Drop and Give Me Zero
It’s no secret that I suffer from Chronic Ankle Sprains. I joke race after race that it’s not a true OCR until I roll at least one, if not both, of my ankles. But the more I ran up mountains, the more I would experience debilitating calf tightness on hilly races and bizarre calf and hamstring cramping on the flattest of flat courses. My ankle mobility was good, but there was always something missing.
Zero drop shoes have been one of the hottest trends throughout the OCR community over the last few years. Everybody wants to know what it is and what it will do for them. Truth be told, I was NOT one of these people. I’ve always known that when it comes to shoes, you get what you pay for, but I’m stingy by nature and I am always looking for the best deals. My first pair of trail shoes came from Spartan HQ because they had left over shoes after Spartan Ultimate Team Challenge. My second pair of trail shoes were the cheapest pair of Salomons that I could find.
After running for a month in my Salomons, I developed terrible great toe pain and I always felt like the weight of my shoes was dragging me down on obstacles. After the better part of a year, with my feet aching, my calves tight and cramping, and with my cheap shoes acting as more of a sponge than as a support, I decided to make the switch.
For those of you reading this who are still unsure as to what “zero drop” means, here is the brief overview.
A traditional shoe has the heel lifted approximately 22-24mm off the ground while the forefoot is approximately 10-15mm off the ground. This makes a 12-16mm differential between the heel and the forefoot.
A minimalist or “Zero Drop” shoe is as it sound. There is no difference between the height of the heel from the height of the forefoot.
When looking at a traditional shoe, your body is essentially walking on a foam pad, designed to act as a pillow to specific mechanics of the foot. Your foot has joints, muscles, ligaments, and nerves that work together to control your body in each step. By walking on these foam pads called shoes, our body’s ability to control becomes weaker with each movement. The foot loses its ability to absorb forces which decreases your body’s stability, mobility, and neurological responses. This causes poor posture and kinetic chain dysfunction. To cut a long story short, shoes make our feet lazy.
“Kind of like how treadmill takes away some of the work from different muscles used in running, shoes with a higher heel take away some of that work from your calves and achilles. This is why the higher the heel drop one is used to, the longer the transition. “ - @Jodi_OCR
Now looking at zero drop shoes, they are designed to engage our foot’s mechanics by the removal of the cushioning from the midsole which causes less lateral stability and control throughout the foot and ankle. This means that the runner must adapt to actively engage the muscles of the foot and ankle, specifically to gain more balance and strength through their gait.
Out of fear of losing you in the terminology and the dissection of the science behind zero drop shoes, I will not be breaking down what all of the latest research has to say in terms of the benefits on human performance. Trust me, I could talk about this stuff for hours. If you are interested in jumping into the science, I recommend checking out the article “Running Shoe or Minimalist Shoe?” by Fabio Comana, MA, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES posted on National Academy of Sports Medicine as a good starting point. In the article, he touches on the benefits minimalist shoes play on the body in relation to strength, stability, and neuromuscular adaptations. This plays a role on your body’s running efficiency as well as your day-to-day posture and gait.
As more and more racers are discovering the beauties of Zero Drop shoes, the biggest topic of conversation becomes “How to Transition”. Because Zero Drop is going to alter your ankle mobility and your foot’s mechanics, you need to give your body the proper time to transition out of your traditional running shoes and into this zero drop. Switch between your old and your new shoes as per the guidelines Altra outlines in their “Fit, Technique, and Transition Guide”.
Week 1: Short, low intensity runs
Weeks 2-3: Moderate length and moderate intensity runs
Weeks 4-5: Longer length, more intense run
Remember, every person is different and every person takes a different amount of time to transition. Listen to your body and adjust your transition time accordingly. The higher the drop you are transitioning from, the more time your body will need to accommodate the new shoes.
Since embracing zero drop shoes, I, like many, have noticed some unreal things happening throughout my body. When I run, I can feel my entire posterior chain activate. I climb up hills with my hamstrings firing on each step, my glutes burning, and my hip flexors free of overcompensation. I have zero issues of cramping and my feet no longer experience the pain and the constriction of a condensed toe box. When looking in the mirror, I notice more glute and calf definition. My body is functioning properly on runs through my new, elongated stride length because I am now a midfoot running as opposed to the heel striker I had long been.
The more I dive deeper into zero drop shoes, the more I wanted to give the real-world experiences of the OCR community:
@brosecker of @brocr : “2018 started a journey of OCR changes for me and the first one was a transition to zero drop shoes. I was warned by friends the benefits, as well as the downsides, of zero drop shoes. I knew within the Ultra trail world they were popular, and I knew in 2018 I was going to start considering doing a few more races at that distance in my calendar. While the shoe took a bit to get accustomed to, I felt my legs growing stronger, and my toes having room to stretch out in them."
