"Zero drop" does not equal "minimalist" let alone "barefoot" shoes - Xero Shoes

“Zero drop” does not equal “minimalist” let alone “barefoot” shoes

Let the buzz-words begin!

As shoe companies look to establish themselves in the minimalist market (because estimates predict that barefoot running shoes will be a $500 million business this year), the language that they use to establish their minimalist credentials starts to standardize. If they don’t use similar language to describe their new products, you won’t:

a) Know that their shoe is minimalist

b) Have a way to compare their barefoot running shoe to another

So what’s the big buzz-word of the day?

Zero Drop (sometimes “zero differential”)

What “zero drop” refers to is the difference in height between the heel and the ball of the foot.

In essence, shoe companies are admitting that putting you in a high heel running shoe is unnatural, but having your foot flat is natural.

Sounds good so far, yes?

In fact, it is… until you start looking at the shoes themselves.

The first thing you’ll notice is that many of these “barefoot” style shoes still have a HUGE amount of padding between your foot and the ground.

Take a look at the Newton shoe, for example. Not only does it have a bunch of padding, but it has a high-tech trampoline under the ball of your foot. With all this padding and all this technology, Newton refers to themselves as a “natural movement” product. I’ve been on a barefoot running panel with Newton and heard them say of their $150-200 shoes, “they’re the closest thing you can get to barefoot.” I then hold up the 4mm thick flexible rubber sole we use for Invisible Shoes and say, “Oh? Really?”

Ditto with the new Inov-8 and many other “minimalist” shoes. In fact that shoe, zero drop and all, has another feature that amazed me: between the ball of the foot and the back of the heel is a hard plastic plate that makes 2/3 of the shoe totally inflexible.

Yes, they’re lightweight, and have zero drop… but it’s not “barefoot” and it’s only arguably minimalist.

Another thing to look at it “toe spring”. If you put a shoe on the ground, the amount that the toe rises from the ground is the toe spring.

Look at your foot on the ground? Are your toes floating in the air? Of course not. So what’s with the toe spring on these minimalist shoes?

First, it’s one way to create zero drop. Instead of having a high heel, just raise the toes until they’re at the same height as the heel. Voila! Zero drop!

Toe spring also can cause you to roll onto the ball of your foot or onto your toes in an unnatural way. Suffice it to say, toe spring is not natural, let alone minimalist.

(Actually there’s one instance where toe spring is natural: if it holds the sole to your foot when your toes are dorsiflexed, but doesn’t actually provide support when they hit the ground.)

I was interviewed for a recent issue of Footwear Insight magazine and, when asked about all the minimalist products, I responded, “Everyone’s starting to use the same language to describe products that don’t actually deliver what that language promises. My concern is that people will get what they think is a minimalist or natural product, actually get something that’s far-from-minimalist and eons-from-natural, have a bad experience, and be turned off of the whole idea before they get the chance to try the real deal.”

I hope this helps you become un-fool-able and immune to hype from everyone who’s trying to get their dog in this fight. Just because it’s “zero drop”  doesn’t mean it’s a barefoot shoe, or even a minimalist shoe.

  • http://bit.ly/pe-lado Erik Neves

    I’m trying to convince people I know to go really barefoot and only use the most minimal shoe they can only when protection is needed. Then they go and buy Newtons, Sauconys, New Balances and ask me what I think. It’s hard to be nice at people sometimes… ;)

    This is a true slogan: “You can’t get any more minimal than an Invisible Shoe!”®

    On a side note: I hate having to say “really barefoot” nowadays. Barefoot has always been “really barefoot” up until someone came with the nonsensical idea of “barefoot shoes”.

  • Troy F

    What is your take on the New Balance “minimus” line? Seems like they are one of the few who actually are making an attempt at doing it right even if it’s not all the way on the mark. Also seems like everyone is glossing over the fact that there have been “zero drop” shoes for years in the XC market. Hmmm…

  • http://www.runningpoint.org derek

    Awesome article, seems like we were just discussing this. I agree completely and just today got back into my Invisible Shoes and fell i n love all over again. Wrote a little piece on our website about it. Keep up the great work and we will keep telling everyone we can that you have made the greatest running shoe in a long time!!

  • tominator

    Steve: Great post. Thanks.

    Love the invisible shoe of course. But I’m still struggling with what I run to train and run for the marathon. I never got the distance up in the invisible shoes and so I would run short training runs in them and do the long marathon runs in Newtons.

    Well, my doc said people are getting stress fractures in the metatarsals from the Newtons because they concentrate too much weight on too specific areas (around the lugs). Sure enough, I felt an ache starting there as well. (Maybe psycho-somatic?)

