The Best Zero
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The Best Zero

Jul 01, 2023

Plus, here’s exactly what “zero drop” means in the first place, and why you might want this shoe style in your closet.

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Shape / Kristin Kempa

To adventurists, “zero drop” may sound like a new ski trail rating. And to musicians and ravers, it may sound like an insult for DJs. But on the shoe front, zero-drop names a category of footwear that is level from toes-to-arch, arch-to-heel.

“Zero drop shoes are shoes that have the same sole thickness from the heel to the toe, and therefore have no elevation,” explains Alissa Kuizinas, M.D., a virtual podiatrist and ankle wellness specialist. Indeed, if you held a protractor against the shoe, you’d see that there is no angle at all between either end of the shoe.

It may seem pretty ‘duh’ that zero-drop shoes are different from platforms, pumps, or stilettos. But actually, zero-drop shoes are different from most of the supposedly “flat” sneakers, work shoes, or boots in your closet, too. These days, most shoes on the market have some kind of heel drop, which put your heels (at least) a smidge higher than your toes, Dr. Kuizinas explains. Most gym trainers have a 5mm to 7mm heel drop, for example, while many running shoes have a 10mm heel drop.

“The benefit of zero-drop shoes compared to shoes with a heel drop is that they allow your foot to function and move from its natural position— which means you’re walking or moving as efficiently as possible,” explains Dr. Kuizinas. Zero drop shoes also spread your weight evenly across your heel and forefoot, rather than having increased pressure along the ball of your foot, she says.

Over time, this helps build strength more evenly across the lower leg and foot muscles, which helps reduce strain on the knee and hip. “Compared to shoes with a heel drop, zero drop shoes also definitely promote more ankle mobility as they allow your ankle to utilize its full range of motion and therefore the full power of your muscles and tendons,” she adds.

Stronger feet? Less knee and hip pain? More mobile ankles? Greater power for running and lifting? Sign us up. Ahead, a round-up of the best zero-drop shoes across 9 different categories.


Why We Like It: Great for trail running, hiking, and off-road roaming, the Xero Mesa Trail II is the ultimate adventure buddy. It's Worth Noting: The toe-box is intentionally wide to allow your toes to spread and grip the ground. It may be too wide for folks with narrow feet.

If you’re running on rocks or rubble, dog-walking on dirt, or petering up peaks, the Mesa Trail II are the best zero-drop shoes for you.

The sole is made from Xero’s patented FeelTrue™ sole, which uses 3.5mm lugs (AKA terrain huggers) for optimal traction, as well as comfort. This grippy foam keeps you steady while you scamper, as well as protects your bottom foot from the sharp edges of gravel, roots, and other ~earthly happenings~.

Weighing in at under 7 ounces (for all sizes), the Mesa Trail II is also more lightweight than most other trail shoes and hikers on the market — zero drop and otherwise. In addition to offering greater overall comfort to you, the wearer, this means you can trust that your feet won’t overheat even when your top half is dripping sweat.

Oh, and the shoe comes highly recommended by someone who knows shoes: Christopher McDougall, the bestselling author of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (which, in case it’s still in your TBR pile, includes a ton of helpful info on the benefits of running in minimalist, “barefoot” shoes). “The first time I wore Mesa 11s, I ran ten miles of trails and waded two creeks before arriving home and forgetting I had them on,” he says. “That’s how rugged they are, yet comfortable.”

Price at time of publishing: $120

Sizes: 5-12 | Colors: 4 | Available in wide: No | Activity: Trail runner


Why We Like It: The outsole is grippy and secure, while the upper is mesh and breathable.

It's Worth Noting: Merrell recommends ordering a half a size smaller than your usual size.

The outdoor world knows that no brand makes shoes that support your adventures quite like Merrell. Cutting-edge, comfortable, and chic, Merrell’s shoes are tops for terrains of all different kinds. So it should come as no surprise that at least one of their zero-drop shoes makes the list.

Their most minimalist shoe to date, the Merrell Women’s Vapor Glove has a Vibram® EcoStep outsole that wraps the foot to maximize grip and connection and a breathable mesh upper to keep feet cool. Just 5.29 ounces, the shoe is lightweight — but its weightlessness doesn’t interfere with its ability to protect your foot. Fact is, the outsole is indestructible against tar, track, or trail matter.

