High Drop or Zero Drop? How to Choose Shoes that Work for You
At a time when trail runners have supplanted stiff hiking boots, when zero-drop shoes have become the go-to footwear of long-distance hikers, how do you decide what’s best for your feet on your daily trail runs to a trek of several thousand miles?
First, a look at zero-drop trail runners. Fans say the flat soles mimic the natural style of barefoot walking and provide a more stable grip on the trail. The zero-drop Altra Lone Peak was the most popular trail runner on the AT in a 2018 Trek survey of thru-hikers, and the Lone Peaks are worn by countless hikers on other long-distance trails.
But zero-drop trail runners aren’t for everyone, and hikers who do go zero are advised to transition slowly from a high- to moderate-drop shoe to zero drop.
So what’s the difference between zero-drop trail runners and those with a drop of ten millimeters or more? And should you switch or stay with a higher drop?
The drop is the difference between the shoe’s height in the heel and the forefoot. The soles of the Lone Peak contact the ground from the heels to the balls of the feet, with no variation in height.
An 11-millimeter-drop shoe—such as the Salomon XA Pro 3D, number two in The Trek survey—has heels that are higher than the balls of the feet, with a gap between the midsole and the ground. The drop is measured by the difference between the 27-millimeter heel height and the 16-millimeter height at the ball of the feet.
Which drop is best for you? In many cases, it’s personal preference. In others, it depends on injuries you may have had or how your foot hits the ground.
Aggressive heel strikers—those who put their heels to the ground first when walking—and those with tight calves might want to stay in a higher-drop shoe of ten to 12 millimeters.
A shoe with a higher drop will be easier on the lower leg—foot, ankle, Achilles, calf—while directing more stress to the knees and hips.
Low to Zero Drop
Those who walk with their feet striking toward the mid- and forefoot can typically be comfortable with a shoe with a four-millimeter to zero drop.
The lower drop provides a more stable landing platform, along with better balance. And some research has indicated that zero drop shoes encourage wearers to stand straighter while walking.
People with chronic knee issues could benefit from a lower-drop shoe, which will move some impact forces off the knee to the lower leg.
What About Injuries?
Is a particular drop more likely to cause injuries?
Probably not. A study published in 2016 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine followed three groups of runners for six months who ran in identical brand shoes with drops of zero, six, and ten millimeters.
“Overall, injury risk was not modified by the drop of standard cushioned running shoes,” the study concluded.
It’s important to try out shoes of varying drops before setting out on a long-distance hike. If you’ve been wearing shoes with a high heel drop, the transition to low or zero drop shoes could take some time.
Let’s Ask the Experts
And if you’re still not sure which way to go with trail runners, The Trek turned for advice to two people who have helped countless hikers along the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. Our thanks to Rob Gasbarro of Outdoor 76 in Franklin and Cherokee, NC, and Clayton, GA, and Mary Scudder of 2 Foot Adventures, which has mobile shops along the Pacific Crest Trail in Warner Springs, Kennedy Meadows, and Etna, CA, for their insights into shoes for hikers.
What are the most common foot and shoe problems you see with hikers?
Rob: Shooting from the hip, the lowest number of issues are dermal (blisters, hot spots), followed by a range of knee issues. The largest grouping of foot problems are plantar and general posterior issues (Achilles, posterior tibula, arch pain). It gets overlooked but I personally don’t believe there are “shoe problems” on the trail. Many may disagree but it’s all about the lens you see it through. We have overuse problems. Shoes with low drops or higher levels of proprioception don’t cause problems—it’s the overuse. Kinda like the argument that guns don’t technically kill people—it’s the idiot pulling the trigger. Shoes don’t cause hikers injury. They may do less to mitigate ground reaction force or provide less stability, making the body work harder, but shoes don’t cause injuries. I’d bet the house that if hikers would reduce mileage significantly, we would not serve hikers at the capacity we do.
