Drop: It’s Hot!

Over the past couple years, one word that runners have frequently dropped when talking about their favorite shoes is: drop. The differential between the height of the heel and the forefoot (drop) has become a more important factor in how runners decide what shoes work for them. In general, forefoot runners look for shoes with 0-6mm of drop to allow for good forefoot articulation and freedom of movement, while heel strikers are generally comfortable in 10mm+ drop shoes. However, there are some exceptions to this, as a wider offering of shoes with varying structures and geometries have been released to bridge this gap and fit more niches in the market. We’ll discuss a little history, the pros and cons of each side of the aisle, and some examples of exceptions to the trend.

Historically, running shoe drops have gradually grown. In the 1960s, many shoes were around 4-8mm in classics such as the ASICS Pinto and New Balance Trackster. They then rose to 8-12mm through the advance of airbags and gel cushioning in the 90s, and eventually an all-time high of 15+mm in the Nike Shox Turbo. This trend persisted because of market demand for more and more heel cushion. Born to Run spurred a shift in the opposite direction as more runners began buying minimal drop racing flats, causing running shoe companies to respond and produce niche models, such as the New Balance Minimus line and Brooks Pure Project.

To better illustrate what this all means, go out and try on a pair of high heels (Guys, if anyone asks, just say you’re studying advanced biomechanics.). Never mind the color or how good they make your calves look, but instead focus on how your arch and ankle feel. Do you notice that they are effectively immobilized and your stability is a small fraction of what it normally is? This is an example of how too much drop in a running shoe puts your foot at too steep an angle, compromising its natural ability to stabilize itself. Demanding technical terrain found in races like the Hardrock 100 or the HURT 100 favor stable, low drop shoes that keep the foot’s center of gravity low and positions it at a stable angle.

Dominic Grossman Mt Baldy

The author illustrating low-drop control in the New Balance MT110’s on the technical mountain trails of Mt. Baldy, CA.

Now, get on a treadmill with no shoes on, and crank up the speed to your normal 10k race pace. How long can you hold it? Unless you’re an avid barefoot runner, chances are there’s much more stress in your arch and calf to provide natural/active cushioning for your stride. Active cushioning by the foot can wear on a runner in flatter, more consistent terrain, like what is often found in a road marathon or groomed fire roads. In races like the Badwater Ultramarathon or the Umstead 100 Mile, the consistent terrain often requires shoes that give more cushion and support for the repetitive, straight-away miles.

Kate DeSplinter Michigan Bluff

Katie DeSplinter utilizing the 11mm drop of the New Balance RC1400 on rolling singletrack near Michigan Bluff, CA.

Running shoe companies build varying degrees of drop into shoes to achieve unique design goals for each model. The following trends usually occur with traditional designs and technologies:

  • Higher drop shoes (10mm+) lower the levels of active cushioning required by the body and quicken the toe-off. In other words, the impact of your stride requires less tension in you foot/arch/ankles/calves/knees/quads, and immediately rolls your foot forward to toe off. The trade-off: these shoes can be heavier, less stable in technical terrain, and make active cushioning muscles weak and injury prone (i.e. IT Band Syndrome, plantar fasciitis, and patellar tendonitis).
  • Lower drop shoes (0-8mm) allow more arch and ankle articulation for better trail feel and are generally lighter, with less material. However, they also require increased active cushioning (muscles and tendons you use running barefoot to cushion your stride), and require a runner to power through their turnover with their own feet.

Though these trends are generally true, there are a few glaring exceptions:

Cushioned minimal drop
The Hoka One One Mafate (4mm drop) –  These maximalist cushioning shoes are very dynamic, as each foot strike compresses the extra soft foam as far as the runner’s stride wants to go and requires no active cushioning from the runner.

