Transitioning to zero-drop shoes
Published 14 October 2019. Written by Chris Worfolk.
You have decided to cast off your mainstream running shoes and shift to a zero drop shoe. Can you just stick them on and head out running? Maybe, but there are certain things to consider before you make the switch.
I will start with a quick summary of what they are and why we may want them, so if you are already familiar with this, you can skip the next section.
What are zero drops?
First, let us briefly summarise what zero drop shoes are. Most road shoes have a particular size sole, and that sole varies in thickness from front to back. Typically, it will be thicker at the back. For example, your show may be 20mm back at the front and 30mm thick at the back.
Having this heel-to-toe drop takes some pressure off the calves and can make the shoes more comfortable.
In contrast, some shoes have a lower drop or maybe no drop at all. For example, the Hoka One One Clifton has a 5mm drop while all Altra shoes have no drop at all, also known as “zero drop”. The proposed benefit of this is that it promotes a more natural running style because it feels more like barefoot running and does not encourage heel striking in the same way that high-drop shoes do.
Whether that is of benefit is not clear. Zappos has done an excellent job of rounding up the evidence. The research suggests that there is no difference in injury rates and that while lower drop shoes will take the pressure off the knees and hips, they will put more pressure on the ankles and calves.
Why do we need to be careful?
Zero drop shoes will take the pressure off your knees and hips but will put more pressure on your calves and ankles. Therefore, when we switch to a lower drop shoe, our body needs time to adapt to the changes, and we need to make sure we have strong calves to handle the extra pressure.
This is going to challenge anyone but is especially something to be careful of if you have a history of ankle injury or tight calves.
What can we do about it?
The first thing to do is to ensure that you have strong calves. The best way to do this is with regular calf raises. In a previous blog post, I discuss how many calf raises you should be able to do as a runner. The answer is roughly 25 on each side.
Doing regular calf raises, at least several times a week if you are looking to strengthen them, will hopefully get you up to this number.
You can also scale down slowly. Rather than going from a 10mm drop to a zero drop, you could go to a 5mm drop first. Or, maybe even step it down in 2mm increments, so 8mm, 6mm, etc. This has the significant disadvantage that it involves buying a lot of expensive shoes, though.
Finally, you can start by only running short distances in them and then build up. This could involve doing short runs, but where possible, you could start the run in different shoes and then switch to your lower drop shoes towards the end when your muscles are warmed up.
Whether you should transition to zero drop shoes is a question in itself. The evidence does not support reduced injury. They will put more stress on your calves. Altra argues that this is a good thing because it builds up calf strength, but one could say that they are biased being a brand that only sells zero drop shoes. It is an excellent chance to buy new running shoes, though, and you can always listen to your body and see how it goes.
If you do decide to go for it, make sure you test your calf strength beforehand and do some strength exercises if necessary. Then, begin by doing short runs, or just the end of your runs in your lower drop shoes and build up from there.