, with the heel sitting higher than the toes. Unlike the Vibram FiveFingers, Altra’s shoes kept a more traditional shape except for a wider toe box, to let runners spread their toes and increase stability when landing on the ball of their foot.
The same year, Hoka One One launched its first low drop shoe, the Mafate, calling it a “maximalist” running shoe. With a drop height of less than 5mm and a revolutionary stack height (the height in millimeters at which a runner’s foot sits above the ground in a given shoe) of nearly two-inches, it was designed to be lightweight and to offer extra padding for running long distances.
Ten years ago, only industry nerds would know those terms. Today? Stack height and drop are labeled next to almost every shoe on the wall in Vermont’s leading retail stores.
But are these shoes for everyone? After ten years of dominating the market, new research sheds light on just this.
How Did We Start Heel Striking and Why Are We Still Doing It?
“When McDougall’s book was published in 2009, most running shoes on the market were designed to cushion the foot and eliminate what is called pronation, or the way in which your foot rotates on impact,” says Kyle Darling, footwear buyer for Skirack in Burlington and a 15-year veteran of the running shoe industry. “The running boom of the 1970s and 1980s was, in many ways, facilitated by the advent of what we think of today as the modern running shoe,” says Darling. Back then, the focus was on protecting runners’ feet and joints against pavement— which was increasingly the surface Americans were living their lives on. “Companies started building shoes up and developing new designs to adjust for various biodynamic deficiencies,” says Darling. Shoes were made to be heavily cushioned with an elevated heel, stiff midsole and lots of arch support. In essence, shoe companies saw that as more Americans were becoming interested in jogging, the way to keep them interested was to design shoes that allowed them to run on the surfaces available to them—in most cases, pavement— with comfort. One study published in Physical Therapy in 2015 found that 75 to 80 percent of runners wearing shoes use a rearfoot strike, something that was rare before the advent of modern running shoes in the 1970s.
But placing extra cushioning around the heel yielded unintended consequences, says Lee Stanton, a physical therapist at the University of Vermont Medical Center who has run eight marathons and four Ironman triathlons and specializes in treating running injuries.
“These shoes really allowed people to run with not great mechanics,” says Stanton. “When you think about running in a shoe with a heel, there is a tendency to lengthen out your stride and heel strike more.” In theory, a shoe with less padding will prompt a runner to land on their forefoot or midfoot, creating a more efficient stride.
But heel striking isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Stanton, especially for recreational runners. “I don’t believe the problems people see running are about footwear—I think it’s the surface we are running on,” says Stanton.
“Pavement is relatively new for humans. We’ve only encountered it for one or two generations and our feet are not adapted to that. A good running shoe mitigates that. If you’re switching to a shoe that takes that away and you aren’t practiced at running in the style required to do that successfully, you can get into trouble.”
And, Stanton says, it’s not clear that running with a zero drop or lower drop shoe or even running on your mid or forefoot reduces just any runner’s propensity for injury.
Can Zero Drop Make You Faster?
Sam Davis is a running coach for Craftsbury Outdoor Center who has completed more than 30 marathons (his fastest was in 2:32:00) and coaches O’Connor. “The thinking is that if you have more contact with the ground, as is the case with a minimalist runner or even a barefoot runner, you’re going to land more efficiently because you won’t land in a way that hurts,” he says.
In the gait cycle, Davis says heel striking requires the runner to break before launching into their next step—an inefficiency most elite runners eliminate from their stride. “Imagine you are hitting your heel and then getting your body up and over your foot rather than having it directly below you as you land. If you land on your midfoot or forefoot, it allows for more of a smooth transition to take off into your next step.”
As a coach, Davis tries to help runners find a form that is sustainable and efficient. “The best running form is the one that doesn’t get you injured,” he says. “World-class runners will be sleek because they are efficient at what they do. They will have excellent running economy, meaning they don’t put out wasted effort.” The result? “You don’t see a lot of heel striking in the Olympics.”
One study published in 2012 in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, examined injury rates among competitive collegiate cross-country runners and found that runners who habitually rearfoot or heel strike have “significantly higher rates of repetitive stress injury than those who mostly forefoot strike.”
