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 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 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 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.
Then there are high-drop shoes like the Asics Metaracer that feel perfect for midfoot striking.
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 offset shoe instead.
For example, both the Asics Glideride 2 and HyperSpeed have a heel offset of 5 mm, and so do many shoes from Hoka One One. Take the Clifton 7, for example.
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 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 for whatever it’s worth, 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. This 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 one.
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 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 V2
There’s enough foam in the Fresh Foam More V2 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.
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 the recent Fresh Foam updates, the V2 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 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
When we reviewed 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 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
For over four years, the Vongo has always been the odd one out in New Balance’s stability running shoe assortment. Unlike a conventional stability shoe, the midsole lacks a firmer midsole wedge.
Instead, the shoe uses a deep channel on the outsole to center the weight. The firm midsole foam density does two things. One, it makes the ride stable across 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 a low heel overhang.
So this is a very unconventional stability trainer – a comfortable running shoe that can be used as a daily trainer without the medial post action.
5) 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 training shoe category, and the 2021 version comes with several advancements.
The rear midsole has improved stability due to the flared sidewalls. The outsole grip has improved because of the 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.
6) 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.
7) 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.
The Razor 3 is best used as a race-day or speed-training shoe. For longer runs and daily training, take a look at the GoRun Ride 8 Hyper.
Also see: The GoRun Razor+
8) 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) 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 15 – 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.
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 because of 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 eel. 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 for cheap, go for it.
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, the upper is smooth and does a fair job of keeping the foot protected.
3) New Balance Minimus Trail 10 V1
The name “Minimus’ gives it away, doesn’t it?
This narrow and short-fitting shoe is the one for the trails, and its thin midsole works together with the low offset to provide minimalist cushioning and a superior ground feel.
The low-profile 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.
Given the lightweight construction, there’s not a lot in way of protection. But if proprioception on the trails is a priority, then the Minimus is a great pick.
4) 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 there’s not much change. 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 pursuits.
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.