It’s 2020, and you’re still into heel drops? You’re a decade late, but better late than never, as they say.
What exactly happened over a decade ago? The era of barefoot or minimalist running, that’s what.
The whole movement was based on the notion that running barefoot – or in minimalist footwear – was healthy. It is ironic, however, that the ‘barefoot’ concept led to the creation of new running shoe categories – which was the exact opposite of actually running barefoot.
Several footwear categories were created to address different levels of minimalism. Vibram mimicked the anatomy of the human foot for its ‘Five-Fingers’ series. Others started selling zero-drop sandals. The rest adopted a middle-ground and marketed zero or low-drop running shoes.
Brands like Nike were ahead of their times with the ultra-flexible ‘Free’ assortment and they ended up selling container-loads of those products.
But if you’ve read the article so far and haven’t the faintest idea of what was just said, here’s a short primer on heel ‘drops.’
What is a heel drop?
Every running shoe has a foam midsole, and the said midsole has a certain thickness. For example, if you were to measure the front with the caliper, you’ll get a certain number in millimeters, say, 20 mm. In the rear, the midsole could be 30 mm.
A heel drop is nothing but the difference between the forefoot and rearfoot midsole thickness. In this case, 30 mm – 20 mm = a 10 mm drop. Similarly, a 20 mm forefoot and a 24 mm rear would mean that running shoe has a 4 mm heel to toe drop.
And why is this spec perceived to be important?
A lower drop running shoe is thought to promote a more ’natural’ gait. As in, if barefoot running is zero drop, why should running shoes be stacked higher towards the rear?
A low heel-to-drop design is also associated with forefoot and midfoot striking. The logic is that having a lower rear stack allows the foot to land forward rather than striking the heel edge first.
This, of course, is debatable. A video of elite runners racing a marathon in higher drop (8 mm+) shoes will often show them landing full-contact instead of heel striking. As they say, it’s the runner and not the shoe.
It is safe to say that the barefoot running boom also vilified rearfoot landings. However, there is no scientific evidence linking it to decreased bio-mechanical efficiency or a higher risk of injuries.
Midsole drops are a personal choice so maybe over time, you become comfortable with 4-6 mm drops. That said, we must point out that published heel drop specs are to be taken with a grain of salt. Not all shoes with the same heel offset number are the same.
A 4 mm drop midsole with a soft cushioning will behave differently under actual weight-loaded conditions than a firmer 4 mm drop midsole. A softer midsole will compress under the weight (and impact), thus creating a ‘dynamic’ heel drop that is lower than the advertised drop.
Truth be told, it’s pointless to obsess over an exact number. This guide is about 4 mm drop shoes, but it will make no difference if you buy a 2, 5, or even a 6 mm drop shoe instead.
It’s also getting harder to find running shoes with a 4 mm gradient. Though there are solid choices like the Saucony Kinvara 11 or the Skechers GoRun Razor 3 Hyper, you’ll get access to a wider and better assortment if you’re not fixated on an exact offset number.
But if you insist, here’s a curation of running shoes with a 4 mm heel-to-toe drop.
The list is arranged from cushioned to minimal. At the top, you’ll see shoes like the ultra-cushioned Fresh Foam More V2. That’s followed by lightweight trainers and racers. There’s a separate section for trail running shoes as well.
Is there a downside to running in low-drop shoes? Not really, but if you’re transitioning from a higher drop (8-12 mm) shoe, make sure to gradually build up the miles. It will allow your calves and Achilles to get accustomed and reduce the chances of initial soreness.
1) New Balance Fresh Foam More V2
There’s enough foam in the Fresh Foam More V2 to trigger an existential crisis, but who cares? Even though we’re spoilt for choices with Fresh Foam this and Fresh Foam that, there’s no mistaking the Fresh Foam More’s intentions.
This is New Balance maxing out the boundaries of its Fresh Foam midsole concept. There’s more stack and volume in this shoe than any other NB model, the 1080 included.