Variance in minimal drop
The New Balance MT10 “Minimus Trail” vs. the Saucony Peregrine (both 4mm) – the Minimus is much closer to the broader minimal shoe trend as it requires more active cushioning with its thin sole and flexible last, as well as a hollow arch that allows for freedom of movement in the arch and ankle. Meanwhile, the Saucony Peregrine has identical drop, but a thicker and stiffer sole accompanied with a filled in arch that makes it more supportive, cushioned and restrictive. These two shoes feature identical “minimal drop,” but each platform uses the drop in different ways. The Peregrine uses it to save weight and improve control, while the Minimus uses it to allow the foot greater freedom of motion and encourage active cushioning from the runner.

High drop variance in weight and support
The New Balance RC1400 vs. the ASICS GT-2160 (both 11mm) – The RC1400 has two hollowed out notches in the arch and heel that allow for a more natural flex and less weight. The GT-2160 has gel pads through the heel and a stiff plastic truss in the midfoot, along with a dual density foam insert under the arch to prevent any excess arch or ankle movement. The RC1400 uses the 11mm drop to replicate the feel of a more cushioned, heavier trainer while still allowing some natural foot articulation in a 7 ounce package. The GT-2160 uses the 11mm drop to mount a strong arch support and cushioning system that prevents over-pronation and efficiently transfers hard heel impacts into smooth toe offs.

Zero drop variance in cushion and protection
The Vibram Five Fingers KSO vs. the Altra Lone Peak (both 0mm drop) – The KSO offers a basic rubber outsole to protect the foot from general road debris, while allowing complete natural movement of the foot and encouraging active cushioning from the runner. The Lone Peak takes protection two steps further with a rock plate as well as significant cushioning in both the forefoot and heel. As a result, the KSO uses zero drop to deliver an honest barefoot experience while the Lone Peak utilizes it to encourage forefoot striking with ample protection.

So what is the perfect drop? At the end of the day, that’s up to you. Your terrain, biomechanical needs, and personal preferences determine your ideal combination of drop, cushioning, and support. The “minimalist movement” isn’t defined by the lightest, lowest drop shoe you can find; rather its all about finding the least amount of shoe you need to enjoy running efficiently and injury free. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • If you look for “minimalist” shoes (whatever that means to you), what factors are most important to you: heel-to-toe drop, total stack height, fore- and midfoot flexibility, weight, a certain combination of these, or something else entirely?
  • If you pay attention to such things, which heel-to-toe drop do you most enjoy running in?
  • Do you vary the drop of your shoe depending on the manner in which you’ll be using it?
  • Any folks use traditional drop (10-12mm) shoes most of the time, but mix in lower drop shoes from time-to-time?

There are 124 comments

    1. Gzrrnnr bud

      I agree with Joe. As someone who has been running on the trails for over 30 years, I find a lot of all the “technical”discussions a bit amusing. Heel-toe drop, heart rate, diet, gels, nuitrition bars, training methods, , facebook and other social media, gadgets on your wrist that tell you everything you think you need to know, and a bunch of technical terms that some trail runners use (not sure they understand them though…) has gone far beyond using nothing but power bars and Aunt Jemima water bottles. Us old runners went to the trails to have fun, and we did not need a detailed monitoring of every step to do it. obviously, there is some good information out there, but for me, there is a lot that I don’t need or want. I guess I still want to go to the trails just to have fun…

  1. Steve Collier

    Just FYI the Salomon Speedcross 3 is somewhere in between: 9 mm. I like it best of all my 10+ pairs of (higher) runing shoes.

  2. David H.

    This is something I never even thought of until I got hurt in late 2010. Last summer I added a neutral shoe to my rotation and in the past 3 months making a bigger change. My full-time shoe has gone from the Brooks Ravenna – a shoe I wore for nearly 3 years – to Saucony Mirage. I've had no major issues with this change.

  3. Lara

    this is a great article, thanks. you asked if people rotate different drops for different activities. I will use a saucony with 8-12 mm drop for long runs on the road, but have started using the mirage for mid-distance (5-6 miles) tempo runs, and track workouts that don't require a racing flat. On trails, I switched from Saucony Excursion (12 mm) to Montrail Mountain Masochist (4 ??) and while it felt great, I transitioned too fast and ended up with achilles pain. I feel that the lower drop ratio has improved my hamstring problems but probably contributed to my new achilles problem. I'm doing PT and massage to take care of the achilles and intend to utilize lower drop for shorter distances and maybe compromise w/ 8 mm for long runs on roads.

