10 Best Zero Drop Running Shoes in 2021

Jovana Subic
Jovana Subic on
10 Best Zero Drop Running Shoes in 2021

Running in zero-drop running shoes is great BUT under a few conditions: you know why you’re doing it and what to expect. Learn more in this guide so you can make an informed decision. Reading Born to run is simply not enough (but is highly motivating, yes!).

Our zero-drop shoe fans at RunRepeat have gathered over 30 models to test them out and find the best performers. And though may associate zero with minimalist, that’s not necessarily the case. We’ve got some well-cushioned Altra shoes in our top picks below.

If you’re not sure about which heel to toe drop you need and the effects it might have on your body and running, read our in-depth guide on the heel to toe drop

How we review zero-drop running shoes

We’re running fanatics and we do in-depth research. Our RunRepeat testing lab was created to put every shoe through the wringer and pick out the best. Here is the process:

  • We buy all reviewed shoes with our own money for transparency
  • Our testers deliver feedback on shoes after 30-50 miles 
  • Cut every shoe into pieces to measure stack, drop, and 30+ other parameters 
  • Summarize all available expert and user reviews for 100+ zero-drop shoes
  • Give a verdict CoreScore to rank each shoe on a scale from 0 to 100.

The best-performing zero-drop shoes make it here.

Best overall

As meticulous as we are in testing our shoes, it was very challenging finding deal-breaking faults in the Altra Rivera. Seriously, it’s so great, there’s no contesting how it ends up as our top pick. 

Like a true Altra, it’s king in toe room. There’s more than enough space up front for our toes to splay out comfortably. Even better, it makes the ride even more natural-feeling. 

And if you’re one that’s a sucker for ground feel, the Rivera has got you covered. There’s enough cushion to keep the feet cozy, but not in a way that dampens the surface underneath, so you can maneuver with ease. 

Despite the generous midsole foam, it’s not a heavy shoe. At 8.4 oz, it’s not heavy on paper, and more importantly, it’s not heavy on foot. It’s so dang light, we almost forgot we had shoes on! 

Stability? This shoe is built for that. The outsole follows the pattern of the foot, allowing for a solid foot plant. And to take support up a notch, the shoe has a form-fitting wrap, so we had ZERO issues with slips. 

Even better, the Rivera is designed to survive rough pounding on the pavement. After putting it through the wringer, it’s proven itself a killer in the durability department. You can expect it to run at least 300-400 miles before completely wearing it out. 

Ultimately, the Altra Rivera is a versatile shoe that you can take to just about anything. It’s comfortable for easy and long miles, and responsive enough for faster days. And if you want to hit the trails, it’s got the grip and protection too.

See our full review and facts

In combining durability, comfort, and support, Topo Athletic Magnifly 3 just nails it! 

We LOVE to put our shoes through a series of rough wear tests to really see their strength. And after raking in miles in this shoe, it wowed us! The outsole is still scratch-free and the midsole is just as bouncy. 

And if comfort is one of your non-negotiables, this shoe won’t disappoint. From the bottom up, this shoe has comfort written all over it. 

The upper is not only very soft and plush, it’s also very breathable. And underfoot, there’s loads of foam to keep the feet cozy. 

Even better, the toe box is to die for! It’s amply spaced, you can wiggle your toes as much as you can. 

And to complete the golden triangle, there’s the unrivaled support. From the heel to the midfoot, lockdown has been nothing short of superb. And the midsole only makes everything better. 

It’s very balanced (neither too soft nor too rigid), it does a fantastic job in keeping our strides surefooted and wobble-free. 

To seal the deal, it’s a light shoe. At 9.7 oz, it might be heavier than the average running shoe (9.4 oz in our lab tests), but it’s the exact opposite on the run. It’s featherlight, we don’t mind picking it out on our walks!

See our full review and facts

Best for race

If there’s one thing that makes the Altra Escalante Racer 19 a standout among the other zero-drop running shoes we’ve tested, it’s weight (or the lack thereof). It’s so light, it almost felt like air! 

At 6.8 oz, it’s WAY lighter than the average 9.4 oz running shoes in our lab tests. And if you’re thinking it skimps on comfort to shave off weight, it doesn’t. 

Underfoot, there’s loads of cushion to cradle the feet. Even better, it’s plenty flexible. Like a true Altra, it promotes a natural-feeling ride, and it does so terrifically! 

We also ran in the Racer 19 under hot temps to see how it performs. We were awestruck, to say the least. The upper does an awesome job keeping the feet cool and dry, we had NO issues with sweaty feet or hot in-shoe sensation. 

