Many of the popular “running” shoes on the market have around a 10 mm drop from heel to toe. Although small in the grand scheme of things, this 10 mm drop can have huge implications. This elevation of the heel from the forefoot shifts your body’s center of mass forward. As a result, your body instinctively and subconsciously has to put on its brakes to some extent in order to prevent you from falling forward.
Now it’s often said that gait itself, especially running, is really just a controlled act of falling forward. While there is some truth to this notion, ambulation is really about controlling the forces of gravity and using momentum efficiently. Elevating your heel from the ground with every step shifts your body out of the natural alignment that empowers you to handle gravity effectively and maximally utilize momentum without unnecessary effort throughout the gait and running cycles.
A heel-to-toe drop pre-shortens your calf muscles and Achilles tendon, decreasing their ability to store elastic energy, which is necessary for optimal forward propulsion. It pushes your knee forward and hip back, both into excessive flexion. This limits the amount of hip and big toe extension you can attain for a productive push off.
If we can’t get into these propulsive mechanisms, it is as if we are driving with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake! We’re moving forward, but not as quickly or efficiently as we would like. And when driving in this manner, we can expect the parts to wear faster. The engine has to work harder to overcome the brakes, and eventually both break down sooner because they have both been over-stressed. Your body is more adaptable than a car, so it can figure out how to compensate longer than the automobile, but eventually it all catches up to you!
So what can you do?
First step: Spend more time barefoot! This will allow your body to become more comfortable again in natural alignment and movement. Start small, and gradually build up your body’s tolerance.
Second step: Invest in your footwear. Now, ideally you get something that is zero drop, meaning the heel and toes are on a level playing field. However, if you, like many people, have been walking around in a 10 mm drop shoe (if you have a major brand marketed “running shoe” chances are high that the drop is around here), then immediately switching to zero drop may be too much too soon. Gradually progressing your way back to the ground is always recommended. Look up the specifications on your current shoe (usually simple with a Google search, but some information may be more hidden than others), and search for something new that is 3-5 mm less of a drop than your current shoes. Then, in a few months, progress another 3-5 mm until at zero drop.
Also, many people assume that zero drop means minimal cushion, but this is not true. Cushion is another aspect of shoes that deserves it’s own blog. For the sake of this post, we are simply referring to the height of the heel relative to the toe. Ultimately, a shoe can have a zero drop with a varying amount of cushion. When initially transitioning, feel free to try to match the amount of cushion in your current footwear. Changing one aspect of the shoe at a time will give your body a better opportunity to adjust and accommodate to the new norm!
A few great options for shoe brands that are zero drop include: Altra Running, Lems, Feel Grounds, Xero Shoes, and Vivobarefoot (roughly ordered from more to less cushion options).
Here are a few transition shoe options (aka brands that tend to be in the 3-6 mm drop range): Hoka, On Clouds, Newton, most training shoes like No Bull and Reebok Nanos.
Disclaimer: Injuries add complexity to the footwear equation, so if you have questions about a particular injury, consult with your healthcare provider. Or, just reach out to us at ProForm Physical Therapy to learn more!