    Anyway, what do I run 20 miles in? Or do I just chuck shoes and build it up in the invisible shoe? Anyone else struggling with this issue?

    Other day I worked a 50 K race and saw a women in the VFF so I guess it can be done.

  • http://Youtube.com/Karateee Jason

    Great article,
    I hope that people will eventually seek out the truth and realize Kinda,sorta, minimalist is not really minimalist. Eventually, I hope that a rising tide will lift all ships and people will seek out a true minimalist shoe, Invisible shoes still in my opinion is the pinnical of minimalist movement.


  • http://www.kigofootwear.com Rachelle

    This is a GREAT point. Interestingly, it seems like it’s us ‘little guys’ who are striving to do it truly minimalist. Thanks for your articulate thoughts on the matter.

  • Ed

    I found this website based on the premise of “Why would I pay $120 for “minimal” shoes?” I had bought a pair of water sock type things at a big box store, and they did fine protecting my feet with no support, cushion, etc. Only they couldn’t handle the stress of running and tore out. So I’m looking, so far I like the invisible shoe/huarache best.

    I started barefoot/minimalist running this year when my knee told me that I could not continue as I had been. Running with no cushion or support (and lots of stretching) seem to be the answer for me.

    Thank you for the straight scoop

  • http://trailrockrunner.blogspot.com mark

    Steve, great post on the marketing scams that are proliferating the running community.

    I ran in my zero drop shoes today-my bare feet.

    Depending on the running terrain, I often carry or wear my huaraches. Earlier this week, I was running a some fire roads and trails in the east bay hills and I needed the padding of the huaraches. This morning, I was running on a nice crushed gravel levy road and I needed the harder bottom of the Evos.

    I hope that Invisible shoes will come out with a thicker sole product that can take the gravel and rocks of trail running.

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  • http://borealpress.com Loretta

    Word. If “zero drop” is the only criteria for minimalist, then Skechers Shape-ups and other weird torture instruments could qualify.

    Really, the only way to find out whether a shoe is really minimalist is to do enough barefoot running to know how it feels, then go to a running store and try on a lot of shoes – and actually run in them. Don’t wear socks, either – even a very thin running sock will put just enough roll in your foot strike to give you the wrong impression of the shoe.

    Someone asked about the NB Minimus above. I bought the Trail and am happy with it. It really doesn’t put much material between my foot and the ground, and of all the shoes I tried, my foot strike is the most natural in it in terms of flex in the front and no roll in the back. I didn’t try the VFF because I didn’t want my toes artificially separated, but I looked at the soles of the Minimus next to the VFF and they looked similar.

    People make much of the 4mm drop in the Minimus, but I really couldn’t feel it. The Altra Instinct is a zero drop shoe, but the sole is thicker than the Minimus so it feels less natural.

    Huaraches or barefoot are still the best, but I like the Minimus a lot.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/zenkahuna Rocannon

    I’m with you Steven. When I look at what some of the people I know are showing me as minimalist running shoes is laughable. Since buying your simple huarachesl I have made two additional pair for myself from leather with hemp cord for laces. Love ‘em and talk about minimalist. And my feet have never felt better. I can hardly stand to wear my Teva sandals any more.

    I always run barefoot for as long as it feels “good” and then pull out my huaraches and keep on going.

    So thanks for you ongoing support for those of us that truly like to keep it minimal.

  • Kirk

    I am not a fan of the toe spring in the NB Minimus Trail. My toes were sore in a new way on the first 10+ mile run I did in them. Towards the end of the run I could feel my toes laboring against the toe spring.

    • Steven

      I have a similar thing with the Terra Plana Vivobarefoot shoes… the extra toe spring dorsiflexed my toes in a way that was quite uncomfortable

  • http://Altrarunning.com Jeremy

    The interest in both Zero Drop as well as minimalist, which I admit are two different things, is a great thing in the marketplace to help runners to run better and more efficiently. As the company that invented the term we have worked to educate that Zero Drop is an exact 1 to 1 ratio, not minimal or even minimal drop, but NO drop. The Instinct is positioned as a Zero Drop natural running shoe for the masses. It is a cushioned shoe for those that want some barefoot benefits without sacrificing the cushion they want for longer runs before their feet are strong enough to go minimalist. We see it as a gateway drug for minimalist or barefoot running. The Adam as well as Invisible shoes are great for the minimalist consumer.

    • Steven

      Hey, Jeremy… I’ve wondered if you were happy that the industry has adopted your term, Zero Drop. And while Zero Drop and minimalist *are* different things, I’m sure you see that most companies are conflating the two, as well as calling “zero drop + 2″ of EVA padding” equivalent to “natural” which, clearly, it isn’t. Good luck with Altra!

