Not all low heel to toe running shoes are created equal. Some have thick cushioning, whereas most have thin cushioning. Ideally, the best zero drop heel running shoes for forefoot running need to have the thinnest and least amount of cushioning, and here’s why.
Thick Cushioned Low Heel to Toe Drop Running Shoes No Metabolic Advantage
Increasing shoe cushion thickness leads to problems and not the other way around. While zero drop running shoes reduce mechanical errors, the metabolic cost of forefoot running increases with shoe cushion thickness.
Tung et al. found that cushion thickness greater than 10 mm did not reduce the metabolic cost of running, suggesting that thinner zero drop running shoes reduce energy demands. Hardin at el. also found that cushion thickness led to excessive dampening of impact by the body which negatively affected performance.
Surprisingly, the researchers found no differences in stride frequency and ground contact time between runners in thick cushioned running shoes and barefoot runners, whereas increased stride rate and reduced contact time have been reported in barefoot runners.
Your Feet Need to Feel Plantar Sensations from the Ground
The results imply that greater energy demands is the price we pay for thick cushioned zero drop running shoes. We know from an abundance of research that poor performance is heavily neuromuscular in origin. One would think that natural selection would have eliminated the genes that predispose to poor movement efficiency. However, work by barefoot proponents, such as Dr. Lieberman and Dr. Robbins, provides clues as to how performance setbacks has arisen in joggers who wear highly protective footwear.
Robbins and Gouw (1990) found a link between plantar sensations and muscular fatigue in shod runners:
- runners in thick cushioned running shoes had less plantar sensations.
- shoe cushioning reduces the instinctual ability to biomechanically reduce impact via reflexive shock-moderating behavior.
- muscular fatigue arises presumably because impaired-shock moderating behavior leads to inadequate adaptation and erratic landing behavior during running.
The most common consensus however, suggests that EVA foams and gels have no evolutionary backstory, which accounts for injury and poor performance persistence in most joggers. Because our ancestors ran barefoot, the plantar proprioceptors were under strong evolutionary pressure, implying that these proprioceptors are more essential to us in regulating metabolically optimal biomechanics as compared with shoe cushioning.
More on Why Less is More:
Hardin EC, van den Bogert AJ, Hamill J. Kinematic adaptations during running: effects of footwear, surface, and duration. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004;36(5):838–44.
Robbins SE and Gouw GJ. Athletic footwear and chronic overloading – a brief review. Sports Med,1990; 9(2):76-85.
Tung DK., Franz JR and Kram R. A test of the metabolic cost of cushioning hypothesis during unshod and shod running. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2013; 46(2):324-329.
BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.