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.

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.

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?
Dominic Grossman: resides and works in Costa Mesa, CA as a Mechanical Engineer. On weekends, he can usually be found running in the San Gabriel Mountains. His sponsors include New Balance, Injinji, PowerBar, and SaltStick. He also runs for the charity Team RWB.

View Comments (124)

  • This drop question has been on my mind for some time now. I have been switching between 10mm and 4mm. I like the lower drop more (pure grit vs cascadias). So excited for my Hoka's to come in:)

    Great info IRF team!

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  • For me its a bit of a non-issue. The more I run the less I care. I feel goed on traditional Gel asics, on all sorts of Salomon trail shoes, on Mizuno's with little drop and on Innovs with very little drop. That's easy; this way I can select my shoes on price en durability.

    But the story keeps the marketeers alive.

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    • Definitely go with what you like, my RC1400's from last summer have over a 1,000 miles on them and well below a 11mm drop. It's all relative.

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  • The high heel shoes just are not comfortable for me and significantly changed my running style in the years that I ran in them. When I came back from my latest non-running related injury, I wanted to run in lower heeled and drop shoes. In November I bought a pair Peregrines and got almost 300 miles on them without too many problems. Last week I bought the MT20s thinking that I was ready for the next step down the minimalist shoe ladder. Unfortunately, I was not and re-aggravated a minor calf strain into a no run calf pain.

    Returning to less cushion/less drop does require a little bit of work on your part and more transition than just going out and running in them. I love the feel and fit of the MT20s, but they and other shoes like them will probably require more than just putting and running in them. Which many runners don't want to deal with - they just want to run for some reason or other.

    I will make the transition to a lower drop, but it is going to take longer than I expected :-).

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  • I definitely choose my shoe based on drop height (in addition to outsole, weight, presence of rock plate, and wideness of toe box) and have found the 4mm drop to be just about perfect for technical trail running, just enough protection to allow some room for biomechanical error, but not so much to effect the gait. Now that the shoe companies are providing minimal drop lightweight trail running options, I've been able to stop modifying my shoes by hacking off the heel etc. That being said, I think it's important for all runners to choose their shoe based on the terrain/distance/speed that they're running, as a lot of the minimalist shoes available are rather niche specific, so access to a variety of footwear is definitely advantageous. For example, over my 70-100mpw I'll vary an MT110, Merrell Trail Glove, MT10, MR10, and occasionally a VFF (if it's too cold/shiggy to go barefoot) each shoe has it's purpose.

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  • I am finding that the 8-10mm drop range is good for me right now. I'm coming off running in Asics and Brooks that have 12mm drops and have used green Superfeet which seem to add a couple more mm's. My favorite shoes currently are the La Sportiva Crosslite 2.0's with 8mm drop and a touch of mild stability control. I'm also trying out the Montrail Mountain Masochist and the Rogue Racer's for some variety. For road running, I'm still sporting the Asics 2150's but sans Superfeet, as well as some Mizuno Musha 3 road racing flats for my shorter days. I don't have the time to hit the trails every week, so most of my miles are on roads, and I find that I like a little more shoe just because of durability. Who has the money to buy new shoes every 250 miles anyway? As I am moving down in drop I have found that my stride is naturally going to a mid to forefoot strike, as my calves have been saying "hello" after each run.

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  • thanks for the great explanation of this issue.

    I experiment now and then with drop difference in my shoes, but find it really confuses my foot and leg muscles when I switch to much.

    On that note, do elite, and not so elite, runners actually switch drop in their shoes mid race depending on terraine ?

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    • In last year's Angeles Crest 100, I was running in the MT101's through the first 30 miles which are more technical and steep. At Eagles Roost (mile 30) the terrain becomes more gradual and consistent and I switched into the RC1400. It helped my turnover in the flat and gave me some extra cushion. The 5.5 mi fireroad downhill at Shortcut (mile 59) went much better for it, so from my experience, I'd reccomend it. (A side note though, the difference in drop was only 3mm (8-11mm), but make sure you are comfortable with the switch before trying it in a race)

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  • stack height

    is this simply the distance off the ground your forefoot and heal are when wearing a shoe. shoes with different stack heights can have the same drop.

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  • 1. Lightweight is key. 0 drop bricks are still bricks. After I started running in Mizuno Universe ( 8 oz) shoes. Weight is relative, these are my categories.

