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How To Transition To Zero Drop Footwear

How To Transition To Zero Drop Footwear

Let me start with a little background: back in the day I was a tank driver, and managed to injure my knees pretty seriously along the way. A couple of surgeries later and many, many, many hours of physiotherapy later, my orthopedist told me that I probably would never be able to run again. Back then, I was fine with it, since I hated running.

A few years later I moved to England and joined the local outdoor/climbing/running community as part of my career. During that time I got introduced to the idea of barefoot running - it was very popular and cool - so I tried it, and loved it. I read Born To Run, like everyone else, and got into running more seriously including long hikes in minimalist shoes and even tried the Vibram FiveFingers. Yes, my wife found it a bit odd too.

Vibram Five Fingers

I have been using zero drop footwear for over a decade now, and I have no knee pain anymore. I run regularly, hike often, have thru-hiked hundreds of miles, and am an active parent to two small humans. My knees never hurt from these activities, in direct contrast to the prognosis I was given all those many years ago. 

So why am I telling you all this? Not to get you into the barefoot running idea. It has turned out to be mainly a fad of the last decade, though some of us stayed with it. No, the reason I'm telling you all this is about what stayed: zero drop footwear, the meeting between traditional movement style and modern footwear technology.

Gilad backpacking in Merrell Zerodrop shoes

A brief history of modern running footwear

In the olden days, before Nike, you had dress shoes, heels and for the athletes: flats. All runners for a very long time used flat running shoes (aka: flats) for track racing, while the rest of the developing world used what ever they could find to cover their feet and protect them from being shredded.

Fast forward to 1966, Bill Bowerman, Nike and Jogging. Americans were introduced to a new concept: running for physical exercise. Until the 60's, running was only required as cross training for athletes. It became increasingly clear that the modern, sanitary, and increasingly suburban USA needed to move; jogging was the answer.

In 1966, Blue Ribbon Sports (later Nike) developed jogging shoes and found that runners needed support to run on roads in the suburbs. To make the shoes even better, a "bouncing" effect was introduced that included increasing the heel height to "push" the runner forward. 

This move to footwear that is meant to move us forward was the end of flats for runners and the introduction of differential and stacked height technologies in athletic shoes. 

Man jogging on a trail

Differential and Stacked Height

Two terms often used for athletic footwear (including trail shoes) are stacked height and deferential.

Stacked height is the total of height of material between the ground and the foot. This is where the term barefoot, minimal, maximal or other is used. Stack height is marked by mm and are in the specifications part of the shoe (heel, mid, toe). The higher the number, the softer, or more supple, the shoe is.

Differential is the height difference between the forefoot's rest place in the shoe and the heel's, also measured in mm and this is where we find zero drop, aka: zero differential. Here, the higher the number, the higher the heel is compared to the forefoot.

Shoe showing Differential and Stacked Height

Zero drop footwear

Now that we have defined some terms, we can focus on zero drop footwear: shoes (and boots and sandals) that have a flat bottom and may include lots of cushioning, or none at all.

The idea behind zero drop footwear is to allow a natural stride and gait, utilizing the foot's natural bounce and structure. The foot is like a spring, using the arch to absorb the impact of movement by tensing the calf to avoid hard impact of the heel. By using a flat surface (flat shoe) instead of shoes with an elevated heel, we use that natural bounce and shock absorbing that our feet have instead of a big soft foamy heel in the shoe.

Altra Lone Peak 1.5 in Scotland

This natural stride and form is now seen as healthier and reduces injury risks for athletes (runners or long distance hikers), especially those engaging in repetitive activity.

There are several companies out there that offer zero drop footwear. Some claim to have "invented" the modern zero drop shoe, but as discussed above, it is a pretty old concept. All sport footwear companies that cater to runners have had a running flat (or race shoe) in their range. 

Currently, there are several companies that are carrying the zero drop flag:

  • Altra Running
  • Xero Shoes
  • Vivo Barefoot
  • Lems Footwear

Altra King Mountain

Issues with zero drop

After years of getting used to using footwear with some amount of differential (check your shoes, you'll find almost all of them have a heel) people develop short calf muscles, which then causes problems when exploring the world of zero drop shoes.

Natural stride requires shifting our posture forward, utilizing the forefoot (not the the heel) as we stride. This kind of natural movement puts lots of pressure on the calf to rebound the impact from the stride. In order to get the most out of zero drop footwear and a natural stride, especially without injury, there are two key things to do:

  1. Practice correct form
  2. Train and stretch calf muscles

Pic of big calf muscles

Training for healthy use of zero drop footwear


Developing the right form for natural movement is tricky and consists of three factors: standing straight, taking smaller strides and having bouncy steps. Instead of me taking you through a very long attempt to explain, please read this great article from the Natural Running Center: http://naturalrunningcenter.com/natural-running-form/

The article has all you need to run correctly; when you are ready to dive deeply into healthy walking practices that are directly connected to natural movement, research Alexander Technique. For a crash course, the video below explains it all:

Calf Muscles

The biggest hurdle and the easiest to sort out is caring for calf muscles by strengthening them and elongating them to avoid injury. Tight, sore calves lead to bad form, and increased chance for rolled ankles and shin splits. Caring for your calves should be done by practicing long calf raises, starting gradually and working up to more.

