Changing shoes can always have some slight drawbacks as you get used to them, even if they’re incredibly similar to models you’ve previously worn and liked wearing. Making the change to zero drop shoes however, is a different challenge altogether.
What are “zero drop” shoes?
Running shoes have measurement points of height at the heel and toe, measured in millimeters. The difference between these two heights is what’s known as the heel-toe drop or drop of the shoe, with a typical range being 6-10mm.
Zero drop shoes, as the name suggests, have no drop meaning your feet are essentially flat, since there’s no difference in the height of your heel and toes when in the shoes. Don’t assume this means they’re unsupportive or hard though, as the “stack height”, the overall height of the shoe, is still similar to standard running shoes.
Why Zero drop?
If you’re looking for or prefer a shoe that encourages a mid-foot or forefoot strike, then zero drop shoes could help with this as the lack of a heel-toe drop means your foot angle is different which allows the foot to land further forward i.e mid-foot striking rather than heel striking.
The other potential benefit is that a lower heel causes changes to the other angles of your body when running, notably, a smaller bend at the knee and hip which can help de-load these areas if you’re someone who’s had injuries here in the past.
Making the switch
It’s not as easy as just buying a pair of Zero drop shoes though. It’s advised you take time to switch shoe types, and the brand I wear, Altra, even provides a little booklet with their shoes with detailed instructions of how they suggest you change your shoe wear based on your current weekly mileage.
I’d go a step further and recommend working on your foot and ankle strength plus calf flexibility first. Whilst there will be people who don’t need to do this, the vast majority of runners I assess have tight calf muscles which lack strength plus limited ankle stability and mobility. Changing to zero drop shoes without addressing this is more likely to lead to injury or at least discomfort.
The shift in load mentioned earlier isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s very individual. My calves have always been strong, but I’ve had many issues with my knees and hips in the past due to hypermobility and a mild scoliosis. Since transitioning to zero drop shoes, I’ve had no pains here, but my calves do need noticeably more mobility work, although on the upside they’re far stronger as well now.
I always recommend having at least a couple of pairs of shoes anyway, but when switching to zero drop shoes this is even more important for people running consecutive days. Here’s an example of how to make the change.
Week 1, start off doing only one easy run in your new shoes.
Week 2, you can add a second easy run in the zero drop shoes.
Week 3, use them for one easy run and one faster run, using your old shoes for the other easy run.
Week 4, you’ll likely be able to run in the zero drop shoes for 2 harder sessions with the older pair used for easy runs and a long run.
From here you can move into long runs in your new shoes, ideally after another couple of weeks doing harder sessions in them first. Long term you can either switch entirely to zero drop shoes, replacing your old ones a pair at a time, or wear a combination of zero drop and normal running shoes.
A year after changing to zero drop shoes
I made the switch in 2020 and instantly loved the feel of the Altra Paradigm 4.5 shoes I bought. Within a few weeks when another pair was due to be recycled, I bought a lighter pair of Altra Torin 4 (258g) for speed work and longer runs since the Paradigms are quite heavy at 318g. A few months later I got a pair of Altra Escalante 2 weighing 249g with a lower stack height as I moved into a 10k speed work training block. Although I do 4-5 of my weekly runs in Altras, I still use a pair of Brooks Glycerin 16 for 1-2 easy runs per week to manage the load on my calves. Whilst they’ve not been an issue, I still want to minimise that risk.
Moving to zero drop shoes can be a great choice for a lot of people if for no other reason that it’ll hopefully encourage them to work on calf and ankle mobility before making the switch. Although I’m a big fan, it isn’t the right choice for everyone, and despite my love for Altra shoes they aren’t the only brand on offer either.
Written by Kyle Brooks, Running Coach based in Norwich, Norfolk