As with all Fresh Foam updates this year, the V2 is an improvement over the 2019 model. The midsole is softer with more life in it. Sure, the tinkered formulation helps, but so does the outsole geometry. The newly-introduced grooves and openings allow the rubber outsole to flex better with the Fresh Foam stack.
The redesigned upper has a similar fit and has a few changes around the forefoot and heel. Increased space between the laces means decreased top-down pressure and a more accommodating fit. The eyestay has been reinforced, and the heel collar gets a new design.
2) New Balance Fresh Foam Vongo V4
The Vongo V4 is a stability shoe with a difference. First, it doesn’t have a firmer medial post so the overall vibe is that of a supportive neutral.
Two, it has a 4 mm heel to toe offset with a cushioned ride. Can’t say we see this combination often.
3) Saucony Kinvara 11
The Kinvara is back this year, so a decade has passed since its first release. Solereview has been reviewing this shoe since the 3rd version, so we’re very familiar with this model.
Familiar enough to tell you the Kinvara 11 has many of the same qualities that has made the series a success. That was also true for the Kinvara 10, and the 11 is just but a subtle evolution. The 11 is every bit as good as the 10, and that’s saying something.
This 4 mm drop shoe is very versatile. The all-foam midsole keeps outsole rubber to a bare minimum, and that means the landings and transitions feel padded and smooth throughout the gait cycle.
Use it as a daily trainer, a sort-of tempo shoe, or a long-distance cruiser – the Kinvara 11 has a wide repertoire of acts. Given its sub-8-ounce build, the K-11 feels very light on the feet. Apart from the versatile character, its distraction-free persona is what gives the Kinvara an edge over its competitors.
There’s plenty of comfort inside the upper. The interiors are accommodating, the mesh is soft, and plenty of plushness is to be found in the heel collar and tongue.
4) Saucony Freedom 3
Both the Kinvara 11 and the Freedom 3 are 4 mm drop trainers, so what separates them functionally? And more importantly, why should one choose the Freedom over the Kinvara? Or the other way around?
We could make a case for both the models and it’ll sound good. But here are the nuts and bolts. The Saucony Freedom 3 uses a Pwrrun+ midsole – a cushioning material that is made of expanded Polyurethane.
This is the same base midsole compound that makes adidas Boost, Reebok Floatride (as in the Energy), and Saucony’s Everun.
As pointed out in our Triumph 17 review, the Pwrrun+ tech is an upgrade of what used to be called Everun. While Everun was firm and dense, the Pwrrun+ is softer with a lot more bounce in it. So runners who are moving up from the Freedom ISO 2 will step into a markedly changed ride experience.
The Freedom also has a ‘Crystal’ rubber outsole protecting the underside. The traction is decent, and the durability levels are phenomenal. Even though the Freedom 3 retails at $150, you’ll get many miles per dollar.
The knit upper has a smooth and somewhat snug interior fit. There’s a lot of structure in the heel area. The plastic clip on the outside and an internal counter on the inside results in a secure heel grip.
Just like the Kinvara 11, the Freedom 3 is a versatile trainer. But what you get with the Freedom is a slightly more focused and engaging ride. The Pwrrun+ midsole is responsive – along with the sense of having greater ‘substance’. Due to the full-coverage outsole, the ride feels layered – after all, there’s more than just the midsole. Compared to the Kinvara, the Freedom 3 feels slightly bottom-heavy.
The snug upper has a sharper sense of focus too. The conforming upper fit has been true for the Freedom since its first versions, so there’s no surprise here.
On the other hand, the Kinvara 11 just feels light and care-free. There’s no outsole rubber, and the upper fit is easygoing. The interiors are softer.
Though the Kinvara’s EVA-blended midsole isn’t as engaging as the Freedom, it feels distraction-free. The fact that it is lighter than the Freedom by 0.7-ounces helps too.