Although it’s a road shoe, it’s been nothing but a star in traction. It grips on both wet and dry surfaces so well, we never felt like we were skidding. Even on sharp turns, its traction is an easy 10/10. 

Taking this shoe to new heights, it’s as durable as it can be! After 50 miles of harsh pounding on the pavement, it has withstood everything we threw at it with flying colors. There are still no signs of degradation on the outsole, and the midsole feels just as fresh. 

Overall, if you’re looking for a racer that can outrun the competition in marathons, and even double as your long-distance trainer, nothing does it better than the Altra Escalante Racer 19!

See our full review and facts

Best minimalist

For such a minimalist design, the Xero shoes HFS sure does pack a lot! 

Despite it’s mildly padded midsole, it’s among THE most comfortable shoes we’ve ever put on. Underfoot, it’s very cushy and it’s got loads of flexibility.

Even more, the toe box is very spacious, you don’t have to worry about restricted toes. And if you think this makes it a sloppy-fitting shoe, it’s going to prove you wrong. 

Yes, there’s ample space up front, but it’s not an overkill. It hits the sweet spot between snug and roomy to keep the feet feeling comfortable. 

And just when we thought running shoes couldn’t be lighter, the HFS is here to change our mind. At 6.8 oz, it’s extremely light on paper. And on the run, it feels like nothing! 

Yes, we completely forgot about it. It’s THAT light. Not once did it drag our feet down. 

Looking from the outside, it doesn't look like the typical minimalist shoe, so we didn’t really have high hopes for ground feel. But this bad boy is a box full of surprises. It didn’t mute out the surface underneath, allowing proper feedback. 

But what really took us by surprise is its sturdiness. Again, we were foolish enough to think that it’s not going to last because again, it’s a minimalist model. But after miles of hammering, it’s practically indestructible! 

If you want to run fast without the unnecessary gimmicks, the Xero Shoes HFS is an amazing choice.

See our full review and facts

At $80, the Merrell Vapor Glove 5 sure does a lot for so little price. Whether it’s running, hiking, or gym training, it’s a superb shoe that proved to us high quality doesn’t always mean high price. 

It’s a given, it’s marvelous when it comes to ground feel! It has very little cushion, you can feel just about anything underfoot. 

Support? It’s got more than enough to keep you running stable. The fit is top-notch, the upper conforms so well to the shape and contours of the feet. Even better, the outsole bites exceptionally well on all surfaces. 

But where it stood out is on rocky trails. It’s been a solid A1! 

And to cement its spot on this list, the Vapor Glove has an outstanding strength that can compete with higher-end shoes on the market! Seriously, it’s even better than most expensive shoes. 

After putting in 50 miles of playtests, the outsole came out unscathed! If it doesn’t surprise you, we don’t know what will. 

See our full review and facts

Best for trail

Selecting the Altra Lone Peak as our top pick was a no-sweat choice for us. There’s not one thing about it that we don’t like! 

Fresh from the box, it’s already good to go. It didn’t require any break-in at all. We just wanted to run it all-day long. 

Unlike other trail shoes, it doesn’t punish the feet. Even better, it gave us all the support we could ask for! 

Throw in any type of terrain, and the Lone Peak will eat them all up. We ran in it on rocky surfaces, mud, ice, snow and dry trails, and it’s been nothing short of fantastic. The outsole sticks to the ground so well, we had NO concerns over slips and missteps. 

And what’s great about it is it can work as a road-to-trail transition shoe. It’s not overly aggressive for the road. 

Another aspect of the shoe that solidifies its rank on this list is its first-rate stability. In our lab test, we’ve gathered that it’s a tad stiffer than the average running shoe (25.5N vs. 23.8N). Meaning, it’s not like a brick, it just does a fantastic job at keeping our strides wobble-free. 

Want sterling protection? Grab the Altra Lone Peak 5.0! It’s very durable and cushioned, you don’t have to worry about rocks and roots poking the underside of your feet.

See our full review and facts

If you’re looking for a shoe that shines in long days on the trails, we can’t recommend the Altra Olympus 4.0 enough! 

There’s a lot to love about the Olympus. And if there’s one thing that we can’t get our mind off, it’s the shoe’s traction. 

On gravel paths, dirt single-track, forest roads, technical rock climbs, mud, and wet and loose trails, this trail monster had clung to the surface like a pair of claws! We had NO issues with slips or being tippy. 

And just when we thought the outsole couldn’t get better, the Vibram compound took our breath away! Apart from being extremely grippy, it’s also equally sturdy. It’s one hell of a solid shoe, it’s got what it takes to outlast all your other shoes. 

