Zero-Drop Hiking Shoes & Trail Runners Explained

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Article Categories: Gear | Hiking Tips
Article Tags: Footwear | Hiking Gear

Have you ever noticed that your are slightly above your toes when you put on your hiking shoes or trail runners? Unless you’re a zero-drop hiking shoe enthusiast, this is probably the case. Most hiking shoes on the market today have a drop, but zero-drop trail runners and hiking shoes are becoming more and more popular.

One of the major reasons for this is an increase in comfort. Another reason is the purported health benefits. People who like this type of shoe claim that they allow a more natural foot posture, which in turn has overall physical benefits. But is this true?

In this article, we will explain what zero-drop hiking shoes and trail runners are, and investigate the science behind these claims.

 

What Are zero-drop Hiking Shoes?

Zero-drop hiking shoes are shoes that do not have a difference in height between the heel of the shoe and the toe. Most shoes have a higher heel than the toe box or forefront, and the drop sometimes called the heel-to-toe drop, is listed in the model specifications.

Zero Drop Hiking Shoes Explained

 

Heel Drop Amounts

Standard Heel Drop Most standard trail runners have a heel-to-toe drop between 7 and 10 millimeters.
Low-Drop A low-drop shoe has a drop of 1 to 4 millimeters.
Zero-Drop A zero-drop shoe has a 0-millimeter drop between heel and toe. In other words, your foot goes in flat– not at an angle.

 

Why Zero Drop Shoes?

The idea behind these shoes is that if your foot is completely level with the ground, it allows for a more natural foot strike that mimics the motion of a barefoot step. Unlike walking barefoot, however, these shoes protect you and cushion you from the ground.

*Disclaimer – In this article we aim to give you an unbiased perspective on zero drop. By explaining the supposed benefits and drawbacks, while linking to studies. We are not giving advice, just trying to pass as much knowledge as possible so you can make an educated decision for yourself, or with a professional’s help.

 

Zero Drop And Cushioning

Most shoes include cushioning. Cushioning is often measured with “stack height.” This indicates the height of the material between your foot and the ground. For most shoes, the heel stack height will be greater than the toe stack height, which creates a the drop.

In zero drop shoes, the stack height would be such that the shoe creates an even level between toe and heel. There are also zero drop shoes without any cushioning.

 

Who Is Making Zero-Drop Hiking Shoes?

The term “zero-drop” was coined by the marketing department at Altra. Altra is known for its zero-drop shoes and wide toe boxes, which allow your toes to spread naturally while running. Altra is the industry leader in zero-drop hiking shoes and trail running shoes; there are only a few other companies, like Xero Shoes and Lems Shoes, that make hiking shoes in this style.

We produced a list of products in our research that would function well as a hiking shoe or boot that are also zero drop. We haven’t tried any of these since our team doesn’t use zero drop shoes, but we tried to source based off of quality brands and reviews these examples or you.

Shoe / Boot Features Men’s Link Women’s Link
ALEADER Barefoot Trail Running Shoes
  • Machine washable
  • Super flexible / minimalistic
  • Five toe-box design
See Here See Here
Altra LP Alpine
  • Very versatile
  • Cushioned unlike many of the other zero drop style shoes
See Here See Here
Xero Aqua X Sport
  • Great grip
  • Drain holes for water
  • Very lightweight
See Here See Here
Xero Xcursion
  • Mid ankle boot
  • Waterproof
  • Super Lightweight
  • Quality traction
  • Super flexible / minimalistic
See Here See Here
ALEADER Minimalist Trail Runner
  • Lightweight and flexible
  • Wide toe box
  • Quick lace system
  • Breathable
See Here See Here

 

 

Zero-Drop Versus Minimalist Shoes

Another trend in hiking shoes and trail running shoes in particular is minimalist footwear. While zero-drop shoes can be minimalist shoes, they aren’t always minimalist shoes. Minimalism in shoes refers to cushioning; a minimalist shoe has no extra cushioning or padding.

But zero-drop shoes can have cushioning; in fact, most of the shoes that Altra makes have cushioning. So while you can get zero-drop minimalist shoes, if you like padding, cushioning, and ankle support, you can get padded zero-drop shoes as well.