    Anybody have good advice for a trail shoe with a medium drop for 3-4 hour training runs on trails,that is cushiony and supportive but not too bulky as to create a tripping hazard when I get tired and stop picking up my toes? :-) thanks!!

      1. Harold

        Since you like the Saucony try the Peregrine, I used it for most of the winter and it did everything I asked of it. I just wore a hole into the heel cup which caused a blister at almost 300 miles, otherwise they had plenty of life left in them.

  4. Wilson

    Dominic, how much do you like the RC1400's? Did you modify them? Do you have any trouble maintaining a forefoot strike in them?

  5. Stuart

    Zero is a perfect number and Vivobarefoot the original barefoot shoes with zero drop…try out "The GRIP MONSTER"..Breatho Trail for the feeling of balance , agility and trail perfection….PROPRIOCEPTION withour DECEPTION!!

  6. Tris

    I am a forefoot runner living in Hungary (made the transition about one year ago) and run a mix of road, park, and smooth and rough trail (around 60km a week). But I can only afford one pair of shoes. So after thinking a bit, getting very confused by reading 1000 shoe reviews I opted for the Asics Gel Trabuco. The drop is 10mm and they seem to handle pretty much anything I throw at them.

    But I have a question…

    Would there be a better shoe which could handle such mixed terrain running, be more in tune with my forefoot style and also be comfortable enough to go long (runs of up to marathon length and further if I get fit enough?)

  7. New Trail Runner

    I know I am bit late to the conversation, but I am hoping to dust thos one off since folks were talking about the Inov-8 Trailrocs that were not out yet, and now I have some.

    I have had shoe issues in the past, but La Sportiva X-Countrys and especially Vertical Ks have been great for me in the SF Bay Area. I did my first trail 50k in Marin on Vertical Ks, and felt I could have used a bit more protection so I picked up trailroc 245s. The toebox is great, but somehow I feel like I am smacking my heel on them and my feet are killing me after a few steep fast downhills?! The difference in drop should only be 1mm, so what am I missing? Should I expect to need to adapt my technique for the Inov-8s? I was hoping these would be the ticket for longer runs, but now am thinking not. To continue the trend of looking to shoes that are not out yet, I could always hope for the new Sportiva Helios to find its way to me in demo form …

  8. Juan

    I am 6'7" (1.97cm) and 205 pounds, 45 yr old and I slightly overpronate Started running last year; introduced vibram KSO's to aliviate my hips/knees. Within 6 months I was using them to run 10 miles in two feet of snow at 7,500 feet, basically running on my tiptoes.

    I combined them with Peregrines at 4mm drop. Great combo.

    I run two marathons within the same year; so I got some fastswitch 5 (4mm drop) for first marathon. That was a bit too much as they did not support my weight after mile 20. The second marathon, 3 months later, was much better after I got a pair of Adidas Adizero Tempo 5, 8mm drop. I tried a pair of Hokas for training, but I did not like how my calves felt after mile 12 in training.

    All the time, whether I run trails or road, I do my rest filler runs with the vibrams, to rest my legs. What an irony.

    I am getting some heavier shows, I think the Xodus 3, for my first ultra, a short 50k (30 miles) at 8.500 elevation. Drop, 4mm but more protection than the peregrines and definively more than the KSO's. To each situation, the right shoes.

  9. Dan

    I switched from the MT101s to Altra Lone Peaks recently. I agree that the 101s were near perfect. I wanted a little more padding for hard pack and down hills though. The Altras fit great and I love the wide forefoot. The great fit made me a little ambitious transitioning shoes and now I've had my first case of plantar fasciitis. Oh but the Altras are so great to run in and one can really cruise down hills. The PF seems to be clearing up with rest, massage, stretching and shorter runs. I'm hoping the zero drops help with injuries in the future. I'm thinking of trying some higher drop shoes in the meantime so I can do longer runs and continue in the Altras for shorter runs to strengthen the feet. I will probably try out the Mountain Masochists until the PF clears up. Any thoughts on running with PF and recovery strategies? Shoe recommendations.

