So you want a zero-drop shoe!? But you’re not ready to give up the cushion.
I get it; cushion has its benefits. Although I can’t promise that barefoot shoes won’t come up at some point 🙂
In this post, we’ll look at some of the best zero-drop shoes in this niche and maybe introduce you to a new brand or two.
And more importantly, I’ll take you through each shoe’s fit and feel to ensure it’s the right match for YOUR FEET!
So let’s get straight into it with a legend in the zero-drop shoe scene.
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Altra Escalante 3
Altra almost certainly came up in the conversation if you’ve ever talked zero-drop to anyone. They are the most significant player in this market, considering all their models are zero-drop.
And one model standing out from the crowd: The Altra Escalante 3.
The Escalante has had a substantial following since its inception, and now, even though it’s lost some of its wide forgiving squishiness, it’s still a solid choice.
A wide toe box that narrows towards the midfoot. Another standout feature of Altra’s are the wide toe boxes. They allow your toes to splay and help the foot work naturally. This is no different in the Escalante, but the midfoot has narrowed down over the years. That’s good in some sense because they used to be sloppy on the feet. Now they feel much more race ready.
The Escalante 3 achieves a strong lockdown partly due to the lack of depth but equally down to the perfected heel. It’s not the deepest of shoes. I even swapped out the thick insoles for thinner options to gain more room in the shoe. But that does mean there’s no sliding around in the shoe. The heel wraps snuggly around the heel and provides a perfect heel lock.
It’s a soft ride if you’re used to conventional shoes at this stack height. With a height of 24mm, usually, you’d find shoes with a firm and responsive midsole. That’s where the Escalante has always differed. It’s soft and squishy like the high-stack shoes but still somewhat responsive. It’s not for everyone, but it works if you want some ground feel.
There’s some flex, but don’t expect a barefoot feeling. Again, the Escalante has stiffened over time, which means it’s lost some flexibility. Anyone used to a lot of flex underfoot will feel out of place in the Escalante, but if you’re coming from conventional brands, it’s a great stepping stone into minimal shoes.
Who’s the Altra Escalante for?
Fit: Wide toe box, average to low volume foot. If you have a narrow heel, try before you buy.
Feel: Less ground feel, more cushion for those easy days or PR attempts!
Topo Athletics ST-4
The ST-4 has a great balance between minimal and cushion, but with one fundamental flaw, I’ll come to later.
Along with Altra, Topo is another brand that started its life with lower-to-the-ground zero-drop shoes. And whereas not all Topo’s are zero-drop now, some elements carry over.
The toe box is plenty wide enough to fit most foot types. Taking a bird’s eye view of the ST-4 highlights the width of the toebox, minimal taper around the big toe, and the (generally speaking) more square-than-conventionally-shaped shoes. These attributes mean that 95% of foot types will fit the toebox with no issues.
The heel could use a little more work. The heel cup is an odd design, using a wetsuit-like material with minimal padding. Usually, an unstructured heel works well for me, but this time the collar just didn’t wrap around and lock me in a place like I’d want to. The feeling didn’t translate into any problems during a run, but I can’t say it was perfect. This particular design would be most comfortable for those with a slightly larger ankle or broader heel.
16mm of softer cushion is the sweet spot. There’s a fine line between high-cushioned and loss-of-ground feel, and ST-4 straddles that perfectly! When I planted my foot, I could feel a little give which I would describe as squishy, which makes them perfect for long, easy runs as a barefoot runner. For others, they’ll suit shorter distances or as a transition shoe from a conventional shoe brand.
Arch support….. seriously?! The conventional shoe industry has no issue with arch support in shoes. But in the barefoot world, arch support is a no-no. Your arch has a specific purpose in the running gait. It should be trained to take the load upon landing and act as a spring upon take off. While the support is minimal, and I technically only felt it when walking, it’s there. The design flies in the face of the original Topo designs, where barefoot was king, so why the change?
Who’s the Topo ST-4 for?
Those who can’t do the Escalante for some reason.
Fit: Wide toe box and an average depth. The heel lock could be an issue for some.
Feel: Great ground feel; just ensure you rotate with a barefoot option so you don’t lose that arch strength!
Lems Primal 2
We’re dropping in stack height with the Primal 2.
With a total stack height of 12.5mm (with insole), this is on the verge of being classed as a minimal shoe. But that might work for you!
If you’ve been looking for wide, you’ve been looking for Lems! The Primal 2 is the widest of all the shoes on this list. From the forefoot to the midfoot, Lems have designed their shoes to accommodate those who need that little extra space.