 

Who Is Using Zero-Drop Hiking Shoes and Why?

Zero-drop shoes are nothing new. In fact, they’ve been around much longer than you’d think. If you’ve ever worn a pair of Chuck Taylors, you’ve worn a zero-drop shoe. However, the use of these shoes as dedicated hiking shoes and trail runners is much more recent.

Proponents of zero-drop shoes say that there are many benefits to having a more natural heel-toe balance. Some orthopedic doctors and podiatrists say that there are a couple of major (supposed – not necessarily proven by scientific research) benefits to zero-drop shoes. These include:

  • The absence of a heel counterbalance helps improve core strength and balance
  • Improved agility, coordination, and posture
  • Reduces pressure on the knee
  • Reduced foot pain in some cases
  • Fewer toe issues like hammer toes, bunions, etc

 

However, there are (supposed – not necessarily proven by scientific research) downsides to these shoes as well. Doctor have noted the following:

  • Achilles tendon issues
  • Increased foot pain due to over pronation
  • Pain due to decreased arch support

 

Hikers and trail runners who enjoy zero-drop hiking shoes like them for the comfort, particularly in the wide toe boxes. They also note that the changes made to their stride improves comfort.

It is noted that these shoes take a long breaking in period. It’s not that the shoes need to be broken in; it’s that you need to adjust to the shoes if you are not used to zero drop. One reason for this is the Achilles tendon, another is foot, leg, and other muscle groups that will be utilized slightly differently.

When you go from wearing typical shoes with a heel drop to zero-drop shoes, your Achilles tendon experiences different stretching. Your gait (walking strides) may change, and therefore how you use your muscles, and where stress is imparted on your body changes.

Even though it’s only a few millimeter change in positioning of the foot, that means a lot to your body. It can take months for your body to get used to zero-drop shoes, and those months can be painful or uncomfortable.

However, many people who like zero-drop shoes say that the improvement to their posture and stride is worth it.

 

The Science Behind Zero-Drop Hiking Shoes

One fun aspect of enjoying the outdoors is seeing how technology changes and develops. We see new shoes all the time, each one claiming plenty of benefits. But does the science match the hype? Not always. Sometimes a product will come onto the market and claim to be a miracle solution, when in reality, it doesn’t do much.

So what about zero-drop hiking shoes? Does the science match the hype? Here’s what we found. There are not that many studies about zero-drop shoes specifically; most of these studies are on minimalist footwear. Remember that minimalist shoes are typically zero-drop, but not all zero-drop shoes are minimalist.

That means that you should keep in mind that many of these studies are referring to shoes without any kind of padding or mobility support. If you choose to go zero-drop, you can get shoes that have padding and ankle support; it’s just that those shoes are typically not considered in the studies discussed here.

You should also keep in mind that these studies are usually about running shoes, not hiking shoes or even trail runners. If you aren’t a trail runner and you’re interested in zero-drop shoes for hiking, the biomechanics of running might not apply to you.

With those caveats in mind, let’s dive into the science behind zero-drop shoes!

 

Zero-Drop Injury Studies

One major reason to switch your shoes is to reduce the chance of injury. There is a thought that zero-drop shoes can reduce the chance of injury because they offer your foot a more natural position and change the way pressure is allocated during the impact stages of your stride.

This was investigated by a team of researchers at the Luxembourg Institute of Health, who found that zero-drop shoes neither increased nor decreased the runners’ chances of injury overall, but taking a look at “occasional runners” vs “regular runners” there was a difference. Injury risk was increased for “regular runners” wearing zero-drop shoes, and was reduced for “occasional runners” wearing zero-drop shoes. (Keep in mind that this study has a lot of limitations)

There is more to this type of study than meets the eye. One extremely important variable is the necessity of changing your running style due to changing your shoe type. While you are readjusting to the way your body’s physics work, you can injure yourself in ways unrelated to the shoe, but entirely related to the process.

 

Zero-Drop Biomechanics

Another zero-drop shoe study looked at the biomechanics of running in this type of shoe. This study found that there was increased knee flexion and ankle action during running in zero-drop shoes versus typical and low drop shoes, as well as significantly higher loading rates.