  10. Dan

    I switched from the MT101s to Altra Lone Peaks recently. I agree that the 101s were near perfect. I wanted a little more padding for hard pack and down hills though. The Altras fit great and I love the wide forefoot. The great fit made me a little ambitious transitioning shoes and now I’ve had my first case of plantar fasciitis. Oh but the Altras are so great to run in and one can really cruise down hills. The PF seems to be clearing up with rest, massage, stretching and shorter runs. I’m hoping the zero drops help with injuries in the future. I’m thinking of trying some higher drop shoes in the meantime so I can do longer runs and continue in the Altras for shorter runs to strengthen the feet. I will probably try out the Mountain Masochists until the PF clears up. Any thoughts on running with PF and recovery strategies? Shoe recommendations.

    1. Sam Winebaum

      I might go easy on the zero drop Altras until you are fully tuned to changes. Montrail Bajada, irunfar.com has them, are a good alternative with a more conventional 10mm drop but still light. I had plantars a few years ago and 2 things cleared it up. 1) I tried all kinds of boots and splints but they just were to uncomfortable. I ended up wearing Pro-Tec Athletic Arch Supports I got at REI at all times, except running where they really didn't fit in the shoes. They were very comfortable. 2) Limping from the first mile and all the way to the finish I ran in agony the Park City Mid Mountain Trail Marathon. 2 days later plantars was on its way out. I think the scar tissue got broken up

      1. Dan

        I was able to tolerate the PF pain for a while with massage in the morning with a tennis or lacrosse ball. On runs the foot would stretch out and I could run well up to about 13 miles or so. After I stopped the pain really came back. I did run the Haulin Aspen trail marathon in the Altras but was hurting afterwards. I decided I needed to drop out of a 50k before the PF got any worse and I had healed up. Now I've just been hiking and doing short runs with some arch supports and taping the injured foot. That with physical therapy (stretches and massages) it seems to be improving. The pain goes away as long as I can keep the foot limber. I've tried the Bajadas but they have a pretty narrow fit. The Masochists are bit more shoe than I'd prefer but they seem to have a wider toe box.

  11. Juan

    I like the vibrams for one reason: because the sole is so thin, you instinctively pay much more attention to where you step, and you land much more carefully. I have a pair of Merells too, but because they protect a bit more, I find myself paying less attention. I have not tried the Altras (on my list soon) but I would think the same issue might happen as they protect the foot a lot.

    I think that using the vibrams mixed with your regular shoes might be the best solution for adapting to zero drop. The first days I could only walk a few minutes with them. Now, I run on my tip toes if I want to. Every time I started feeling my Achilles tendon or other issues, I'd simply stop.

    After I got used to the vibrams, I got my peregrines and othe low drop, and they felt so protective!

  12. Andrew

    What no one really pays attention to is the cushioning of all of these shoes. Just because a shoe has 4mm drop vs 0mm doesn't mean it will have more cushioning overall.

    I simply cannot run more than 20km in my Inov8s as they are too hard whereas I know that there are zero drop shoes with really good cushioning that are still low to the ground overall.

    Also, for me (time to offend), when is the last time a major trail or road race was won in a) a zero drop shoe or b) silly toe shoes / trail gloves? If one wants to run fast on flats or downhills it is an undeniable fact that some padding is needed on a shoe. I am by no means a super fast runner but I have never been beaten by someone in the above type of shoes.

    I believe that the MT 1010, Fuji Racer and my MT 110s (with an insole) are about perfect for speed while allowing better trail feel and being low to the ground.

  13. Anonymous

    Interesting, I do t think any part of your come t relates to the other, maybe that's the point. (though I doubt it)

  14. Steve Sellers

    It's about time!! Way back in the 70's running boom guru coach Arthur Lydiard preached zero drop shoes for proper running technique (no heel strike!!!!!). With German company EB he produced a shoe they named after him-Lydiards. They were my fav running shoes, but then the running boom Lydiard helped create, brought on the advent of craziness in running shoes. They catered to the improper running recreationalist heel striker. It's taken a long time to get back to where we should be in running shoes.