It’s the lightweight option you may have been looking for! Many studies have shown that a lighter running shoe is more efficient, which leads to faster times. You have to put less effort into throwing your feet back and forth. The Primal 2 comes in at 6.9oz (195g) for a men’s US9, which is lighter than 90% of running shoes out there!
Which Altra Shoe is for you?
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You should go slow when transitioning into a low-stack height shoe. This is true for most of the shoes on this list, but as the Primal 2 is the lowest of the bunch, you’ll be putting much more load through the feet and lower legs (and that’s a good thing for training gains). Because of that, you should rotate the Primal 2’s in slowly and build the distance over time.
The Primal 2 is cheaper than any other shoe on this list. The RRP is $110, and if you’re new to barefoot/minimal running and have wide feet, the price makes the Primal 2 an attractive choice.
Who’s the Lems Primal 2 for?
Fit: Super wide feet from the forefoot to the midfoot.
Feel: Very minimal with a ton of flex. You need to like ground feel!
Altra Lone Peak 7
Here’s the first trail mention! Because zero drop is for the trail too!
Most people have heard of the Lone Peak. It has a strong following in the US trail scene and is the OG for soft flat trail shoes.
The Lone Peak 7 has a wide toe box allowing your toes to splay. Sporting Altra’s “Original Fit,” there is added width in the toe box for those with a wider toe splay. But if you still find they squeeze a little through the forefoot to the midfoot, the wide option is likely for you.
The forefoot width continues back towards the heel. Feet come in all different sizes, and the Lone Peak fits one type of foot particularly well. One that I like to call the log. The wide continues from the forefoot all the way back with slight variation. This fit differs from brands like Hoka or Salomon, who aim for a “precision” fit in the midfoot and heel (that’s code for narrow). So if you have midfoot or heel width issues, try the Lone Peak!
The midsole still feels soft but not bouncy like new foams on the market. Altra hasn’t made those big leaps in midsole bliss yet. It’s still old-school EVA which is dense and a little heavier than the new Pebax. That’s not bad for everyone; some, including me, feel a little uneasy on these newer bouncy foams, and, honestly, I prefer a good, firm EVA. It’s also cheaper! So it keeps the Lone Peak from climbing into those stupid $200 ranges.
With an updated Maxtrac outsole, slippy rocks will be less of an issue. If there is one thing that all shoes struggle with, it’s grip in different environments. Previous Lone Peaks dealt with mud reasonably well, thanks to the unique tread pattern. But when it came to wet rocks, the outsole failed. The Lone Peak 7 fixes this with a new tacky rubber, much like super rubbers from La Sportiva, but does that mean they’ll wear down quicker? Only time will tell.
Who’s the Altra Lone Peak 7 for?
Fit: Wide, straight feet. Choose the wide option if your width is in the midfoot.
Feel: Soft, flexible, with a tiny bit of pop.
Altra Superior 6
Another one from Altra, because they make the best trail running shoes!
The Superior is similar to the Lone Peak, just cut back somewhat.
Less stack height, less aggressive, and less volume across the midfoot. And I think it’s a better shoe all around! 🙂
The forefoot is wide and beautifully squared towards the big toe. Altra’s foot-shaped toebox still exists! It’s wide enough for super toe splayers and even fits my stupid bulbous big toe. 🙂 So yeah, it’s wide enough for most of you out there. The taper on the little toe side is not too aggressive, so it should fit a more square-shaped foot.
It’s wide, but our feet are 3D! There’s no depth to this shoe. If you have a lot of volume in your foot, you may have felt a lot of pressure on the top of the foot in Altra’s. For me, the Superior 6 is no different. I felt a lot of pressure over the top of my foot from the upper. So my super sneaky trick is to replace the insole with something thinner, like a Xero Shoes insole.
You need to be comfortable with your feet doing the work! If there is one thing we’re passionate about at Barefoot Run Review, it’s foot function. Most modern shoes don’t allow your foot to move, let alone contribute to the running gait. The Superior’s do allow your feet to work! The shoe is flexible enough to feel your foot engage on toe-off and minimal enough that your calves will get a good workout.
It’ll take a little time for all the materials to break in. The materials in the upper and midsole are a little stiff and lifeless at first. So it’s going to take a little time to break things in. After 50km, the Superior felt less like a cast and more like an extension of my foot, which is all a shoe should be!
Who’s the Altra Superior 6 for?
Fit: Wide toebox with a shallow depth. Great for those who drown in a Lone Peak.
Feel: Responsive with some ground feel! The flexibility grows over time.
And that’s your top 5 zero-drop shoes!
Some for the trail and some for the road.
Just remember, the main factor on all these shoes is fit, so if you want to drill down into more details on any of these shoes, check out the full reviews below.