    2. Toebox width is key. If my forefoot and toes are squeezed inwards, that is just as problematic as high heels. Most shoes are too narrow for me, including current version of Merrell TGs (which I otherwise like). The wider (EE) sizes in NB are great, wish everyone else offered wider widths.

    3. Drop is important, but only part of the recipe. If I go > 4 mm drop, I start getting knee, ITB, ankle, and PF problems (like the old days). I can only assume that the raised heel messes up my gait, but I definitely overpronate when in a high heel shoe. 0-3 mm is my preferred range.

    Looking forward to this year's crop of candidates.

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    • I mean < 5 oz for those Mizuno Universe. Don't know where the 8 came from ??

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    • 1. I agree after a certain weight, your body has to work too hard to pick up the shoe and strike efficiently, and your stride gets distorted.

      2. Natural flex of the toes is very important for forefoot runners. It's a tough issue for building uppers that move with forefoot but aren't too tight. There's some very good options out there today that straddle the line quite well.

      3. Everyone has too high of a drop, and that effect of interference in the arch/ankle definitely can come with those injuries. Similarly if you're not ready for a lower drop shoe, you can get injured in other ways.

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  • I'm finding that the 4 mm drop is a perfect compromise, and there are plenty of well cushioned as well as truly minimal options.

    I've noticed that certain knee injuries feel clearly better, for me, in the 4 mm than in 8 mm or higher shoes. (I've not liked the 0 mm shoe I tried because it strained my Achilles but maybe I just needed more time).

    For downhills, I've really liked a cushioned 4 mm shoe like the Saucony Cortana -even for trails- because it is flexible yet cushioned enough to bomb downhills, and feels very stable. On the other hand for uphills/flats I prefer a less cushioned shoe like the Inov-8 195.

    So the IDEAL shoe would morph from a cushioned flexible 4 mm shoe on downs into a minimal shoe for ups... Anyone know of one ;-) ?

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      • Thanks, Bryon, that looks like a good candidate. (As are the Salomon Sense and MT1010, I believe.)

        And great topic, you've been hitting it out of the park the last few! Especially appreciated the ITBS blog.

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        • Chris, I run in Salomons S-lab Sense Ultra and in Montrail Fluidflex...both 4mm drop, both very light and flexible. The Salomon is more protective and aggressive, the Montrail has a wider toe box and a softer midsole. I recommend both, the Salomon is better on technical terrain, the Montrail is more comfortable in the longer runs

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  • If I'm going long I usually like to have some drop and cushioning just so my legs don't feel too pulverized when I'm out on the long trail. If I'm going out for a shorter jaunt no more than 10-15k I prefer to go more minimal in terms of drop and cushioning as my legs don't seem to mind. The lower (not zero) drop, cushion and weight provide efficiency, stability and what feels like a truer connection to the run for my lower legs and feet.

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  • On roads I have to think about striking midfoot. When I run on trails I automatically run soley on my midfoot without any issues. I used to run in Xodus 2's, but I now run in Cascadias and PureGrits depending on the race length and terrain. I got caught up in the heel drop issue but came to the conclusion to run in what makes you comfortable, no matter the heel drop or amount of cushioning a shoe has. Just run!

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  • In the past several years I've enjoyed running in the La Sportiva Crosslites (originals) on trails and the Saucony Kinvara (4mm) on roads and this has all but cleared up a patella tendinitis I've had since the early 80's, probably from higher heeled shoes. The Crosslites only bother me in the forefoot (too narrow), so am now in search mode for a shoe that's similar to it in drop and cushion (barely none), but with a wider forefoot. Looking at the Inov-8 Roclite 295's and the NB MT110's. Any suggestions?

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    • Hi Steve,

      The 295's are a great shoe, but if you don't need that much lug on the sole (which is likely), you should try the Terrafly 303 or 313. Although they are a bit heavier, they are very fast shoes, even when compared to some of the 200g inov-8 models. The Terrafly forefoot has plenty of room.

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      • Thanks, Ben...at age 60 (but still competitive), I'm not so much concerned about weight as protection and comfort. I'll check these shoes out.

        Hope all is well back in New England!

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        • No problem. I think protection is underrated with respect to competition. We've been spoiled by perfect trail running conditions all winter here is southern NE, very odd!