While the shoe is marketed primarily as a trail runner, this $100.00 pair can also be worn during CrossFit, rowing, and other bootcamp classes. Personally, we love donning these during multi-movement strength and plyometrics circuits because the grippy outsole helps us grip the plyometric box while the wide toe box enables us to grip the ground for additional stability.

Price at time of publishing: $100

Sizes: 5-11 | Colors: 5 | Available in wide: No | Activity: Trail running, road running, walking


Why We Like It: Built for strength and cross-training, these shoes are both sturdy and flexible.

It's Worth Noting: If you’re used to traditional strength trainers, this lighter-weight option will be an adjustment.

PSA: When you strength train you do not need — nor benefit from — cushioned arch support, explains Mark Cucuzzella, M.D., who has designed running programs for the U.S. Air Force.

Actually, a cushioned insole can impede your ability to properly grip the ground with your entire foot the way that strength training with sound form demands. The foam impedes your foot's ability to make contact with, and then properly press into the floor for additional power, explains Dr. Cucuzzella — that's why most strength training shoes are not cushioned, he says.

Unfortunately, most strength training shoes today still have some heel drop. “Having your full foot closer to the ground, as you do with zero-drop shoes, can help improve your sense of balance,” says Dr. Cucuzzella. Plus, the zero drop allows you to use all 100 of the muscles in your feet for support, power, and strength.

The gold medal strength training zero drop shoe is the Altra Running Women’s Solstice XT 2. Designed for the road, machines, and lifting platforms, this shoe is the best of all worlds. The outsole is made from the brand's signature athletic rubber while the midsole features flexible-yet-durable innerflex™ grooves that allow your foot to flex naturally.

At just 8 ounces, the shoe itself weighs more than other zero-drop shoes on this list. Plus, it features a wide toe box that allows you to splay your toes for additional support and lower-body activation, which increases your ability to access your own strength. The result? You lift heavier, which over time improves your overall strength and muscular endurance.

Price at time of publishing: $130

Sizes: 5.5-12 | Colors: 2 | Available in wide: No | Activity: Cross training, weightlifting, powerlifting, CrossFit


Why We Like It: More cushioned than most zero-drop shoes, you’ll feel like you’re gliding through the streets when you lace-up your Paradigm 6.

It's Worth Noting: The shoe fits slightly small. If you are between two sizes, size up.

At first glance, these zero-drop shoes from Altra look like the oh-so-cushioned and ever-so-popular Hokas. But the reason that these shoes are so, well, tall isn’t because they have a heel drop — it’s because the entirety of the foot sits 30 mm above the ground. Indeed, these shoes are zero-drop without being a barefoot shoe, which is a pro for runners who like to feel like they are floating.

Made in collaboration with two-time Olympian Kara Goucher, the Paradigm 6 is designed with comfort in mind. The Balanced Cushioning™ platform helps encourage better alignment and form, so that certain parts of your feet aren’t under more duress and strain than others.

Meanwhile, the midsole is made from Altra’s patented EGO™ Max midsole foam, which gives you all the bounce and cushion you crave when logging mile after mile. But, a lightweight foam, the shoe itself won’t weigh you down while you’re chasing PRs and the podium.

Price at time of publishing: $170

Sizes: 5.5-12 | Colors: 9 | Available in wide: No | Activity: Running

Be Lenka

Why We Like It: The unique TrailGrip sole makes it easy for adventurers’ feet to grip onto mountain trails.

It's Worth Noting: The shoe is made from leather, which means they take longer to break in.

The Be Lenka Trailwalker may look like a rock climbing shoe, but true to its name it’s designed for trail walking, forest hikes, and dirt-path dog walking.

A durable rubber outsole wraps around the entirety of the shoe, protecting the bottom and side of your food from outdoor soot and debris. Meanwhile, the upper is made from a combination of premium leather and rubber. (Yes, the leather is water-resistant.)

At the tail of each shoe are hooks, so you can easily attach them to your backpack or fanny pack. When you first start wearing zero-drop shoes, most experts recommend gradually phasing them into your wardrobe to give your under-utilized foot muscles time to adapt and get stronger. So, the ability to easily attach them to your sack is useful, especially in the early days of zero-drop wear.

