It’s 2021, and we’re still discussing heel drops, eh? We’re a decade late, but better late than never, as the saying goes.
And what happened over a decade ago? The era of barefoot or minimalist running, that’s what.
The entire movement was based on the notion that running barefoot – or the act of running in minimalist footwear – was healthy. It was ironic, however, that the ‘barefoot’ concept led to the creation of new running shoe categories – which was the exact opposite of true barefoot running.
Ah, the irony of it all. Several footwear categories were created to address different levels of minimalism. Vibram mimicked the anatomy of the human foot with 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 the times with their ultra-flexible ‘Free’ assortment. As one would expect, they shipped container-loads of those products.
If you’ve made it so far and (still) haven’t the faintest idea of what was just said, here’s a brief primer on heel ‘drops.’
What is a heel-to-toe drop or offset?
Every running shoe has a foam midsole, and the said midsole has a certain thickness across its length. For example, if you were to measure the forefoot thickness with a 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 24 mm rear would mean that the running shoe has a 4 mm heel-to-toe offset.
And why is this spec perceived to be important?
A lower drop running shoe is thought to promote a more ‘natural’ gait. The underlying rationale is that 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 offset allows the foot to make full ground contact rather than catching the heel first.
That, 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 rearfoot striking. As they say, it’s the runner and not the shoe.
Then there are high-drop shoes like the Asics Metaracer that feel perfect for midfoot striking. It’s obvious that the overall design also plays a part in how the shoe behaves – not everything is about the heel offset.
(Related read: The best running shoes for midfoot and forefoot strikers)
It is safe to assume that the barefoot running boom also vilified rearfoot landings. However, there is no scientific evidence linking it to decreased biomechanical efficiency or a higher risk of injuries.
Midsole drops are a personal choice so maybe over time, 4-6 mm offsets became the preferred norm for purists. 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 softly-cushioned 4 mm drop midsole will behave differently under 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 number.
Do you want to know what Solereview thinks? It’s pointless to obsess over an exact number. Though this guide is about running shoes with a 4 mm offset, it makes no difference whether you buy a 2, 5, or even a 6 mm offset 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 12 or the Nike Terra Kiger 7, you’ll have access to a wider and better assortment if you’re not fixated on a specific number.
For whatever it’s worth, here’s a curation of running shoes with a 4 mm heel-to-toe gradient. The list is grouped by different use-cases, since not all low-offset running shoes are the same.
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. This will allow the calves and Achilles to get accustomed and reduce the chances of initial soreness.
Low-profile versatile trainers with a firm ride
1) Saucony Kinvara 12
The Kinvara 12 is easily the best version we’ve tested since the V4. The Kinvara has long been the standard-bearer for the 4 mm drop trainer category, and the 2021 version comes with several advancements.
The rear midsole has improved stability due to the flared sidewalls and firmer ride. The outsole grip has improved because of better-defined forefoot lugs, and the ride packs sufficient comfort for long-distance runs. There’s a Pwrrun+ Topsole (e-TPU) and insole over an EVA foam blend midsole that feels peppy during faster runs.
Saucony has stripped the upper of unnecessary trims. The outer mesh is a smooth textile with no overlays, and the tongue is thin yet cushioned enough to filter the lacing pressure.
It’s worth noting that the Kinvara 12 now comes with a full inner sleeve instead of just a partial gusset. This update makes the interiors a bit warmer but a lot smoother.
We view the Kinvara as an extremely versatile running shoe. It’s padded enough for long-distance runs of up to a half marathon, yet feels nimble enough for faster runs.
Even though the midsole isn’t made of new-age foams like Pebax, the 7.5 Oz/213 gram Kinvara is respectably lightweight.
2) Skechers GoRun Razor Excess
The Razor Excess has a slightly higher amount of cushioning than the Razor and Razor+. That is the result of a 2 mm thicker stack than the Razor 3 as well as a broader midsole.