However, this study did not take into account the long adjustment time that more recent studies have noticed. The increased energy use could simply be a factor of needing more time to adjust to this style of shoe.

One article on minimalist footwear (with many other links to related studies) highlights that while minimalist footwear distributed force more evenly than conventional footwear, injuries may potentially be higher with minimalist footwear because individuals may need time to adapt to a new style of shoes, and a new running gait. It was noted that the strike pattern totally changed; runners who wore conventional footwear ran with a heel-toe foot strike pattern, while runners in the minimalist shoes ran with a toe-first foot strike pattern.

It seems very likely that the bone stress injuries and the overall injury incidence that were higher in minimalist shoes during the early weeks (10-12 weeks) of transition to this type of footwear are simply issues with the transition itself; however, more long-term studies are needed.

 

Gait Studies

Another area of focus surrounding these shoes is natural gait. Humans evolved to walk barefoot; shoes are a relatively modern invention. Today’s high tech hiking shoes are even more modern.

Shoe design has long focused on protecting our feet and ankle stability, but has sacrificed something of our natural gait. This can have long term repercussions on back pain, posture, foot and leg pain, and more.

However, it simply isn’t safe to walk barefoot everywhere. Think of the obstacles you encounter while hiking- sharp rocks, trees, uneven ground, litter and debris, just to name a few of the things that can hurt your feet. One study done at Norway’s Institute of Sports looked at the difference between walking barefoot and walking in minimalist footwear.

While many minimalist footwear manufacturers claim that minimalist footwear is basically the same as walking barefoot, the study found that in both younger and older individuals, walking with minimalist shoes actually isn’t similar to walking barefoot (the key here is “walking” as this may not be the same for runners, or hikers, and also, likely all of these people had a lifetime training and walking in shoes rather than bearfoot).

In fact, they found that walking with minimalist shoes appeared to be associated with better gait performance than walking barefoot in both age groups. The study’s results suggest that minimalist shoes might be ideal for older adults who want to avoid a risk of falling but still want better foot posture and gait improvements.

 

Foot Strength Studies

Another claim made by minimalist shoe manufacturers is that minimalist shoes improve your foot muscle strength. This is also a purported benefit of zero-drop shoes that use cushioning.

Studies done at the Department of Exercise Sciences at Brigham Young University found that transitioning to a minimalist shoe improves overall foot muscle mass and performance. These studies also suggest that the ease of simply changing shoes is more effective for improving foot musculature than doing designated exercises.

However, it is worth noting that one of these studies refers specifically to Vibram FiveFingers. While Vibram FiveFingers are zero-drop shoes, they do not offer the same type of toe box that most zero-drop shoes on the market do. Your toes can still splay naturally, but this variable means the study isn’t as applicable to the typical zero-drop shoes available today.

So to summarize what the science says about zero-drop shoes, all of the actual peer-reviewed research focuses on the energetics and injury risk of these shoes. While there is a significant body of research around hiking boots and hiking shoes in general, there just has not been a great deal of research on zero-drop shoes as they specifically relate to hiking or overall posture.

If you are a trail runner, this information might be more relevant to you. But as it stands, for hiking shoes, the peer-reviewed science still needs to catch up!

 

Should You Choose Zero-Drop Hiking Shoes?

Whether or not you give zero-drop hiking shoes a try is up to you. If you have weak arches, you might not enjoy them due to the complete lack of arch support. If you have a wider foot, you might absolutely love them and never want to wear anything else due to the wide toe box and more natural, foot-conforming shape.

Before you make this decision, you should talk to your doctor, especially if you’re seeing a podiatrist or orthopedic doctor. They may have an opinion on how these shoes can affect you and your gait. What’s most important is that you stay safe when you’re out on the trail and choose the hiking shoe or trail runner that’s best for you and your personal needs.

We also want to note that in reviewing the research, it became evident to us that a drastic change for anyone is likely not a good idea. Easing into zero drop will allow your body more time to adjust. For example, only walking in zero drop shoes for a few months, and progress to higher loads before beginning running in them. In our opinion, if you do decide to try zero drop shoes, do so by easing into it as slowly as possible.

Max DesMarais
Max DesMarais

Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about

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