Price at time of publishing: $125.30

Sizes: 36-47 | Colors: 6 | Available in wide: Yes | Activity: Trail walking


Why We Like It: This water-resistant shoe will grip even the wettest, slippiest of grounds.

It's Worth Noting: This shoe fits small, so the brand recommends moving one size up.

Do you like to run in the rain? Do you have narrow feet? If you answered ‘YES’ to both of these questions, then you should look into Vivobarefoot Primus Trail III All Weather.

The most durable zero-drop shoe on the list, these feature a firm ground outsole that hugs the ground — even on wet and rainy days. Meanwhile, the insole is a special insole called an Active Ortholite Performance Insole, which is made of 98 percent recycled PU foam. There is also a snug collar fit that you can lace up to keep grit and debris out.

Good to know: Vivobarefoot is so confident that after experiencing the joys of “natural foot freedom,” you and your feet won't want to go back to “normal” shoes. The brand is so confident, in fact, that it’s introduced a 100-day trial to all orders. Change your mind before that and you’ll be able to return hassle-free for a full refund.

Price at time of publishing: $190

Sizes: 5.5-11.5 | Colors: 3 | Available in wide: No | Activity: Trail running, outdoor walking, and hiking


Why We Like It: These sleek oxfords make zero-drop comfort accessible to worker bees and world travelers.

It's Worth Noting: The sole is thin, but the puncture-resistant finish helps protect your feet therein.

Looking for a zero-drop shoe to wear when you’re bopping about the mall, going to the movies, or heading on a date? The VivoBarefoot RA II women’s Oxford shoe is a good option. Visually the love-child of Clarks and Vans, these lightweight-leather lace-up shoes feature an ultra-thin sole that allows you to grip the ground while you move and groove.

City-dwellers, take comfort: While the sole is thin, it has something called a Pro5 Puncture Resistant finish which helps keep city slush and soot from hurting your feet.

One of the best parts of the shoe is how flexible they are. Not only does this mean that your feet can flex naturally when you wear them, it also means the shoe is very (very!) easy to fit into your luggage. Assuming you have experience with zero-drop shoes, these are the perfect travel shoes. (Personally, these are the shoes we like to wear on travel days.

Price at time of publishing: $119

Sizes: 5.5-11.5 | Colors: 3 | Available in wide: No | Activity: Casual

Lems Shoes

Why We Like It: Waterproof and well-cushioned, these zero-drop hiking boots are the perfect adventure companion.

It's Worth Noting: The boots require a smidge of break-in time. Plan accordingly.

Made by Lems, a company out of the (unofficial) hiking capital of the world, Boulder, CO, the Primal Pursuit Mid Waterproof Hiking Boot is a great option for hiking whether the ground is slush and sludge, dirt and debris, puddles and ponds.

The upper is crafted from a breathable waterproof membrane, the insole is a waterproof membrane, and the outsole is waterproof rubber. Together, these materials work together to create a fully waterproof hiker that keeps your foot nice and warm inside.

Not only will your dogs stay dry on wet and rainy days, but you’ll stay attached to the trail underfoot. The outsole uses a combination of recessed grooves and singular lugs to give you the traction you need for any sticky or soggy situation.

Price at time of publishing: $145

Sizes: 6.5-11 | Colors: 2 | Available in wide: Yes | Activity: Hiking


Why We Like It: These trail runners break away from traditional (read: boring) trail shoe colors.

It's Worth Noting: This trail runner is not waterproof, so you’ll want to wait until the trail is dry to take these puppies for a spin.

In one word, these zero-drop trail runners by Altra Running are: grippy. The outsole is an upgraded version of the company's signature MaxTrac™ outsole, which helps you stick to the trail underneath, so you don’t have to worry about slipping and sliding up or down whatever mountain you’re scaling.

Meanwhile, the Altra EGO™ midsole cradles your foot in comfort, without impeding its natural flex and responsiveness. This freedom allows you to access the strength within your feet more easily, as well as reduces the risk of foot soreness that accompanies unnatural foot positioning.

Best part? You don’t have to sacrifice style for the sake of a zero-drop construction. The Altra Running Women’s Lone Peak 7 is currently available in eight different colors.

