'Zero-Drop' Running Shoes Are Everywhere. Here's The True Story Of How They Were Invented
But, if one shoe industry entrepreneur is to believed, the term “zero-drop” wasn’t actually coined with barefoot running shoes in mind. According to Golden Harper, founder of the running shoe and apparel company Altra, he coined the term “zero-drop” while experimenting with off-the-rack shoes, under the belief that uneven footwear increased the likelihood of injuries.
It was around “2008, 2009, somewhere right in there”, before Altra was even even formed, when Harper and a local shoemaker in his hometown of Orem, Utah would take cushioned shoes and meticulously shave off the extra cushioning in the back in order to make it level with the front of the shoe.
“One day, the shoemaker was measuring and sanding he was like, ‘Okay, it still looks like it’s dropping two millimeters from heel to forefoot,’ and I’m like ‘let’s get that extra two millimeters out of there,’” Harper
says. “And so he sanded a little more, lined it up, and he’s like, ‘Okay, it looks we got about zero millimeters of drop.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re a genius. We don’t have to call these hacked-up modified shoes anymore. We’ll call them zero-drop shoes. It’s a way more catchy term.’”
Harper and his partners soon published information on their modified shoes on the Internet, along with the descriptor “zero-drop.” From there, word of mouth spread, with running enthusiasts regularly trekking to his family’s Utah running store to ask if they could see—or even buy—the hacked-together prototypes.
“It was like Fight Club,” Harper says. “They’d come up and say their friend told them about these zero-drop shoes and they wanted to try them, and we’re like, there’s no such thing, and they’d be like ‘We know they’re in the back.’”
It was around this time the barefoot running craze took off, in part spurred by the publication of Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book Born To Run in 2009. For the major manufacturers looking for catchy marketing terms to apply to then-novel barefoot-style running shoes, “zero-drop” proved irresistible. “They took our term that described how the cushioning in the shoe didn’t drop the heel to the forefoot and then applied it to these shoes that had no cushioning at all,” Harper says. “By definition, that’s zero drop. They basically made it a generic term for flat or barefoot shoes.
Interestingly, Harper is a believer in cushioned running shoes as a way of protecting against the rocks and obstacles that one might encounter on a trail—he just wants his cushioning to be flat. So while most companies only make zero-drop shoes in the barefoot-style, Altra, which has since been acquired by NordicTrack parent Icon Fitness, applies the design to everything from trail runners and hiking boots, to casual sneakers.