    1. Sam Winebaum

      Steve, remember the EB Lydiards well. The trainer and the marathon. Loved them. I am not sure they were zero drop at least I am pretty sure the marathon wasn't but they sure were "natural", simple, and effective. Wrote about some of those great 70's and early 80's shoes on my blog and you will see the Lydiard and the fact you can still buy the identical handmade EB shoes today. http://samwinebaum.blogspot.com/2012/11/top-runni

  15. HydeParkUltra

    I have come up with a system to help transition from high heel drop to low heel drop using DIY shoe inserts for my existing higher heel drop trail and running shoes. These are forefoot inserts made out of Duct Tape. They are 8 layers of Duct Tape thick each which roughly equates to 1.5mm. I stack inserts in each shoe – each 'negative heel drop' insert is a little longer than the other to help with transition in the shoe. These are shaped like a regular shoe insert in the forefoot area and go about 1 inch past the 5 metatarsal bones in the ball of your foot. Each pad is about 3/8 of an inch shorter than the previous pad in the stack, so for my size 11 foot and 3 pads in the stack the longest pad would be 1 3/4 inches past the metatarsals, then the next pad would be 3/8 inches shorter and the last pad is 3/8 inches shorter than the middle pad. Pads are stacked longest on top to shortest on bottom in the shoe. The regular shoe insert is then placed back in the shoe.

    These heel drop transition inserts take about 15 mins to make for a pair of trail running shoes. They don't have to be perfectly shaped to the insole or insert.

    These work best in shoes that are a little large in the toe box area (which many ultra runners use due to swelling feet anyways). I tape these together and then tape them to the bottom of the original shoe insert so they stay in place under the original shoe insole or insert. Double sided tape works or you can get by with just a loop of duct tape. My go-to trail running shoes are 10mm heel drop so two heel drop inserts gets me to a 7mm heel drop. I have another heel drop taper pad that gets me 4.5mm total heel drop, so I get from 10mm heel drop to 5.5mm heel drop. This technique helps me to use shoes I already own and in which I am already comfortable running in order to make the transition to lower heel drop. Saves lots of $ too as I can wear out my higher heel drop trail running shoes.

    Link to Instructable with Photos: http://www.instructables.com/id/Heel-Drop-Running

    I've tried cutting old running shoe insoles to make forefoot pads but this doesn't work nearly as well. Old running shoe inserts are compressed in the center and thick on the sides, which cramps the sides and front of your foot when stacked together. The DIY duct tape forefoot pads don't compress like typical shoe insoles.

    One other benefit of this approach is that you get a little extra padding under the ball of your foot — sort of like a bonus trail guard. Especially helpful in older shoes where there is more tread wear and compression in the forefoot area of the shoe.

    Hope this forefoot trail running shoe insert trick helps some other ultra runners out there.

  16. running_frogman

    I normally run on and off road in 3mm drop Inov8's. I occasionally run in sandals (zero drop) with no real problem for up to 12 miles. My transition to minimal has been long and gradual and as part of it I'd race in Hoka's with a 4mm drop but lots of cushioning. I have now ditched the Hoka's but don't yet feel that I'm ready for 100 mile trail ultras in my Inov8's as I think it'll be a problem when I'm tired and my form suffers. I'm considering Inov8 270's (4mm) or 290's (8mm) for long races. Has anyone had any issues with upping the drop for longer events?

  17. km_oregon

    Along the lines of what another commenter said, I'd like to reiterate that if you go from a conventional bigger sole/drop shoe to a minimalist/zero drop type shoe to do it gradually! Being a foolish newbie runner, after training for about 9 months in Mizuno Wave Inspires with a 34mm heel and 12 mm drop and having done a couple 15 – 20k road races, I decided it would be a good idea to run a 30k trail race in my zero drop Mizuno Evo Ferus, which I had put a total of about 10 miles on before then. I got through the race – but my calves have been hurting ever since. Like I tell my kids: do as I say, not as I do!

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