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          • Ben, do you feel that you can cruise downhills as fast/comfortably in some of the less cushioned Inov-8 models (once you get used to them)?

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          • No, not on very technical and steep trails. I think I can, and it feels like I am running fast, but my watch doesn't lie. I am convinced that the feedback I get in Talons or F-lites makes it difficult to run as fast as I do in something like the 285 or the Terrafly's, at least in New England. At least part of the issue is most likely subconscious and difficult to both perceive and overcome. The key aspect to the cushioning is impact protection, especially in long races or on courses with intense downhills. If you are not an aggressive downhill runner, a more protective shoe may not provide any benefit. I know several people who love their Talons at Escarpment, but it's not protective enough to allow me to run at full speed on the downhills. Even if I can run as fast over a section technical trail in a pair of Talons, I definitely have to focus more on where I am putting my feet.

            The talons and the f-lites are very fast on fast terrain, and I wear my Talons at shorter less technical races and workouts all the time. I can see how runners in the Pacific Northwest run ultras in Talons given the terrain out there. Ironically, the f-lite's have more stone and root protection than the 190's or 212's due to the sole pattern, and the traction is better than most expect.

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          • New Trailroc 255 and 245 might be the perfect combination of low drop (6 and 3), some protection underfoot (especially the 255) and good traction without the aggressive lugs of the talon or roclite but still good traction.

            I'm currently loving both, Inov 8 is really making a big step forward with them.

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          • Ben, I've had the same experience (of being slower while feeling fast-oh well) on the steep technical stuff. On really fast non-technical descents, do you find the less cushioned shoes are as fast, but eventually more tiring?

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  • I think New Balance has really nailed it, although traction could still be a little better. I've settled on the 110s & Minimus for trails and the 730 for the roads and smooth trail. Good fit, wide forefoot, 4 mm drop (730 is 3mm), and some cushioning depending on model.

    I've run in LS Crosslite (original; nice shoe but a little narrow in the forefoot, even with mesh overlay cut off); Salomon Speedcross (too much heel, but great traction); Saucony Kinvara (poor fit and overly squishy), Peregrine (ok, but a little clunky), Hattori (good for road runs which I don't do much of).

    I've settled on the New Balance for all my running needs.

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    • Good to hear! The 730 is a great example of the increased demmand for minimalist shoes opening up more and more options for runners. The MR00 at 0 drop at 12/12 is pretty minimal, but the 730 at a 3mm drop at 16/13 gives just enough cushion and support to be used everyday by more runners while still giving a pretty authentic minimalist exeperience.

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      • I wish the speedcross has a low drop option, traction and warmth for winter running is awesome. Heel is insanely high.

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        • They do! It's called the Fellcross. Same as the Speedcross 3 CS, but with lower drop, I believe 6mm. Pricey though!

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  • In every other sportwhere human beings use equipment, we would say people were NUTS if they all expected to use the exact same gear... Golf clubs, baseball bats, bicycles, tennis racquets, and shoes for all of those sports... just to scratch the surface...

    Have you, Mr. 6' 4" tried skiing on your 5'2" wife's skis lately? Maybe we should all use the exact same prescription in our glasses?

    Yet, we are being told by (some) Advertisers there is a perfect drop for the one true stride.

    Long live a variety of drops for a variety of running styles. Please, Shoe Companies, keep making 0mm, 4mmm, 8mmm, AND 10mm, 12...etc.

    So that everyone can find the shoe (or lack thereof) that allows them to run pain free, all-day.

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    • The main goal for offering a greater variety of running shoes is to get more people into running. It used to be that if you gave 90% of new runner enough good cushion and support, they'd enjoy running enough to stick with it. Nowadays, minimalist running is like fixed gear bicycles: it's not about having an easier experience, but rather a biomechanically interesting experience for the human body. The increased sensation found running in minimalist running shoes is a good win-win that gives people what they want and has sold well.

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  • I think that there is a place for all drops. Sometimes to recover you may want that extra cushion to give certain muscles a break. The question ends up being and experiment of one, example: love my Altra Instincts for long runs, Newton Gravity for Performance Runs, and Hoka Mafate for recovery runs, all are 3-4mm drop. Thanks for putting out solid articles and reminding everyone that drop is not all its about its about whats going to keep you going and smiling.

