The magic zero: Zero Drop Running Shoes


The topic of heel rise is always hotly debated in runner circles. For a long time, running shoes with a steep drop of around 12 millimeters dominated, but with the advent of the Natural Running movement, heel canting was fundamentally called into question for the first time. Some brands, most notably the American label Altra, went all-in on zero drop, coining the term "zero drop" running shoes. But what influence does the drop have on our running style and which runner needs how much drop? What is so special about Altra's zero drop running shoes? In our blog, you can find out interesting facts about the topic of sprinting and the phenomenon of zero drop running shoes.

Drop - is less more?

The drop is the difference in height between the heel and the forefoot. Today's commercially available running shoes usually have a drop of 10 to 12 millimeters, but that wasn't always the case: the first generation of running shoes, which came onto the market well over 50 years ago, had no or very little drop. But with the first big running boom of the 1970s, the arms race for the best technologies began. Running became a mass sport and enjoyed increasing popularity even among non-athletes. Among recreational runners, the heel running style dominated, requiring two to five times the body weight to be cushioned at any given time. Early biomechanical studies demonstrated that repetitive impact loading was a risk factor for injury and overuse. With the best of intentions, running shoe manufacturers continued to develop new, more voluminous cushioning systems: Soles got thicker, and the drop increased. But despite the elaborate technology, the incidence of injury among runners did not decrease.

"The flat heel attachment distributes impact forces over a larger area and cushions them naturally thanks to muscular pre-activation."

It wasn't until the Natural Running movement in the late 2000s that a paradigm shift occurred - lighter, more flexible, less cushioning is the motto of these minimalist running shoes designed to promote a natural forefoot running style. The flat heel counter distributes impact forces over a larger area and cushions them naturally thanks to muscular pre-activation. Nevertheless, lightweight barefoot and natural running shoes are controversial: critics argue that only the type of injury changes, but not the frequency. Undoubtedly, the Natural Running movement has given important impetus to the running shoe industry and caused a change in thinking. Many manufacturers have thoroughly streamlined running shoes not only in terms of cushioning, but also in terms of drop - all the way to Zero Drop, the "magic zero."

Zero Drop - Zero Problems?

The "magic zero" is basically the most self-evident thing in the world: the human anatomy is naturally set up in such a way that we could effortlessly cover long distances barefoot. However, our feet are systematically deprived of "natural walking" as early as childhood: most commercially available street and running shoes have an increased arch. They put the body in an unnatural position to which it quickly becomes accustomed. While elevating the heel relieves pressure on the tendon apparatus, it also reduces rolling, which results in a shortening of the Achilles tendon and lower calf muscles. A high level of explosion leads to a loss of stability and higher leverage forces acting on the joints. So basically, what the running shoe does extra, the foot does correspondingly less. By switching to running shoes with minimal or zero-cushioning, the original movement dynamics should be regained in order to reactivate neglected muscles, tendons and ligaments. Natural biomechanics can thus effectively prevent imbalances and unnatural compensatory movements, which also helps to reduce the risk of injury in the long term. Although they are designed to promote a natural running style, Zero Drop running shoes are not necessarily identical to Natural Running shoes, which are primarily characterized by extremely reduced cushioning. In contrast, many Zero Drop models, especially those designed for trail and long-distance running, definitely have generous cushioning, but with a flat design. Only one thing applies to both Natural Running and Zero Drop running shoes: their use should be dosed at the beginning, because a natural running technique must first be learned or trained. You should allow around 6 weeks for acclimatization before you can train regularly with a Zero Drop running shoe. In the transition phase, it makes sense to initially use running shoes with a reduced drop of 3 to 6mm. A running seminar can also help you get a little closer to the "magic zero".

Who needs how much offset?

Basically, the lower the offset, the more flexible and agile the ankles and calves need to be. Runners who naturally tend to run midfoot or forefoot can usually manage a low 4mm drop right away. Runners with chronic knee problems can also benefit from running shoes with a low offset, because here the impact forces are not concentrated in the knee area, but in the lower leg and foot area. Runners with an aggressive heel running style and those prone to tension in the calf area, on the other hand, should reach for a running shoe with a higher offset of 10 to 12 mm. Those with an irritated Achilles tendon are also better off with a higher drop. All in all, running shoes with a high drop are gentler on the "basement" - ankle, Achilles tendon, lower leg - but put more strain on the hips and knee joints. Running shoes with a low or zero drop are the other way around: they are easier on the knees and hips, but place more stress on the feet and lower legs.

Altra Running - Inventor of the Zero Drop

The American brand Altra is still considered an insider tip here, but among trail runners it already has numerous enthusiastic supporters. Already in 2009 the two ultra runners Golden Harper and Brian Beackstead launched their own label Altra Running. The reason was the growing dissatisfaction with conventional running shoes: As running store owners, Harper was hearing more complaints about recurring pain and injury patterns. The cause was quickly found: unsuitable running shoes. Harper then began melting the soles of commercial running shoes and removing the raised heels. The zero drop running shoe was born and zero drop became Altra's trademark. Similar to barefoot running, the balanced level of forefoot and heel allows for a direct feel of the ground and optimal power transfer: The foot maintains a natural movement pattern despite cushioning. Altra's Zero Drop principle strengthens the Achilles heel and calf muscles, promoting an efficient forefoot running style. Another unique feature of Altra running shoes is the roomy toe box: it allows the toes to spread naturally while running. This natural foot position, in turn, provides more stability and a more powerful push-off. Altra today offers a wide range of trail and road running shoes. The range includes both maximally cushioned running shoes (e.g. Altra Duo, Altra Lone Peak) and models in the minimal range (Altra Instinct, Altra Vanish-R) for a wide variety of uses.

Image Source: Altra