Mary: The #1 foot problem on the PCT is blisters. However, hikers on the PCT often experience more foot overuse injuries than on other trails because the trail is so walkable. The PCT was graded for pedestrian and equestrian use. Because of the gentle grade, hikers often walk too many miles too early in their hike and their pace is often greater than their body is ready to walk for that long. As a result many experience arch pain and Achilles pain in addition to many blisters. Many of the blisters are caused by the sand/fine dust that gets in your shoes and socks and by poorly fitted footwear.
Do you often tell hikers that a zero-drop shoe isn’t working for them? Or that they should switch from a high-drop to a zero-drop trail runner?
Rob: We do, but it’s not an “across the board” recommendation. I sell (eight) zero-drop shoes off my wall. I think they’re great—but not for everyone. Much in the same way a Porsche 911 may be a pure driver’s car but far from the ideal choice to make a cross-country road trip in for many people. An accustomed driver, however, may say that a 911 is what he/she wants to make the trip in—that’s an accustomed driver. Many others would be so uncomfortable that it’s inevitably not even enjoyable anymore and would probably be more apt to enjoy the trip in something better suited for a long haul. Everyone is different. This is an emphasis on the acclimation.The difference here is that we’re seeing a clear connection to injury—not just “discomfort.” Getting to the bottom of it (who should/shouldn’t be in them) is a process. I can tell you with zero doubt that I am exponentially busier since the surge in zero-drop popularity happened.
We tell people that there are four reasons the most popular zero-drop shoe sells to hikers… and only one is the right answer.
#1: They think it’s wide and the out-of-the-box fit seals the deal, while having no idea how different it really is in every other facet. The truth is, they aren’t wide. This is a clear indicator of a fitting problem for most people. The metatarsal head width on the Lone Peak is virtually identical to most other shoes on the market. It’s oblique and has a toe box that allows splay. That’s not width.
#2: It’s light. They see two trail runners, comparing it to the Brooks Cascadia. In their mind, they have (two) trail runners in front of them. The Cascadia may be 390g and the Lone Peak may be 360g. Hey, go lighter, right? They don’t realize how vastly different those two shoes are and that the alternative, although heavier, may be far more efficient overall. We’re not talking about six-ounce comparisons here. Grams on your feet are irrelevant if you’re not considering what else you’re getting… or not getting.
#3: When in Rome, do what the Romans do. It got crazy popular in the groups that completed thru-hikes. Chances are the #1 shoe on top of Katahdin will be the #1 shoe at Springer the next year. Most don’t realize that a crazy strong, properly developed foot will handle higher levels of proprioception than one that doesn’t. Many of the folks that summit in “the” shoe either didn’t start in it… or they acclimated properly. The mountains of Georgia and North Carolina are brutal for introducing your body to that kind of biomechanic environment.
#4: You once read a book called Born to Run and you just believe in the movement. Much in the way people choose to be vegan or paleo. They like it and see the health benefits as being important to them. Most zero-drop shoe brands build shoes for this market. It is what it is because of this belief. This is the category that belongs in zero-drop shoes. Most people don’t care—they just want to get to Maine and something led them to make an intuitive shoe purchase that landed them on a shoe that is not just a “shoe.”
Mary: No. I do not tell hikers that zero-drop shoes aren’t working for them. I see the same overuse injuries in non-zero-drop shoes as I do zero-drop ones. It is often not so much the zero drop vs. non-zero drop that isn’t working. It is often a case of too many miles too soon and the shape of their toe box that is not working for them.
We are all born barefoot with a semi-rectangular foot and as young as four years old our feet are being shaped and re-formed by the footwear that is chosen for us. When we walk long distances I believe it’s important for our feet to be as comfortable and functional as possible, which means restoring them to their original semi-rectangular foot shape so the great toe can provide the stability it was designed for. If the toes are being pushed into a pointed shape, as traditional runners and many boots do, over time this actually causes foot problems that have become mainstream today—plantar fasciitis, neuroma, bunions, etc.
