Before transitioning to zero drop running shoes, I ran my first marathon, ultra marathon, and 100 mile race in Brooks Glycerin 15s. I didn’t see much of a problem with my Brooks, and I still use their shoes to this day. But when you get into ultra running, you’re bound to hear someone bragging about their zero drop runners, and how they’re the best shoes for ultra marathons.
It just comes with the sport. You’ll hear similar conversations in CrossFit gyms, amongst weightlifters, and on hiking trails. Zero drop shoes are a popular debate everywhere performance shoes are needed.
Which side do I fall on?
Well, after my introduction to ultra running with Brooks, I switched to Altra, the leader of zero drop trail running shoes (and zero drop running shoes in general). My wife runs in them now, too. And while I’m not a purist (I do dabble with other brands–I worked in a running store for 2 years, I can’t help it), my preferred running shoes are the Altra Escalante and Lone Peak.
And this is a flat hill I’ll die on.
If you’ve been bitten by the zero drop bug, I want to show you how to transition safely. Your calves and feet especially will experience different loads and strain while wearing a zero drop shoe. But I’d say (like everyone else who wears them), that this is a good thing. After all, nothing bad about your feet and legs getting stronger.
Let’s get into it.
Table of Contents: Jump Ahead!
What are Zero Drop Shoes?
Zero drop shoes have level cushioning from your forefoot to your heel. This means your foot is flat inside the shoe. Most traditional running, hiking, walking, and workplace shoes have an elevated heel. This makes sense because when we walk, the force of the impact is felt in the heel.
Well, a few years back, the creators of Altra started cutting the heels off their shoes for a more balanced cushioning. Seriously! That’s how Altra was born. Today, many people like their way of thinking.
While zero drop shoes can be minimalist, they don’t have to be. For example, Altra makes very highly cushioned trail and road running shoes that certainly do not qualify as “minimalist.” Xero shoes
Benefits of Zero Drop Shoes
while working in a very busy running store for 2 years in Raleigh, I sold the most Altra running shoes of any staff members by far. And my return rate for that brand was exceptionally low! It was an on-going joke with a coworker who didn’t like Altra that all mine must be coming back through the door as returns. But when we ran the numbers, he was surprised to see my return rate was quite low.
In short, I was a good salesman for Altra! That wasn’t accidental, though. I really like their shoes, and all the benefits of zero drop shoes. So I gave customers my honest opinion and let plenty of people try on Altras, always giving other brands a level playing field.
Here are the benefits of wearing zero drop shoes:
- Balanced cushioning: your foot is balanced in the shoe. That means your heel and forefoot are the same height, so your foot is flat. For people who are on their feet all day (teachers and nurses, for example), this is a more comfortable way to stand. It’s like a pair of slippers with high quality cushion underneath.
- Toe splay: when your foot in on a decline (as in traditional shoes with a large heel), much of the pressure goes to the front of your foot, or your toes. When you level the platform out, your toes are no longer under pressure and can splay out naturally. While not all zero drop shoes have a wide toe box (Altras do), they all make your toes more comfortable.
- Holistic foot health: we unfortunately don’t live in a world made of dirt roads with tree roots and stones all around to step on, to strengthen our feet. I know, it’s unfortunate. But a zero drop shoe (even ones that are not minimalist) give your feet a chance to get stronger. Rather than being perfectly cradled by an engineered foot bed, your foot will interact with its environment more. Additionally, your Achilles tendon is able to relax and lengthen over time.
- A natural running stride: the most efficient place to land on your foot while running is your springy forefoot. Landing on your heel is like braking with each step, using more energy to go the same distance. Now, you’ll see lots of pro ultra runners with funky gaits and running forms, but fast distance runners don’t heel strike very much. With a zero drop running shoe, there’s no big clunky heel to get in the way of landing on your forefoot for an efficient stride. You wouldn’t run in heels, right??
- Grounded strength: I’ve always felt stable and strong while wearing zero drop shoes. Whether I’ve been running, lifting weights, or hiking, I feel connected to the ground. This is important for confidence in the gym and perception on the trail: when we can feel the ground beneath us, we know where we’re headed. A little philosophical, perhaps, but you’ll see what I mean.
Wearing my Altra Escalantes and ‘Be Your Own Culture’ trucker hat at the wet and chilly Outrun 24 Hour Endurance Run in 2019.
Transitioning to Zero Drop Shoes
After my first marathon in 2018, my toe nails were black with blood. I’d never experienced this before (and probably needed a half size larger shoes). They fell off a few months later, but not before my frigid first ultra marathon, the Umstead 50 miler in Raleigh, North Carolina.
After that rainy 50 miler, my feet were in bad shape. Bruised and swollen, beaten raw, toenail-less.
A few months later, new toenails growing in, I ran my first 100 mile race, the Burning River 100 in Cleveland, Ohio. Guess what I wore for Burning River? Brooks!
After that nearly 30 hour effort, I couldn’t comfortable wear shoes for awhile and had to have an ingrown toe nail removed by a doctor 😭.
Forced to wear sandals for awhile, I dug around online in ultra running communities and found zero drop running shoes.
Altra Escalantes & Lone Peaks
It didn’t take long for me to order a pair of the first version of Altra’s popular road running shoe, the Escalante (which I still love quite a few versions later). As soon as I put them on, I felt like my feet’s salvation had arrived.
The Escalante felt light, breathable (they’ve since ditched the first version’s sock-like mesh), fast, and…flat. Very flat. Like slippers with bouncy foam underneath.