It also puts a dent on the trail status quo of lagging behind in comfort. From the midsole to the upper, it’s home for the feet. The foam is very balanced, while the upper is very plush, we didn’t feel beat-up even after long miles. 

At $170, it’s not the most budget-friendly trail shoe on our roster. But if it means reaping all the rewards the Altra Olympus brings, it’s a price we’d be willing to pay any day.

See our full review and facts

Best for flat feet

What makes the Altra Paradigm 5.0 a standout among all the zero-drop and support shoes we’ve tested is that it beats the stability shoe stereotype. It’s NOT brick-solid. If anything, it’s one of the few shoes that blend both comfort and responsiveness so well. 

The star of the show is easily the midsole. It’s neither too rigid nor too soft, it makes the ride suffer. It strikes the perfect balance, keeping the feet stable and pampered. What’s even greater is that it’s a lively sensation too. It was almost like we were bouncing from one step to another! 

Even more, it’s unlike other stability shoes we’ve tried - it’s NOT obtrusive. 

Staying true to its Altra roots, it’s got all the space you could ever dream for your toes. So much so, it makes the ride even more natural-feeling. 

Taking things up a notch is the shoe’s breathability. Even after long hours under hot weather conditions, not once did our feet feel warm in the Paradigm. 

Despite falling into our maximalist category, this shoe is NOT bulky-looking at all. 

Generally, if you want all-day support and a natural running sensation, nothing beats the Altra Paradigm 5.0.

See our full review and facts

What are zero drop running shoes

As the name suggests, these shoes have a heel drop of 0mm. That means there is no height difference between the heel and the forefoot.

zero-drop-running-shoe.jpg

Example of a zero-drop running shoe cut in half

The moment you put zero drop shoes on for the first time, they might even feel like they have a negative heel drop. It’s all good, nothing is wrong with the shoe (even though you’ll see dozens of reviews hating the shoes because of this). It just takes time to get used to them. 

If this is your first time hearing about zero drop in running shoes, it might not sound like a big deal, but it actually is. The majority of running shoes (92%) are outside of the zero-drop category. An unofficial standard is 10mm. 

Heel drop vs. stack height

While the heel-to-toe drop might be zero, that doesn’t mean that the shoes are flat and close to the ground. That’s when stack height enters the scene. 

Stack height is the amount of material placed between your feet and the ground. The more cushioning you look for in running shoes, the higher the stack height is. It’s not related to heel drop.

Difference between heel drop and stack height

4 things to consider when buying zero drop running shoes

If you’re looking for a zero-drop running shoe, chances are you’re not a beginner. So we’ll skip the obvious advice for buying running shoes and focus on that which is specific for zero-drop running shoes. 

Here are a few questions to ask yourself before buying zero drop running shoes: 

1. How much cushioning do I need? 

This is directly related to how much a) ground feel you like and b) softness you enjoy. With more cushioning, there’s more comfort, more weight, and less ground feel.

zero-drop-low-stack-vs-high-stack.jpeg

Merrel Vapor Glove 4 (barefoot zero-drop, no shoe feel, feeling every tiny bump) vs Altra Superior 4.5 (minimalist zero-drop, mid cushioning that allows for both shoe and ground feel)

Keep in mind that some shoes, like Merrel Vapor Gloves, are so flat that even walking on concrete in them might hurt your feet. But they do wonders on soft trails. 

If this is your first trip to the zero-drop world, maybe leave the minimally cushioned shoes for later - to give your feet time to adjust to the new heel drop first. Either way, take it slowly.

2. What’s my running strike? 

This question is tightly related to the stack height and how much cushioning you need underneath your feet. While running, do you land on your toes (forefoot strike), midfoot, or heel (heel strike)? 

Forefoot, midfoot and rearfoot strike

It’s not a written rule, but experience has shown that minimal or really low stack height is more friendly towards forefoot- and midfoot strikers. This is because heel strikers don’t get enough cushion while landing and might end up hurting their feet or ending the run abruptly.

Example of a midfoot strike

Heel strikers appreciate higher-stacked running shoes. Either way, take it slowly. 

Stack height vs. running strike in zero drop running shoes
  Minimal stack height Medium and maximal stack height
Stack height values 0-12mm 13-33mm
Recommended foot strike Best for forefoot and midfoot strikers All, but heel strikers appreciate high stack the most
Brands to look at Merrell, Vibram Five Fingers, Vivobarefoot, Xero Altra

3. Do I need arch support?

Not all zero-drop shoes are completely flat and supportless. Some come with cushion and arch support and the most famous among them are Altra zero drop running shoes. The moment you put them on, you’ll feel an arch-shaped cushioned bottom. 