However, the term ‘excess’ should be consumed with a grain of salt, as the Razor Excess has a firm ride. This low-profile pacer has a similar ride as the Brooks Hyperion Tempo, except that the latter has a higher heel drop. The Skechers Hyperburst foam is EVA foam infused with supercritical Nitrogen, and the result is a foam block with a firm and resilient ride.
Along with a low midsole offset, the Razor 3’s ride experience blends cushioning and speed with an incredibly lightweight build. The upper fit is snug, but isn’t as wonky as some of the other Skechers models – which is good.
The Razor Excess is best used as a race-day or speed training shoe. For long-distance runs and daily training, consider the GoRun Ride 8 Hyper instead.
3) Brooks Pureflow 7
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. In spirit, it is similar to the Saucony Kinvara but with a firmer ride and narrower fit.
Everyday trainers with firm cushioning
1) Saucony Endorphin Shift V2
When we reviewed the first version of the Saucony Endorphin Shift in 2020, the shoe wasn’t what we had imagined it to be. Just to be clear, we don’t say this in a bad way.
Going by Saucony’s marketing, we assumed that the Shift had a prominent forward-rolling transition quality. That may be true of the higher-priced Endorphin Pro and Speed, but the Shift relies on just a thick midsole without a plate.
While both the Speed and Pro have a noticeable ‘roll forward’ behavior and a bouncy midsole, the Shift is more subdued. Its rocker-shaped forefoot can only do so much.
The Endorphin Shift 2 is based on the same midsole and outsole as the Shift 1, so the ride character does not change.
To sum up, the Endorphin Shift is a cushioned shoe with a firm and somewhat flat ride. The kind of ride that is versatile enough for daily runs and high-mileage runs at faster paces. The midsole is made of the firm Pwrrun foam (EVA blend) so there’s plenty of stability – unlike the much softer Speed and Pro.
For the V2, Endorphin Shift’s upper gets updated with additional layers to make the fit more supportive. Nonetheless, the upper is still very lightweight, comfortable, and accommodating.
2) New Balance Fresh Foam Vongo V5
With the newly introduced changes, the Fresh Foam Vongo V5 ends up being the only traditional stability shoe on this guide. In other words, it’s a running shoe with a firmer medial post.
Now wait a minute; where did the medial post come from? After all, the Vongos V1 to V4 did not have any.
For over four years, the Vongo had always been the odd one out in New Balance’s stability running shoe assortment. Unlike a conventional (860) stability shoe, the midsole lacked a firmer midsole wedge. Instead, the shoe used a deep channel on the outsole to center the weight and make the ride stable.
For some reason, New Balance has now decided that the Vongo V5 needed to become a conventional stability running shoe. The inner midsole has a visible section of firmer foam (medial post), whereas the rest of the midsole is made of Fresh Foam EVA.
So what we have here is a firmly cushioned stability shoe with a 4 mm heel-to-toe offset. From a usage perspective, the Vongo 5 is a comfortable and stable shoe that’s a versatile daily trainer across different pace and mileage ranges.
Max-cushioned distance trainers with a soft ride
1) Hoka One One Bondi 7
Not many ‘true’ max-cushioning running shoes have a 4 mm heel-to-toe offset. Thankfully, the Hoka Bondi 7 is one.
Often viewed as Hoka’s purest expression of its mega-midsole concept, the Hoka is back in its seventh avatar.
Below the foot is the now-familiar goodness of bottomless cushioning. The tall foam stack is capable of everything that’s thrown at it, and then some. It even manages to feel nimble during runs – thanks to the transition-friendly rocker shape that promotes a forward roll.
Above, there’s an equally cushy upper. The exteriors are generously covered with welded overlays for support, and the new upper receives comfort-oriented upgrades like the memory foam-filled heel collar.
2) New Balance Fresh Foam More V3
There’s enough foam in the Fresh Foam More V3 to trigger an existential crisis, but who cares. Even though we’re spoiled for choices with Fresh Foam this and Fresh Foam that, there’s no mistaking the Fresh Foam More’s intentions.