For better durability, weather-resistant cushioning, and a responsive ride, try the Freedom 3.
Also see: The Saucony Liberty ISO 2 – a mild stability version of the Freedom 3.
5) Brooks Pureflow 7
The Pureflow is all that’s left of the original ‘Pure’ series collection – the other two were the PureConnect and PureCadence.
The PF 7 is a 4 mm drop trainer that doesn’t weigh a lot but provides enough cushioning and speed for most daily and tempo runs. It is similar to the Saucony Kinvara in spirit but with a different ride and upper fit experience.
6) Skechers GoRun Razor 3 Hyper
Skechers’ use of the recently concocted Hyper midsole foam on its popular racer/trainer has instantly made it a cult favorite.
Along with a low midsole offset, you get a ride experience that blends cushioning and speed on an incredibly lightweight shoe. The upper fit is snug, but isn’t as wonky as some of the other Skechers models – which is good.
7) Saucony Type A9
The Saucony Type A9 is built around a road-racer template that we are all familiar with.
Like the others in this category, the low profile midsole uses firm EVA to give it speed-friendly manners. Above it is a lightweight racer upper that disappears on your feet.
Also see: The Saucony Fastwitch 9.
8) Nike Zoom Streak LT4
The Nike Zoom Streak LT4 is the more minimal of the Nike Streak series – the other being the higher-drop Streak 7.
In the Streak LT’s case, a 4 mm offset midsole doesn’t necessarily translate into a hyper-minimalist ride experience.
A heel Zoom Air unit adds a much-needed cushioned layer while a midfoot shank keeps those transitions snappy.
Trail running shoes with a 4 mm offset
1) Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 6
Aggressive and sticky outsole lugs. A rock plate that isn’t a large, single-piece design. A smooth, secure and protective upper fit. These are the things that make Terra Kiger 6 an excellent trail running shoe. Add to that list a cushioned midsole with a trail-ready 4 mm heel to drop.
The center-piece is, of course, the segmented rock-plate. Instead of being the traditionally-designed sheet of hard plastic, the Kiger 6 (and the 5) has a thermoplastic insert that is split into multiple sections. This novel geometry provides the functional protection of a regular rock plate while allowing a greater degree of movement.
The large pull tab on the upper makes wearing the shoe easier. And just like the Kiger 5, the Urethane overlays on the toe bumper protect the foot from the rocks and roots. At the same time, the pores on the mesh allow the shoe to breathe better than most trail running shoes.
The speed-loop based lacing and the sleeve keep the foot securely lock-down during trail runs.
2) New Balance Minimus Trail 10 V1
The name “Minimus’ gives it away, doesn’t it?
This narrow and short fitting trail shoe is the one for rocky trails, and its thin midsole works together with the low offset to provide the bare minimum in cushioning for a superior ground feel.
The minimalist midsole comes with an upper to match. A sleeved, low-slung upper fit keeps the foot locked atop the midsole for stability on uneven trail surfaces.
3) Saucony Peregrine 10
In Peregrine’s case, the ISOFIT’s reign was short-lived. Only the last model had the ISO upper – the Peregrine 8 before did not, and the 2020 Peregrine 10 goes back to a traditional upper.
The Peregrine 10’s upper is standard trail running shoe fare. Lots of protective overlays, closed mesh structure, and a lacing system with twin eyelets near the back for a custom fit.
Saucony is the rare brand that sells an assortment of trail running shoes with a 4 mm offset. Otherwise, this category is usually populated with 8 -10 drop models. Saucony also retails the Switchback ISO with a 4 mm drop, so that’s an option too.
You get bonafide trail shoe performance out of the Peregrine 10’s outsole. There’s a protective rock plate inside the padded EVA midsole and a new outsole made of Saucony’s grippy Pwrtrac rubber.
Also see: The Saucony Peregrine 10 GTX, a variant with a waterproof Gore-Tex upper.