Currently Altra is one of the very best companies producing shoes that mimic the natural foot shape that I believe is critical for many hikers to walk 2,600+ miles comfortably; they happen to be zero drop. The toe box on the Altra has resulted in the zero-drop shoes becoming a mainstay on the trails. Many doctors in natural podiatry also recommend Altra for this quality. The wide toe box, especially coupled with Injinji toe socks, helps improve natural foot splay.
Often hikers will place insoles in the zero-drop shoes to provide more support or stability. This allows them to benefit from the wide toe box while still receiving the support they believe they need.
DISCLAIMER: Until this year I sold exclusively zero-drop shoes. This year I have only one non-zero-drop shoe that I only sell to someone who requests it.
Do you see hikers whose shoes are too small or not wide enough?
Rob: Nine-tenths are too small. There’s a lot to this, though—way more than I can elaborate on here. Proper fitting is an algorithm. The old wives’ tale “Go a size bigger” is 100% bogus. There’s way more to it. For a vast majority, width is a size problem—not a width problem. Many of the big shoe manufacturers will be addressing this in the near future. If you’re wearing the wrong size shoe and the wrong-shaped shoe, you are almost certain to have a skewed perception of width. If you aren’t right on step #1, then step #2, #3, and #4 will be off. Most people simply don’t know their size. They get that wrong, then they chase what seems to make sense, but it’s ultimately a rabbit hole that leads to expensive choices that solve nothing.
Mary: Every single day! The number one problem I see with footwear on the trail is ill-fitting shoes. People are accustomed to shoes that are too small. Even when a hiker sizes up they typically aren’t sizing up enough. Feet swell a lot walking through the desert, covering big miles day after day with a backpack on so this should be accounted for.
Many hikers not already hiking in an Altra have shoes that are too narrow. This narrowness results in blisters between the toes and on the sides of the feet. Many people hiking in Altra end up with a shoe that isn’t long enough to accommodate their swollen feet.
How about hikers wearing boots. Do you see many who switch to trail runners after starting out with boots? Or who go from trail runners to boots?
Rob: No question. Boots are falling off shoe walls everywhere (in volume). They will always have relevance in outdoor specialty but not like ten years ago. The problem is that until recently, boots were boots and trail runners were trail runners… and hiking shoes were walking shoes made to look tough. Now, anything that comes over the malleolus (ankle) is a “boot” by default. However, there are lots of “boots” that come over the ankle and have virtually no bilateral stability and have really high proprioception. And then we have “trail runners” that are really boots that had the top three inches cut off and went on a diet. I’d argue that a La Sportiva Ultra Raptor or Salomon XA Pro are more “boots” than say a Keen Targhee Mid. But visually and perceptually, the market sees it the complete opposite. Boots get blasted for weight, whether they’re legit boots or not. It’s not like it used to be. The largest muscle groups on the human body pick a foot up off the ground, and they laugh at grams. However, the only way to make a shoe crazy light is to take things away from it. Sure, that shaves effort off the big muscles lifting the shoe, but now all the really small muscle groups responsible for managing stability and intrinsic foot posture have to work way harder. From our perspective, the chase for light weight has invited far more injuries than we ever saw in the boot days.
The problem is so much overlap in the spectrum of shoes on the wall and severe lack of technical service that most people just go off the old gut and either buy a boot thinking they need more support, when in actuality, they got a basic walking shoe that looks tough as nails, meanwhile passing over a shoe that appears to be a trail runner but has a boatload of technology built into it designed to keep a hiker’s foot going all day long.
Mary: The number of hikers choosing boots to start the PCT is dwindling. However, some still start with them and probably half of them switch to trail runners in the first couple hundred miles. A very small number of hikers who typically hike in boots but started the trail in trail runners will return to boots for the additional support and stability. However, hikers carrying lighter-weight backpacks almost never wear boots to begin or switch to them on their hike.
What is the most important foot and shoe advice you would give to hikers before they start their long-distance hike?