The premise of the Fresh Foam More is very simple – cram as much midsole foam as the laws of physics permit. This is an example of New Balance maxing out the boundaries of its Fresh Foam midsole concept. There’s more foam in this shoe than any other NB model, the 1080 included.
So what – and who – is this shoe even meant for?
It’s a lazy, slow run shoe where the heel-to-toe drop is contextually irrelevant. The copious amounts of foam guarantee a soft ride, but gets in the way of going fast.
As with all the recent Fresh Foam updates, the V3 is an improvement over the last-gen model. The midsole is softer with more life in it. Sure, the tinkered formulation helps, but so does the outsole geometry.
The newly-introduced geometry divides the outsole pieces with wide channels of exposed Fresh Foam. This allows the rubber outsole to flex better with the midsole – a process that results in distraction-free softness.
The redesigned upper is also an improvement. The More V3 gets rid of the Origami-style heel of the V2 and adopts a comfortable (and normal) heel collar that’s both comfortable and secure. The mesh is softer too, and the tongue padding receives a boost as well.
Road racer with a 4 m offset
1) 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. This shoe is comparable to the New Balance 1400V6 – another stellar shoe but with a higher heel-to-toe offset.
Also see: The Saucony Fastwitch 9.
Trail running shoes with a 4 mm offset
1) Saucony Peregrine 11
Last year, the Peregrine 10 abandoned the ISOFIT strapping system in favor of a more subdued arrangement of regular eyelets and laces.
The result was a trail running shoe with a nuanced fit and ride character. The ride was cushioned enough for the trail, yet firm and stable enough for uneven terrain. The Peregrine 10 had a protective rock plate and a sticky rubber (Pwrtrac) outsole for grip over wet surfaces.
For 2021, Saucony has updated the Peregrine, but the changes are minimal. The Peregrine 11 has the same midsole and outsole as the 10, and the upper isn’t all that different.
On the upper, many goodies from the V10 are carried forward. There’re two gaiter attachment points, a reinforced toe-bumper, and a smooth and secure fit that is comfortable enough for high-mileage trail runs.
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 retails the Switchback 2 with a 4 mm drop, so that’s an option as well.
Also see: The Saucony Peregrine 11 GTX, a variant with a waterproof Gore-Tex upper.
2) Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 7
Here on Solereview, we like to be blunt. We prefer the Terra Kiger 6 over the 7, and that’s not just due to the $10 price increase.
That’s because the Kiger 7 no longer has a forefoot rock plate. Instead, there’s one in the rear. The Zoom Air bag trades places with the plate, so now it’s under the forefoot instead of being under the heel. Sure, having a Zoom Air bag under the forefoot adds protection, but it’s not the same thing as a rock plate.
The bottom-line being, if you can get a Kiger 6 on sale, buy a pair. Or two.
If that’s not feasible, the Terra Kiger 7 is (still) a comfortable trail running shoe with plenty of cushioning, courtesy of the React foam midsole and Zoom Air bag. The outsole grip is decent, and the smooth interiors offer moderate levels of protection on the trail.
3) Brooks Caldera 5
The Caldera 5 is a somewhat unusual running shoe in Brooks’s line-up. The Seattle-based brand is better known for its higher 8 ~ 10 mm offset running shoes. Even the Cascadia 16 – the popular Brooks trail shoe – has an 8 mm heel-to-toe offset.
The 4 mm offset isn’t the only thing that makes the Caldera different. The thick midsole (which is an EVA-blend, and not DNA Flash like the Catamount) delivers a cushioned and protective ride for long-distance trail runs. In our opinion, the mileage-friendly ride character is what sets the Caldera apart from its peers.
Surface traction is great, thanks to the sticky rubber (TrailTack) outsole and the prominent, widely-spaced lugs.
Brooks uses a combination of soft upper mesh and fused side reinforcements to make the upper fit comfortable and reasonably protective. And should you need a gaiter, attachment points are provided on the upper.