Can You Heel Strike in Zero Drop Shoes?

When it comes to running, the last thing you want to do is heel strike in zero drop shoes, but when it comes to walking, you can absolutely heel strike in zero drop shoes without much worry of hurting yourself. This is because all-around impact levels are substantially much lower if you walk with a heel strike, however landing heel-first when running in a zero drop shoe will get you hurt fast, and therefore, don’t heel strike in zero drop shoes when you run. Here’s more on why:

Can You Heel Strike in Zero Drop Shoes?
Zero drop running shoes look sleek and fast and are fun to wear because their lightness also makes you feel zippy and peppy! This is especially true if you land forefoot-first as forefoot striking keeps stride mechanics in a healthy range, while allowing for smoother foot placements that prevent the kinds of impact linked to most ankle, shin, knee and hip injuries! However, running with a heel strike in zero drop shoes was found to increase heel pressure, the burst in collisional impact and joint loading beyond tolerance, making the foot and leg highly sensitive to injury.

A recent study found that heel strike running in zero drop shoes generated higher peak forces and heel pressures than heel strike running in the conventional running shoe which has thicker cushioning under the heel relative to the the front (toe-box) of the shoe, shown below:

The conventional running shoe typically has more cushioning under the heel than the toe-box. The extra under-heel padding is intended to absorb the excessive impact that naturally occurs when landing heel-first. What’s alarming though is research on impact mechanics verified that more impact is actually generated with more under-heel cushioning. This revelation is the reason foot strike pattern is a major focus in running because its been proven that the only way to heel strike safely is to switch to forefoot running as to date, no shoe has been able to effectively reduce the heel-strike impact, not even by 10%!

In the study, the group of heel strike runners in zero drop shoes produced a higher impact transient force (burst in high impact), greater impact loading, and struck the ground with a more dorsiflexed foot (greater toe-lift upon foot strike), which produced a greater downward force of the heel on the ground.

  • A dorsiflexed foot at landing (shown below) is a hallmark feature of heel strike running where the toes lift up (curl back) to allow initial heel contact of the foot with the ground. Pulling the toes back upon landing was found to strain the connective tissues of the lower tibia (shin) and over time results in shin splints.
Can You Heel Strike in Zero Drop Shoes?
More foot dorsiflexion at landing means the front of the foot pulls back to allow heel strike, but this not only over-strains the muscles lining the shins, it also causes too much stop and go for an unusually prolonged time that is more force-intensive than landing forefoot-first, which naturally engages less foot dorsiflexion and therefore heel-pounding is greatly reduced.

  • Heel striking produces an impact transient force which is a distinctive burst in collisional impact that is completely absent in a forefoot strike landing. The burst in collisional impact is strongly linked to many running injuries, particularly shin fractures and runner’s knee,  and, as running speed increases, so does the impact transient.

The right answer to running properly in zero drop shoes is to avoid heel striking and make sure you land with a forefoot strike because impact generation directly depends on how your foot lands on the ground. In fact, the purpose of zero drop shoes, also known as minimalist or barefoot shoes, is to help improve your forefoot strike accuracy, while the unrestrictive fit and wide toe-box provides all the space and flexibility your foot needs to stay functionally strong and more tolerant to harder training.

Can You Heel Strike in Zero Drop Shoes?
Zero drop shoes are a more sustainable solution for optimizing your forefoot running form whereby the flat sole helps you leverage a proper forefoot strike landing that drives down damaging impacts, while driving up the energy efficiency of the arch of the foot and the Achilles tendon. More on that here!

Furthermore, the thin sole allows you to feel the ground more fully, which improves nerve feedback and strengthens connections between nerves, while allowing the sensation of tactile pressure to be communicated more direct to the brain’s motor area. All of this allows you to be better at upholding safe and efficient forefoot running mechanics. All in all, heightened ground-feel leads to a more fast pace change in building stronger mechanics at every level, especially the knee, while making your feet strong enough to deter most injuries.

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In that light, here are more evidence-backed reasons zero drop running shoes will help you run better when you race in regular running shoes.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, you’ll love my YouTube channel, here, where I show why forefoot running really works!

Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

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.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!