Rob: #1 is without a doubt slow down. We tell hikers on a daily basis that 15 years ago, pack weights were higher, shoes were bulkier and heavier, there was a tremendously shallower pool of resources than we have today, and as far as we all know, the attrition rate is virtually unchanged. Things have swung heavily in the hikers’ favor with no proportional increase in summits (percent of starts) that I’m aware of. The relevant nugget here is that long-distance hikers don’t see themselves as professional athletes, but they absolutely are in the truest sense. The laws of intensity, duration, recovery, and frequency apply to them just as much as an Ironman athlete, a cyclist prepping for the Tour de France, or a pro baseball player. None of those guys/girls go hard out of the gate—every one of them suffers psychologically to hold their competitive nature back, knowing that a hard start and/or overtraining is a recipe or an injury that ends it all. However, they do look at gear (footwear specifically) as “PEDs.”
Thinking, “Well, I was able to do ten miles a day in my old shoes, these new 325g shoes should let me knock out 12-13 a day.” Are shoes PEDs? Yes, they are. But the problem is that you can’t quantify the “E” (enhancement). What pro endurance athlete can get a 20% increase by replacing gear? Very few. Nike is patting themselves on the back for a Vaporfly that arguably improves performance by four percent. What’s four percent of a ten-mile day? If a hiker’s body can safely operate at ten miles a day for the beginning of the trail, everything above that puts their bodies in debt. Justifying huge mileage increases is 100% the biggest contribution to hike-ending injuries. Hikers should be looking at nurturing their most vital piece of gear—themselves. Way too much attention is put on the “stuff” and not the “self.” I see barefoot hikers kill it every year. They wear no shoes and do fine because they’re respecting their bodies with incredibly low miles to start. Unbeknownst to them, they’re developing and managing proprioceptors, stabilizers, and responsibly building a bulletproof foot.
Every northbound hiker who has seen Maine did so by exercising sound management and teaching their bodies to do a lot with a little (little food, little recovery) and eventually laid down miles that got their averages up. The kind of daily numbers we’re seeing now in the first 100 miles is mind-numbing. We advise a commitment to slow and steady days—and not for just the first week. Most probably need to treat the first month like the beginning, not the first three days. As long as a hiker’s shoes fit right and don’t cause circulatory, neuropathic, or dermal issues, it pretty much just comes down to being responsible with your body.
Mary: The most important advice I give hikers starting a long trail is:
1) Budget for two to three more pairs of shoes than you think you will need. This allows you the funds to find the shoe that’s right for you on trail and not keep you locked into a shoe that isn’t working. It also allows you to change shoes more often if needed to prevent a knee or foot problem from becoming an injury and ending the hike.
2) Start with shoes you think are too big. For the PCT, if the shoe doesn’t feel a bit big when starting the trail it’s going to be too small after some long, hot days in the desert.
3) For hikers who haven’t found their ideal shoe before the trail, quit stressing about it. Start with the exact shoe you have been training in. Often people who try to get the correct shoe size before the trail end up still needing new shoes in the first couple hundred miles anyway. So you waste less money if you just start the trail in a shoe you already have that may be nearing its end of life rather than throwing out a shoe that’s only got 100 miles on it. Feet change a lot in the first 100+ miles of the trail so be ready.
4) Self-care is really important! You’re asking a lot of your body when you walk 100 miles in a week and you’re used to ten to 35 miles. Use your trekking pole and rub it up and down on the back of your calf. Use your thumb or a massage ball to work out any knots. Massage your Achilles. Massage the top and bottom of your feet. Many injuries can be prevented by walking fewer miles starting out and spending time every day taking care of your feet.
Shoes are probably the most important gear choice you’ll make for your long-distance journey. Get fitted properly, give your footwear a proper breaking in, and don’t give up until your feet are comfortable. We at The Trek hope you’ve learned something from this story, and wish you smooth trails and pain-free feet on your trek across America.
Feature image courtesy Maggie Slepian.
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