  • http://chris-losing-it.blogspot.com/ Chris

    I actually saw a runners blog giving away a pair of the sketchers shape ups and touting those as a minimalist shoe…. I didn’t even know what to say and just closed that site.

    I have been wearing nothing but five fingers and now invisible shoes since labor day except for a week trial of the merrel trail gloves. My reason for switching to minimalist shoes is medical namely 12+ years of constant back pain no doctor, chiropractor, or physical therapist could relieve. Five fingers did though! When I tried the Merrel the toe box did not have the same sole thickness so when my foot would slid forward in the shoe the back pain would come back.

  • Randy Kreill., Beavercreek OH

    People are social creatures and tend to follow others like sheep much of the time. The big shoe makers with their aggressive marketing budgets are going to buy a spot in runner’s minds. Each step towards “Less is More” is progress, but I wish you luck speeding up the learning curve for as many people as possible.

    Most of us who understand how right you are about this topic, are the contrarians…the minority by about 10 to 1 or better.

    At a small 50K run recently, I counted about 10% of the entrants wearing what I would consider decent minimalist shoes. That was encouraging. The “ultra” endurance folks and triathletes seem to be on board more than the marathon and shorter distance crowds.

    I wonder how many of the 90%+ crowd still wearing overbuilt, overpriced, overdesigned “crap” that makes their feet “stupid” will consider something simpler, as well as far more affordable near term and long term?

    I’ve only had my 4MM huaraches since early October, but I’m already running further and faster since day one in them. They are fun to run in. I enjoy the sound from each foot tap, as well as the overall feel. Interesting to me that the lack of design encourages picking up the feet, while almost any other shoe makes it easier to shuffle along and push from the ground. Huaraches aren’t for lazy running form.

    I’ve been pleasantly surprised how the feel of the lacing disappears quickly, giving this user the open air feel of having a thin strip of skin protection floating under foot.

    As it gets colder here, I’m finding that Injini Wool Toe socks work well. With low rise black socks and Invisible “Shoes”, I’m a Tarahumara inspired running fashion trend setter. Ha, more like a Born To Run inspired run geek. Doubt I’ll ever adopt the bright colored Tarahumara capes and skirt-like shorts.

    The only risk for me is avoiding injuries from over use in these fun to wear “un” shoes.

    Randy Kreill
    Beavercreek, OH

  • Steve

    I don’t get this obsession with ‘minimalist,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘barefoot’ just for the sake of being part of some club. As long as I’m midfoot-striking, how is cushioning a bad thing? It sounds like the toe spring issue is personal preference.

    • Steven

      I’m not sure that people are doing barefoot/minimalist just to be “part of a club.” And, you’re correct, form is the most important issue. If your form is good in whatever footwear you have, then, great. The problem with toe-spring, though, is that it can alter the mechanics of your plantar fascia and of the toes themselves — if you “pre-stretch” by having your toes dorsiflexed for you with toe spring, you can lose the elastic potential that comes with eccentric contraction (this is the principal behind plyometrics).

  • Go

    If you have only used minimalist shoes from childhood on and never got accustomed to running shoes, I suppose you might be right in minimalist shoes. The types without build in features to “improve” your gait or efficiency I’d say.
    If you spent decades in running shoes, you really need the bare soles of your feet to relearn the natural running posture and gait. Minimalist shoes do only half the job. More over, the types that are padded prevent your feet regaining their strength. So barefoot and zero drop are as different as barefoot and shod. Bare feet exist, barefoot shoes don’t.

  • http://www.firwoodhouse.co.uk Beth

    As someone just starting out on the barefoot journey after breaking my ankle in 4 places, I was very confused over the terminology used for shoes. I couldn’t get my head around ‘barefoot shoes’ a contradiction in terms. I had a pair of your huaraches delivered just before Christmas – yet to be made up but am enjoying the sensation of carefully going really barefoot on our cold, gritty and mucky very rural roads! It’s a pity the big shoe companies have to muddy the waters, they nearly put me off before I had started.

  • andrew


    I’ve had a pair of the NB minimas trails for ~8 months now, and they’re OK.

    They have a fair amount of padding (3/16 inch), but no drop.

    They were my first pair of natural shoes, and were a good transition from the “high-heeled-wide-soled-trampolines” that I had been wearing.

    Now, I don’t wear them, I usually wear my Invisibles or no shoes at all.

    After going invisible, the NB’s feel pretty soft, but not awful. They’re not as flexible as I would like, but I’m picky.

    After about 50 miles, the shoes should be registered as deadly weapons. They STINK. Mine are at about 250 miles + just wearing around the house, so you can imagine the odor…

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