Find a step of choice (can be stairs or side walk) and practice long calf raises:

Aim for doing these twice a day, 3 times each, with increased repetition starting from day 5.

Before getting into any physical activity, check with your doctor to confirm no underlying issue that will prevent you from do this safely.

Hiking with flat sandals

With the right training of form and calves, you too can enjoy the benefits of zero drop footwear, especially if you are due to tackle a long distance trail. The long term benefits are huge and it does allow for healthier and more comfortable hiking. Just check how many Altra shoes you can find on the long trails in the US to understand how much zero drop is part of being able to hike hundreds of even thousands of miles.

Enjoy your hike!


Should I Filter My Water on the PCT?

Should I Filter My Water on the PCT?

With the thru-hiking season around the corner and rain and snow still very much part of the PCT landscape, the repeated question around water filtering comes up. When you are out in the middle of nowhere, in the backcountry, getting water from a stream, do you really need to filter that water?

To jump to the conclusion: yes, you need to filter water on the PCT. 

And now a bit more:

Why filtering water in the backcountry?

Despite the very tempting look of a refreshing stream on a warm summer day, the primary source of what gets us sick outdoors are the things we can't see or smell. Water sources might look great but you often don't see the water all the way to the source.

Maybe there is a dead animal a few miles up stream? A fellow camper wasn't great in their LNT practices and went number 2 too close to the water? Even just a day hiker enjoying dipping their feet in the water a bit up stream. All these situations can easily lead to potential water contamination and the inevitable mess in your bowels. 

The main reasons to filter water are around human interaction; the increased number of hikers along the PCT means that water sources can get contaminated easily.

Feet in Water

What happens when you drink contaminated water?

The CDC lists a long list of potential contaminates in water but the main two that tend to be found in the backcountry are Giardia and E. Coli. Giardia is a parasite and E. Coli is a bacteria and when digested, both can cause gastrointestinal problems.

Digesting Giardia or E. Coli doesn't have to mean getting sick; a person can easily be asymptomatic, but if symptoms show up, especially in the backcountry, that can be nasty. Here is what to expect:

  • Diarrhea
  • Gas or flatulence
  • Greasy stool that can float
  • Stomach or abdominal cramps
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Dehydration

The real danger for hikers in the last one: dehydration. When having severe diarrhea and a messed up stomach, it is very hard to stay hydrated, let a lone the terrible feeling of needing to urgently dig a cat hole every few minutes to get another liquid mess out from the back end. 

TP mess on the trail

But what about the weight?

Despite the temptation to get to a sub 7 lbs base weight, water filtering gear is worth its weight in gold. Ditching water treatment is a very bad idea for anyone hiking over time. There are alternatives like tablets, but they can be tricky.

Chemical tablets are indeed lighter than filters on the trail, but getting the right reaction time and the perfect ratio is a matter of practice, especially for new hikers. Many times you will be getting to a water source, especially in SoCal, and needing to not just get water for the next leg, but camel up after running out of water a while back. Chemical treating means waiting, and if you are impatient or very thirsty, you can easily get a gastrointestinal illness.

Cameling water at a water hole

Some resources to get you sorted

If you are still stuck in the pump era (which you should ditch by now), have a quick read on what hikers used on the PCT last year for water treating. This is a great post by Halfmile Anywhere.

After you read that, come back here and get a Vecto to match your filter.

Second, make sure you are on top of the PCT Water Report, a great site that is constantly updated thanks to other hikers, and will give the status of water resources.

If you are still not sure how to carry your water, I wrote a post a while back about it, so give it a read. The consensus is that you should have at least 4 liters water capacity for Southern California, and then reducing to 1-3 liters depending on your hiking style. 

PCT sign

Conclusion and a story

To sum it all up: do yourself a favor and filter your water on the PCT. The small weight penalty of a reliable source of drinking water is worth it to make sure you stay healthy on the trail and actually make it thru your hike. 

Getting sick on the trail will probably lead to leaving the trail and a good few days (if not weeks) of not hiking, saying good bye to your trail family or even missing Sierra hiking windows.

Last, a story about my personal experience with a nasty case of Giardia: A long time ago, I hiked along the Andes, young and carefree. I was hiking in Bolivia, getting to a side trail leading from the Andes down to the Youngas. My hiking partner and I left the high mountains for the lush forest, having the most amazing time, until 3-4 days in, when I got terrible cramps and stomach pain. It probably wouldn't have been so bad if we weren't in the middle of a trail on a gorge, hundreds of feet above the river and only more gorge in each direction for a couple of days.

Gilad sick at Bolivia

We made a decision to share my cramped 2 person tent for a few days on a tiny ledge on the trail, with me running to throw up or having the runny bowels off the side of the cliff. Luckily I had antibiotics for such an occasion, but after 3 days of being a mop, not eating and being completely drained, putting my (very heavy) backpack back on to hike out of the gorge was very hard.

The moral of the story is: filter your water. Don't be like me.