Since switching to zero drop running shoes, I’ve completed a few ultra marathons, including…
- Light 2 Light 50: a 50 mile first place finish in one pair of Escalantes
- Bel Monte 50: a double marathon in the mountains of Virginia with no blisters or hot spots wearing my beloved Lone Peaks
- O24: an 87 mile effort around a 1 mile loop in 24 hours
- and more!
Transitioning for runners
How can you safely transition to zero drop running shoes? Follow a gradual buildup. That’s the only secret. I’d wear your new zero drop shoes around the house or on some light walks the first couple weeks, mixing in light runs, before getting to your normal running schedule. Keep your old running shoes and keep using them while you transition.
Some people also spend a few months in a lower drop shoe (4-6mm) before dropping all the way to zero, but I didn’t. I went from 10mm to zero with the following schedule.
If you’re indestructible and in tune with your body, you might buildup faster than this…
- Week 1: one run, no more than three miles, at an easy pace
- Week 2: one run, no more than three miles, at an easy pace
- Week 3: two runs, no more than three miles each, at an easy pace.
- Week 4: three runs, no more than four miles, at an easy pace.
- Week 5: introduce a long run, 10-15 miles, at an easy pace and do one other shorter run at an easy pace
- Week 6: four runs, no more than 6 miles, at an easy pace
- Week 7: all mileage in zero drop shoes at an easy pace
- Week 8: transition complete! All mileage in zero drop shoes, reintroducing (slowly) hills, repeats, and speed work, if that’s your thing
Yes, I would seriously take 8 weeks to transition to a zero drop running shoe. Your calves, Achilles, and feet will thank you for adjusting them slowly to the new feel. That being said, I don’t think everyone takes such a long approach to transitioning. Listen to your body and don’t overdo it.
Transitioning for walkers and the workplace
For walking, work, and daily wear, you don’t need to take such a long buildup to wearing your new zero drop shoes. Running is harder on the feet and lower body joints than walking and standing. Spend some time getting used to the feel of the shoes before setting off to exercise or work, but don’t be nervous about wearing them. You’ll feel some of those benefits we discussed right away.
If your shoes are for work (I think teachers and nurses can really benefit from zero drop shoes), bring other shoes with you. If you notice any soreness in your feet, swap for your usual shoes for a bit. Zero drop shoes take some getting used to, but your feet (and the rest of your body) will thank you in the long run.
Zero Drop Shoe Transition for Hikers
For hikers, certainly don’t take a pair of zero drop shoes backpacking without preparing your feet and legs. I’d wear your new hiking shoes around, walking in local parks or on local trails, before taking them far out. As with running, you’ll be on your feet and climbing up hills for long periods of time. Prepare your Achilles and calves for their added strain (and strength). My favorite shoes for hiking are low profile (not quite minimalist) shoes like Altra’s Lone Peak. I feel so connected to the Earth and aware of my footfalls while wearing them.
Transitioning for the Gym & Fitness
Like running and hiking, wearing zero drop shoes in the gym might require a little patience. Listen to your body and ease into a zero drop platform. I think you’ll like it, though. You’re going to feel more grounded and connected to your activity, whether you’re lifting weights, doing box jumps and burpees, or slinging battle ropes.
If you already do your heavy lifts barefoot, or in Vans, you’ll feel right at home in a zero drop training shoe. If you’re accustomed to Brooks, Nikes, or On Running shoes, take your time getting comfortable in zero drops trainers. Spend some time walking around local parks and trails before loading up a barbell or CrossFit WOD.
Xero Shoes is the best brand for fitness and gym junkies to find zero drop workout shoes.
On my way to a first place finish at the 2019 Light 2 Light 50 mile run wearing my zero drop Altra Escalantes.
Zero Drop Shoe Transition Tips
Here are tips to keep in mind while transitioning to a zero drop shoe:
- Don’t spend time going uphill while getting used to your new shoes. Keep yourself on flat terrain to let your calves and Achilles tendons adjust.
- Don’t do sprints or hard running workouts when you switch to zero drop shoes. Your calves won’t be ready! Let them adjust before turning up the heat.
- Wear your zero drop shoes often, but not while working too hard. Around the house and out to lunch are great places to let your body adjust to the new demands.
- Not all zero drop shoes are minimalist, and minimalist shoes require even more care to get used to. If you want to get into minimalist footwear, something with a bit of cushion (like Altra’s Escalante) is a great place to start.
- They’re supposed to feel different, but not bad. Keep your old shoes handy and don’t push through pain. But remember, you might just need to ease into them more gradually.
My Favorite Zero Drop Shoes
- For road running: Altra Escalante (lighter cushion), Altra Rivera (medium cushion), and Altra Torin (high cushion)
- For hiking and trail running: Altra Lone Peak
- For casual wear, work, and walking: Altra Escalante or Xero Shoes Prio (shop men’s | shop women’s)
- For the gym and working out: Xero Shoes Prio (shop men’s | shop women’s)
- Sandals: Bedrock Sandals Cairn or Shamma Sandals
- Recovery footwear: OOFOS sandals
- Flipflops: now that I look at them there might be a slight drop on these, but you really can’t buy more durable minimal flipflops than Archies
There you have it! You can replace all your shoes now. Just kidding. Don’t be wasteful. And always buy the highest quality footwear that will last the longest to reduce your consumption. The above brands will take good care of you.