What Is Heel/Forefoot Drop and Zero Drop? How Does It Work? Advice & More!

When Northern Runner opened its doors back in 1998 the main difference between all the shoes we stocked was how much pronation or movement control they offered, the width and the shape of the shoe. These days, two extra variables are important, namely heel to forefoot drop and flexibility.

The heel to forefoot drop of a shoe is the difference between the thickness of the outsole and midsole of the shoe at the heel and the thickness of outsole and midsole at the forefoot.

Originally running shoes in the 1960’s had a slight raise at the heel no more than 4mm to 8mm but no real ‘cushioning’. Then cushioning was invented and the consumers wanted an increasing amount of comfort so, heel height rose to 12mm plus. More recently the barefoot running craze came in, fuelled by books like Born to Run, which sparked consumers to hunt out flatter shoes. This lead to bigger brands like New Balance and Brooks producing some flatter models and new brands like Altra and Topo entering the market with a lower heel to forefoot drop as standard.

So, what’s all the fuss about? If you have an elevated heel on your running shoe then it encourages you to land heel first when you run—after all it reaches the ground first! This is generally considered inefficient, as your heel hits the floor in front of your centre of gravity, essentially causing a break in momentum. Your heel doesn’t absorb shock well at all, so you are reliant on the shoe, knees, hips and back. For a lot of runners, when you reduce the heel height and ‘drop’, the foot naturally lands more on the midfoot and under the centre of gravity. There’s less force to deal with and your foot and ankle can absorb some of the shock too, reducing the stress on the other joints.

Do You Need Low/Zero Drop?

You would think then, that we all start running in zero or very low drop shoes, the stresses on our bodies reduce and we will all run injury free forever! However, it isn’t quite that simple. Transitioning to zero or very low drop running shoes can take some time and should be done slowly. For some runners the muscle memory that makes them heel strike is so strong that they will heel strike even in a flat shoe. Although in theory learning to adapt to a zero or very low drop shoe is a good idea, if this person is having no recurring injuries or issues then we may well advise them to keep running in higher drop shoes. They may never have a problem. The runners who should consider a lower drop are those who are actively looking to improve their efficiency, already land on their midfoot or those with a problem.

Why Off-Road Are Usually Already Low Drop

Off-road shoes have always had a lower heel to forefoot, as you need the foot to feel the ground and function to help with stability on uneven ground. For years lots of runners thought that the reason they never got injured while running regularly off road was due to the broken terrain stressing different areas of their body with each strike or the ground being softer than tarmac. They have since found out that it was the lower heel to forefoot that allowed their foot to function in their trail shoes that kept them injury free. Now they have lower heel to forefoot road shoes they don’t get the same injury problems.

Winning Combo – Low/Zero Drop PLUS Wider Toe Box

Usually lower heel to forefoot drop shoes like Altra and Topo offer a more rounded/broad toe box. Running shoes with a wide toe box encourage the foot to splay and function naturally inside the shoes, which is important if you are landing on your midfoot. The natural splay of the midfoot stretches the Planta Fascia. The Planta Fascia is like a big elastic band that absorbs shock on impact then springs the foot off the floor. The spreading of the foot also stabilises you as you’re better planted. Remember, you’ll need a shoe with a broad enough forefoot that gives you space for this to happen even after they’ve warmed up and expanded.

Your foot might take a little time to start spreading out naturally because the foot hasn’t been used to functioning this way before. It has been in shoes that are too narrow and ‘pointy’. In most cases it doesn’t take that long for the foot to regain some function.

Low/Zero Drop for Newcomers

What’s interesting is that if you watch two year olds running around they all land on their midfoot with good style. If you then watch the same kids running around at 5 years old you will see lots of heel strikers and odd running gaits. These movements are caused by the stiff, high heeled shoes that the children have worn from leaving flat, highly flexible baby shoes. If you consider that a lot of people come into running in their 40’s then you can see how they have had years of poor posture caused by pointy narrow shoes and often a modern lifestyle with lots of sitting at desks, which weakens our core stability.

So, if you are new to running should you except your heel striking fate or try to work on your running gait? The answer to this will depend on the individual. When fitting shoes in store a lot of customers try a shoe with a wider toe box and low heel to forefoot drop and they have found nirvana. Running is easier, they can feel their foot functioning and see what all the fuss is about. For others these shoes just feel different.

If you are thinking of adjusting from a high heeled shoe to a lower drop then make sure you have enough flexibility in your ankles and Achilles. A good test is in your bare feet putting your toes against the wall and bending your knees forward. If your knees can easily touch the wall then you probably have enough flexibility to try a lower drop shoe. The other crucial thing is to gradually get used to these shoes by alternating them with your higher drop shoes and using them for short runs first. Usually you get to a point when you can feel the heel of the high heeled running shoe catching the ground and getting in the way.

A Note on Firmness and Roll ‘Rockers’

Another key function of any running shoe is the firmness of the midsole and the roll of the shoe. If the shoe has a low heel to forefoot drop but is particularly soft, on impact your foot sinks into the midsole increasing the relative heel to forefoot drop. Therefore, Altra recommend starting the transition to their trademarked Zero Drop shoes with the more cushioned shoes. The Zero drop allows you to start to correct your posture and get your foot to land under the centre of gravity but, the cushioning is soft enough for your foot to sink into it and get some support. So, you aren’t stressing too many things at once while making your transition to a zero drop shoe.

Hoka shoes work in a similar way but have the addition of a rocker, which keeps the foot moving and increases cadence. They are heavily cushioned and surprisingly lightweight to most of our customers.  Scott shoes have the same rocker but with a firmer, responsive midsole. This rocker reduces heel strike and increases cadence. It’s amazing how many customers comment on how firm the Scott shoes are before running in them on our corridor. They then say how much lighter they are than the other shoes. This feeling of lightness is caused by the firmness of the shoe and the rocker combined, encouraging your foot to function and improving your posture and efficiency.

Altra – Trademark Zero Drop but well cushioned. Start slowly if you’re new.

Topo – Very low drop and well cushioned, could be a good starting point. NEW to NorthernRunner.com.

Hoka – Extremely well cushioned but with a sensible/modest drop. Lightweight, newer runners love them and there are racier shoes too!

Scott – Great technology to improve efficiency. Not soft and bouncy, but once you get going you won’t care!

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