It’s 2020, and you’re still into heel drops? You’re a decade late, but better late than never, as the saying goes.
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 the act of running 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 barefoot running intentions.
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 their times with the 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 throughout its length. 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 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 logic being, 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 scraping 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.
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 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 number.
Do you want to know what Solereview thinks? It’s pointless to obsess over an exact number. This guide is about running shoes with a 4 mm offset, but it makes no difference whether you buy a 2, 5, or even a 6 mm drop 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 11 or the Skechers GoRun Razor 3 Hyper, you’ll get access to a wider and better assortment if you’re not fixated on a specific number.
But if you insist, here’s a curation of running shoes with a 4 mm heel-to-toe gradient.
The list is arranged from cushioned to minimal. The upper slots are occupied by shoes like the ultra-cushioned Hoka Bondi 7 and the New Balance Fresh Foam More. 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) 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.
Long seen as one of Hoka’s purest expression of the mega-midsole concept, the Hoka is back in its seventh avatar. Much like the Clifton 7 update, the newest Bondi is nearly flawless.
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 sprightly 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 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 makes 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.
3) Saucony Endorphin Shift
We recently reviewed the Saucony Endorphin Shift and the shoe wasn’t what we had imagined it to be. Just to be clear, we don’t say this negatively.
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 is akin to the Kinvara and Ride 13 – except that the midsole is a lot thicker. In the Shift’s case, the upwardly-curved toe doesn’t help as much.
Rather, 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 non of the mushy-sinking feeling.
And our review made it clear that the Endorphin Shift’s upper is one of the best we’ve ever seen; very lightweight, very comfortable, and very accommodating.
4) New Balance Fresh Foam Vongo V4
The Vongo has always been the odd one out in New Balance’s stability running shoe assortment. Unlike the 860, it doesn’t have a firmer midsole wedge.
Instead, the shoe uses a deep channel or groove on the outsole to lower the center of gravity. The firm midsole foam density does two things. One, it makes the ride stable throughout the shoe’s length.
Two, the transitions are smoother and easier to carry through because of the single-density construction. And of course, the 4 mm offset helps too, as means that there’s less of a heel overhang.
So this is a very unconventional stability trainer – a comfortable running shoe that can be used as a daily trainer with non of the medial post drama.
5) 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 have 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.
6) 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.
7) 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.
8) Skechers GoRun Razor 3 Hyper
Skechers’ use of the critically acclaimed Hyper midsole foam on this popular racer-trainer has instantly made it a cult favorite.
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.
9) 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.
10) 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 centerpiece 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. Also, 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.
The bottom-line being, there’s not a lot in way of protection. But if proprioception on the trails is a priority, then the Minimus lords over all.
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 the grippy Pwrtrac rubber.
Also see: The Saucony Peregrine 10 GTX, a variant with a waterproof Gore-Tex upper.