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  • It's amazing the amount of adaptation my Achilles needed to just go from the traditional 12 mm to 9. For me, the 6-8mm range seems to be the sweet spot (for now).

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  • I got some Cascadia 6's a few months ago and my calves don't feel to happy.Should I switch back to a higher drop to give them a rest for a while or persevere (I like the 6's as they are super comfy)Any advice?

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    • Phil, the Cascadia is an 11mm drop shoe, so lack of drop is probably not the issue.

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      • Thanks for the advice I guess its back to the physio.

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  • First off, this is the best article about shoe I've seen on this site.

    I have dabbled in the 4-0 drop and find it hard to use a normally padded shoe because your foot seems to slide back and forth inside the shoe with each stride. Because of the minimal weight on most, there seems to be a lack of cushioning and padding to hold your mid-foot in place. The fabric the shoe is made out of usually fits like a glove and is exceptionally comfortable but lacks the taughtness of most shoes with a drop of 8 and up. Most of the higher drop shoes have a very good arch that compensates the free movement of your foot and prevents the sliding around.

    On another note with the sliding, is when heading down hill you toes seem to jam into the front of your shoes with the lack of the support.

    I admit I have a high arch so most other readers may be in complete disagreement with me.

    The only brands I have in the lower drop range are Hokas and La Sportiva.

    My feet slide in the Hokas due to the lack of forefoot flex and the La Sportiva's lack the good midfoot fit so my feet don't stay put going down hill and jam my toes into the top of the footbed of the shoe.

    I never have this problem with a higher drop shoe and just wonder if the fit of a higher drop is for me or is this a common problem with lower drop shoes?

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    • Thank you!

      The general trend you're seeing is that bigger soles have required more hearty upper materials to keep the sole attached. In the past, shoes like the Montrail Hardrock and North Face Ultra 105 had meaty overlays to keep the thick, stiff, tank-like soles attached to the foot. This generally contributed to gnarly blisters (commonly found in old ultra running horror story movies).

      The trend with minimalist shoes was to thin out everything, as less sole usually requires less upper. Admittedly, there was/is a disjunct in technology as thinning out a sole is much simpler than thinning out upper. This year though, some of the best uppers on minimalist shoes have been released. The MT110 is based on snug kangaroo leather soccer cleats that hug perfectly, and the Saucony Perregrine 2 is designed to fit much more precisely. I'd reccomend trying a few more brands to find that perfect combo, as the best sole in the world is worthless without a good upper.

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  • I run in my Bikilas anywhere from 3-8 miles 2-3 times a week. My other short runs are in the Minimus-road for some perceived feeling of recovery and I also use the Minimus-road for my long runs. On trails I strictly use the MT10s. I did invest in the MT110, which I am excited about, but I have to wait until I have fully recovered from a stress fracture to my metatarsal. But I must say that I have never enjoyed running until I slipped a pair of Nike Frees and ran in them on a short dirt road, been hooked since. it took me about 6 months to adapt to the Bikilas and another 4 months to build up the milage but boy do I love running in them.

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    • addendum: I must add that running in minimal footwear is NOT the cause of my injury but the lack of discipline in controlling my urge to run more milage.

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  • All of this reminds me of the root of human suffering...setting up a problem--by using the mind--where there actually is no problem in the first place. The foot is perfect the way it is. All cushion and all positive drop is ultimately for competition (go faster, go harder, go longer, avoid having to slow down). Anyone who says that their sweet spot is a positive drop shoe just hasn't learned to develop their sweet spot in a zero drop platform. The sweet spot is the same either way. Just like when go after spirituality by separating ourselves from spirit and then trying to grab it back through our own efforts. Our true nature is always there, no need to search for it, you just have to abide in it. Same as zero drop and positive drop...we create cushioned shoes and then try to re-find our foot health. If you go slow enough, abide within Awareness, and stop trying to find the sweet spot, then you'll find the sweet spot was always there to begin with. We have such a warrior mentality in this country, in spiritual matters and in ultrarunning. The zero drop movement should reduce arguments, but it seems to have caused so much controversy. Again, it's not about the sweet spot. Because if you go slow enough and let the foot adapt, it will find the sweet spot with zero drop shoes. All positive drop shoes are a means to an end (stronger faster longer), which is fine as long as we acknowledge it and don't try to convince ourselves that our feet are more suited for positive drop shoes.

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    • Completely agree.

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