Arch shaped support inside a shoe

Visible arch-shaped support inside an Altra shoe.

However, if you prefer completely flat running shoes with no support features, brands like Vibram Five Fingers, Vivobarefoot, Xero are worth checking out. Either way, take it slowly. 

4. Which fit do I prefer?

Zero drop running shoes have the most options when it comes to the width of the shoes and toebox design. 

First, it all started with the idea that zero-drop running shoes will resemble barefoot running. Then those shoes got a bit of stack, a bit of support, and today there are even maximalist running shoes with a heel to toe drop of 0mm. 

Next to the regular options found in the rest of the running world, these are specific to zero-drop only: 

  • Vibram Five Fingers. Might look weird at first, but people swear by them. Basically, every toe has a pocket of its own. 
  • Foot-shaped shoes. These running shoes actually resemble the shape of your feet - toebox are wide, enough to wiggle your toes, and they don’t feel like your feet need to adjust to a design. It’s vice versa. Altra has trademarked this design. 

Either way, take it slowly. 

The difference between barefoot, zero drop and minimalist running shoes

To once and for all distinguish these categories. 

Minimalist, barefoot and zero drop running shoes

In the realm of running shoes, there are minimalist running shoes - shoes that need to satisfy a certain set of criteria. Zero-drop shoes may or may not be minimalist shoes, simply because heel to toe drop is only one out of 5 factors counting in the minimalist index. And all barefoot shoes are zero-drop shoes. They are minimalist of the minimalist. Pure logic dictates that barefoot humans have no heel drop. 

Barefoot running shoes offer the best ground feel.

barefoot-minimalist-running-shoe.jpg

Example of a barefoot running shoe Merrell Vapor Glove 4

Nothing else is exact because most of the benefits depend on the stack height which varies both in zero drop and minimalist running shoes. 

Are zero-drop shoes bad for your knees?

Depends. While low-drop running shoes affect lower leg muscles, that doesn’t mean they are bad for knees or any other part of the body. 

This study has shown that zero-drop shoes can be a great alternative for women with knee pain or weakness. This study has gone on to show that heel drop did not affect the injury risk in 553 runners (after a 6-month follow-up). 

Transitioning to a zero drop running shoe

Transitioning period when going from a higher drop to a zero drop is a must. Take it seriously, take it slowly. 

Here are a few facts to help you understand it:

  • The bigger the difference in the drop, the longer the transition period should be. Consider doing it in steps, e.g. getting shoes with a 4mm difference in the drop, not 8 or 10mm. 
  • By changing the drop, you are changing the muscles that will work more while running. Lower drop [1 in the table below] asks for ankle, foot muscles, calves and Achilles to work more. Sometimes they are not ready and need more time to adapt. Higher drop [2 in the table] activates knees and hip muscles more.
Low High
Lower leg muscles impacted by a heel drop Higher leg muscles impacted by a heel drop
  • It will help if you start slowly. If there’s no pain, use your shoes every day at short distances, even if it’s only going to the grocery store. Slowly, up the ante. The moment you feel pain during or after the run, rest and don’t put on the same shoes again until you’re feeling ok. It should not come to that, ideally, at all. 

How long it takes to transition to a zero-drop shoe completely? 

For some, it’s 2 months. For other people, we’re talking about 1 year of slowly transitioning. As this study has shown, 10-week usually is not enough. 

It’s completely individual and depends on a few factors:

  • Your overall health and the strength of your leg muscles,
  • Previous injuries, 
  • The difference in heel drop (it takes more time to go from 10mm to 0mm than from 4mm to 0mm),
  • Whether you follow the transitioning guidelines and listen to your body,
  • The amount of cushioning (cushioned zero-drop shoes are easier on the feet than completely flat running shoes that allow you to feel every little rock, crack, leaf underneath them). 

This doesn’t mean you should run only in zero-drop shoes. It’s OK to mix and match with your other shoes as well. 

Keep in mind, one drop doesn’t work for everyone. Going zero-drop should be your decision and you should go through with it only if you enjoy it. 

Author
Jovana Subic
Jovana Subic

Whether it's a vertical kilometre or an ultra, climbing in the Alps or exploring local mountains, Jovana uses every opportunity to trade walls and concrete for forests and trails. She logs at least 10h/week on trails, with no off-season, and 4x more on research on running and running shoes. With a background in physics and engineering management, she prefers her running spiced with data.