Little by little, shoe companies are coming around to the idea that form is important and that the design of the shoes themselves can help or hinder good form. Look at the range of offerings from nearly all of the major running shoe companies recently and you’ll see a trend toward having at least a couple of models with a more level profile. Brooks just released their Pure Project, reportedly with 4mm of drop between the heels and forefoot, and that’s just the latest. Look at the lineup from Merrell, Saucony, or Nike and you’ll see the same thing. Then of course there are a few who make their whole business around a more level design. Newton Running and Inov-8 both make primarily shoes with low drop and some others like Altra, VivoBarefoot, and the FiveFingers line are essentially level.
This is fantastic for all of us, no matter what we’re currently running in. Competition is good and all runners stand to benefit!
In the mean time, however, anyone making the switch to lower drop shoes is risking injury. Try this: Place a book on the ground, maybe 10-15mm thick. Now stand barefoot with your heels on the book and your feet extending over the edge and onto the floor. For most people, this will feel pretty normal because most shoes out there today, running shoes or otherwise, have about this much drop. After standing there a minute or two, step down to stand barefoot, flat on the floor. Feel that stretch a little? If your shoes were level, that’s what they’d feel like to your calves.
If you didn’t notice a difference, make it even more extreme. Stand with your heels on the floor and the ball of your foot on the book. Nearly anyone is going to start feeling the stretch at this point. The smaller the angle between your foot and your leg, the greater the stretch.
If you’re used to running in shoes with a significant drop and make a change without deliberately adapting, that extra stretch on every step will build up and could easily result in injury, from minor things like pulled muscles or tendon sprains, to more severe problems like tendonitis. I do think it’s worth the effort, but it’s not to be taken lightly.
Personally, I’ve been lucky. Very lucky. I started working on improving my running form in early 2007, but by fall of 2009, even though I’d made some positive form changes, I was still running in high drop shoes. My first pair of relatively level shoes measured at 3mm of drop, quite flat. I thought I had decent form at the time and maybe I did. But after running a slow paced 5k around my neighborhood, my calves were so overstretched I could barely walk for three days. I was in solid marathon shape at the time, so this was a short run at a pace much slower than normal. My muscles didn’t feel over worked, they felt over stretched. I didn’t really understand why at the time, but now the simple geometry seems obvious. Thankfully I didn’t injure myself, but I did then develop a program to ease myself into the shoes over a period of months.
Since then I’ve done nearly all of my running in shoes with about 3mm of drop, right up until the last couple of weeks. I’m now experimenting with zero drop shoes from a variety of companies, and despite the relatively small difference between my regular shoes and these I can’t do more than about 4 miles in the level ones before I start to really feel the stretch. Once again, I’m looking at a transition and have to proceed with caution.
From where I sit, I’m quite excited about the increase in variety of running shoes that will support good form. More models in stores means that more people will find one that fits well and hopefully make some positive change. I do fear that people will jump in because it’s trendy without considering what it actually means for their body. Essentially no one can make a sudden switch like this without consequences.
What would be really bad is to have a horde of people buy the shoes, get injured and draw the wrong conclusions. It’s not the shoes, it’s the sudden change.
Edit 27 Oct 2011: I finally found the site I saw once that listed heel and toe stack heights for the shoes they sell. It’s Running Warehouse. Know what you’re buying and transition with intention and care!