However, another study published in Sports Medicine in 2013 found that the benefits of running barefoot or in minimalist shoes were only available to people who had good running form to begin with. “While barefoot running may benefit certain types of individuals, differences in running stance and individual biomechanics may actually increase injury risk when transitioning to barefoot running.”
And in 2014, Vibram was forced to settle a class action lawsuit for $3.75 million after a group of runners sued the company, alleging it had deceived customers by claiming in advertisements that its FiveFinger shoes could reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles without scientific evidence to support those claims.
But the fad has left its mark on modern running shoes. According to Darling, most brands now make at least one shoe with an unconventional drop—anything less than 8mm. Ten years ago, most shoe manufacturers were creating stability shoes with drops in the 12-13mm range. Last year, Skirack’s bestselling shoe was the Men’s Hoka One One Speedgoat 3, which has a 4mm drop. “That’s a pretty big shift,” says Darling.
Melissa McNeil, who oversees running footwear for Outdoor Gear Exchange said that five years ago the store stocked two zero drop shoe models. Now, they stock five.
Should You Make the Transition and if So How?
“I think runners need to first ask why they want to switch,” says Alexis Hannigan, a physical therapist at Rehabilitation Therapy in South Burlington. “If your current running shoe has been working for you and you’ve been able to train essentially injury free, then why would you change?”
According to Hannigan, when minimalist shoes first came on the market, her firm treated a lot of runners who had switched without allowing their bodies time to practice and adapt to a new style of running. “It is important to consider that most runners, especially recreational runners, have been running in what we consider a more traditional running shoe with some level of support. Changing that level of support is going to affect not only our foot mechanics but also our knee and hip mechanics.”
Common overuse injuries associated with the transition to zero drop and minimalist shoes include stress fractures, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, tendinopathies and blisters.
“If someone is going to switch to a minimalist or zero drop shoe, they really should take the time to learn to run the new way,” says Stanton. “The transition should take three to six months, like it would if you were starting to run for the first time.”
Stanton also cautioned against treating zero drop and minimalist shoes as a catch-all cure for running injuries and ailments. “There is just not enough research yet to say that injury rates are reduced. That’s not to say it’s not there, but these shoes have not yet been proven to improve performance or reduce the risk of injury.”
Sam Davis recommends that runners who are interested in improving the efficiency of their gait consider shortening their stride before changing shoes. “Just because you land on your heel doesn’t mean that you are more susceptible to injury. It just means you could be more efficient,” says Davis, who recommends runners focus on where their weight is centered over their foot rather than which part of their foot they strike with.
“Whether you are landing on your heel, your forefoot, or your midfoot, you want to land so that your center of gravity is directly over your foot. If you are planting your foot out in front of you, more times than not, that’s heel striking and it means you are probably over-striding.” His tip for correcting this? Get on the treadmill at the gym and have a friend film your feet while you run, or find a treadmill by a mirror and practice shortening your stride.
“If a person comes to us in physical therapy with a running injury, we go through a detailed history and examination of their running injury, lower extremity biomechanics and evaluation of running form,” says Hannigan. “A running shoe recommendation should be made considering a runner’s biomechanics, running pattern, distances they typically run and injuries they are prone to. I don’t think recommending the current trend in running shoes is the answer, but rather piecing together all the pieces of the puzzle to make a more informed recommendation for each runner in particular.”
How to Make the Switch to Zero Drop
1. Get a gait analysis
A physical therapist can teach you about the latent biomechanical tendencies that affect your gait and how they do or don’t make you more prone to certain injuries and what type of shoe you should look for. “I like to recommend a 100,000-mile check- up to the athletes I work with. Kind of like an oil change,” says Davis. And it’s a good idea to get instruction from a pro—a coach or a physical therapist—who can guide you as you embark on re-learning how to run.
2. Take it slow
If you are a heel striker, expect it to take longer. “The transition should take three to six months,” says Stanton. He recommends track workouts, such as hundred-meter intervals, alternated by days with long walks. “Then begin to run very gradually on trails or other soft surfaces, as if you were starting from scratch.” Wait for a lull in your running schedule to make a change to your form.
3. Start with a low-drop shoe
Consider starting out with a low-drop shoe with a little stack height to help you ease into longer runs without injury.