@jodi_OCR: “Due to the activation of muscles typically neutralized by shoes with support and cushion, I have noticed a significant improvement in my running form resulting in less energy used for strides and strengthening of my feet preventing the return of plantar fasciitis. It's been well over a year.”
@kellysully21: “I used regular running and trail shoes for both road races and ocr and developed a bone spur between two toes. The smaller toe box put even more pressure on the toes and bone spur while running which would become unbearable after a race to the point where I would finish a race and have to take my shoe off ASAP. After surgery to shave the bones down I heard about Altra. Once I transitioned to them, I noticed that I no longer had pain in my toes or feet after a race and I could keep my shoes on without worrying about pain after a race. I now use Altra’s for all types of running and working out and my feet have never felt better.”
@charmingashenprince: “After a few months, I noticed that pains in my shins from running long distances were almost completely gone, as well as my running form had changed to running almost exclusively on the balls of my feet, with my heels barely touching the ground. I felt like I was able to spread my legs out more instead of being weighed down by, in my mind, heavier and clunkier shoes that I have tried to run in back in high school.”
@fushu713: “I’ve noticed that my trail running was improving [after switching to zero-drop] as I could feel the rocks and terrain through the (typically) thinner zero-drops, giving me better reactions and adjustments. I don't think I can ever switch back for that reason alone.”
As with everything in fitness and training, Zero Drop shoes are not for everybody. @ocr_molly has tried to transition but finds that previous injuries and chronic calf tightness has prevented her body from being able to wear Zero Drop.
When asked about his experience with zero drop, @campos.bobby recalls that his “narrow feet and the extra room [of Altra] caused too much sliding that gave me a massive blister so bad I had to sit and take my shoe off in race hoping to find a stick or something. Sadly no, just the shoe! ” Unfortunately, this experience kept him from a top 10 finish at Spartan Jacksonville.
As zero drop shoes continue to be gaining in popularity throughout the obstacle course racing community, a handful of people keep their traditional running shoes for non-trail training. “In OCR or trail I like zero drop because I need to grip extremely uneven terrain. I don’t want my knees pitched forward on severe downhills. But on long distance road running on gradual uphills and downhill a slight drop with extra cushioning helps me maintain good running form and the extra cushioning under my heels helps.” - @tom_shankapotomous
“I'll never go zero-drop for my road shoes. I don't care as much about road feel when I'm pounding pavement, but I do need some more cushion. So I rock "normal" drop shoes for that. “ @fushu713
Personally, when I transitioned to zero drop, I originally transitioned in my trail shoes, but kept my traditional road runners. After a few months of running in trail zero drop shoes, I made the jump to road runners as well. I found the transition to zero drop road shoes to take longer than my trail shoes and was experiencing neurological symptoms due to piriformis syndrome and chronic calf tightness. After approximately a month of transitioning, with the addition of yoga, mobility, and posterior chain training, these symptoms subsided. I’ve also noticed that my ankles are rolling more frequently because of the lack of stability in the shoe. This effect is combated by my continual emphasis on barefoot training.
When making the transition to zero drop shoes, it is important to change your training to accommodate the new adaptations. Barefoot training is one of the best ways to continue to train your body for zero drop. If you want more information on the benefits of barefoot training, check out my previous blog.
One suggestion @Jodi_OCR recommends is “looking into correcting running form, especially for those who heel strike. I corrected mine on my own by following the exercises in runrx social media and by slowly jogging barefoot outside ( you learn very quickly not to heel strike when you're barefoot).”
Find a running coach or look into video analysis of your form to improve your running gait for maximum efficiency.
“The most important rule I would encourage people wanting to transition into a zero-drop shoe is to take the time to do it right. Like anything if you take the time and not rush into it can help avoid injury, as well as harming your legs. While the body is designed to work on a Zero drop platform you have built decades of muscle memory that you need to reprogram to adapt to the new reaction time.” - @brosecker
If you are interested in transitioning to zero drop and minimalist running, but you are unsure if it is the right move for you, gradually decrease the differential in your traditional running shoe. Do your research to find shoes that have less of a difference between the heel and the forefoot. In time, you will be able to progress down to a zero drop with less of a need to go through the transition period. Once you have transitioned to zero drop, the shoes are much easier to break in and adapt to. Your gait will be more efficient, your stability will be stronger, and your ankle mobility will be much greater.
Share your experiences below. Have you made the transition into zero drop shoes?