Price at time of publishing: $150

Sizes: 5.5-12 | Colors: 8 | Available in wide: No | Activity: Trail Running

Zero-drop shoes are good for your bod, head-to-toe. Like, really good.

“People who constantly wear shoes with a heel drop can develop short, tightened calf muscles, decreased range of motion in the ankle and big toe joints, diminished push-off strength from the calf and leg musculature, and increased pressure to the ball of the foot which leads to pain and weakness of the soft tissue structures,” says Dr. Kuizinas.

Switching to zero-drop shoes, she says, is an excellent tool for undoing some of those issues and in turn reducing pain, improving mobility and balance, improving your overall movement patterns, and even preventing knee, hip, and foot injury.

In one word: Gradually!

“If you’ve been wearing big heavy supportive shoes and go right to a zero drop shoe, you may have some lower leg and calf soreness,” Brian Beckstead, co-founder of Altra Running, the brand that coined the term, previously told Shape.

That’s why foot experts recommend creating a transition period for your foot, where you slowly integrate zero-drop shoes into the mix. So, rather than lacing up your new zero drop trailer runners and logging mad miles, to start you should wear them for just one or two miles at a time before switching back to your old pair. Each run you can wear your zero-drop shoes a little extra distance, until you’re finally wearing the zero-drop shoes the entire time. This slow transition helps protect the currently underdeveloped foot muscles from overuse injuries.

“Most people [...]are able to fully transition to zero drop shoes within four to six weeks,” Beckstead said.

Minimalist shoes and zero drop are a bit of a square and rectangle situation. Just as all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares, all minimalist shoes are zero drop, but not all zero drop shoes are minimalist, according to Dr. Kuizinas.

“Zero drop simply refers to the height difference between the sole of the shoe,” she says. Meanwhile, minimalist refers to the lack of material and bulk used throughout the shoe. In addition to having no heel drop, minimalist shoes also have no (or limited) cushioning or arch support.

Unlike a minimalist shoe, “you actually can have a very thick sole with lots of cushion and still be zero drop,” says Dr. Kuizinas.

The aforementioned Altra Running Women’s Paradigm 6 and Women’s Lone Peak 7 are both good examples of shoes that are zero-drop, but NOT minimalist.

There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for any kind of medical care, and that goes for foot care as well.

That said, Dr. Kuizinas says zero-drop shoes are an excellent way for people who do not have any pre-existing foot issues to strengthen their foot musculature, increase ankle mobility, and reduce strain on their knees and hips.

However, because zero-drop shoes put your foot in a different position than it is used to, she recommends consulting your podiatrist before making the switch. A podiatrist will be able to assess whether or not your gait and foot issues will be helped or harmed by the switch — plus, give you personalized advice on easing into zero-drop shoes safely.

Yes. “Going barefoot allows your feet to feel and interact with the ground surface to an even greater degree than zero-drop shoes,” explains Dr. Kuizinas. The result is greater muscle reactivity and postural changes, along with the adaptation of the foot muscles and strengthening, she says.

However, in our modern world, it’s simply not realistic nor safe to forgo shoes altogether. After all, most work and public places require footwear, and going barefoot makes your feet susceptible to cuts, tears, burns, and other injuries.

“Since we have to wear shoes most of the time, using footwear that is zero drop and mimics the shape and function of the foot is extremely helpful and as close as going barefoot as most people can do safely,” she says.

Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a freelance wellness journalist with nearly a decade of experience writing about exercise equipment and shoes. In addition to Shape, her work has appeared in publications such as Health, SELF, Women's Health, Men’s Health, Greatist, Bustle, and more.

She is also a somewhat competitive CrossFit athlete, hiking feen, and dog mom to a high-energy border collie. Whether sweating in her local CrossFit box or on the trail, she is always test-driving zero-drop shoes. As it goes, her training shoe collection is even more extensive than her leggings collection (which is saying something).

For this article she interviewed a series of experts who KNOW feet. Including, two podiatrists, an ultramarathoner, and a chiropractor. She also read thousands of reviews for each of the aforementioned zero-drop shoes that she hasn’t personally test-driven, to make sure the recommended shoes are worthy of their designation.

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