How to Get “Level” When Buying Shoes

level_shoeIn the spirit of the holiday season, let’s talk about shopping for running shoes!

I truly believe your running mechanics are more important than your shoes, but shoes do impact your running gait so it is important to be an informed shopper.

This time of year, magazines usually have buyer’s guides with lots of reviews and good information. I hope to add one key piece of advice to help you in your quest for the best running shoe!

Traditional vs. Level Running Shoes . . .
I love to open my running clinics with the following statistic.

The first New York City Marathon was in 1970 and there were 127 people that entered. Only 55 of those that entered actually crossed the finish line.

In 2013 the NYC marathon had a record of 50,304 finishers! Lots more runners this year and lots more injuries too!

Back in 1970, the people that were running marathons were not wearing what we might think of as a traditional running shoe (support, cushion, and an elevated heel). Those people were also not what we’d classify as recreational runners.

It wasn’t until the sport of running started growing that running shoes with more support and cushion were introduced. Today, most recreational runners ARE wearing shoes with a lot of support and cushion, but in the past few years minimal shoes are making a comeback.

So, what is better? Hmmm, this is a tricky one. There is a lot of controversy on whether minimal shoes are good for you and I am not here to enter the great debate.

Let’s just forget the word minimal for now and focus on another word: level.

Why “Level” Matters When Choosing a Running Shoe

There is no debate that when you are standing barefoot, you are in fact, level. No difference between the height of your heel and the height of your toes. So, how does barefoot compare to when you have shoes on?

If your heel is elevated, your body is out of its natural alignment. Your feet are no longer level. This is the key difference between a traditional running shoe with an elevated heel and a level shoe.

Can you Feel the Difference?
I encourage you to experiment with this:

Stand barefoot next to your shoes . . . take note of how your body feels and the way your pelvis is positioned.

photo 1
Then step up onto your shoes so that your toes are on the floor and your heels are slightly elevated . . . take note again. Does your position change? You tell me. You should be able to feel it.

photo 2

Imagine your pelvis is like a bowl of soup, when the heel is elevated, does the soup spill?

Understanding “Drop”

So, how do you know if your heel is higher than your toes when you have shoes on? You have to know what the “drop” of the shoe is.

In my own words: Drop (or heel-toe differential) is the difference between the height of the heel and the height of toes on any shoe, running or casual, measured in millimeters (mm).

If you aren’t lucky enough to live near a running store then try checking the specs of your shoe on-line, the drop information should be available. Sporting goods stores may or may not have salespeople that know this info, but it is sometimes located inside the shoe (a lot of Saucony shoes have it on the insole) or on the box.

These days there are brands like Altra and Vivobarefoot that advertise and sell only “Zero” drop shoes. These shoes are all made level with no difference between the height of the heel and the height of the toes.

One more thing: don’t guess the drop by just looking at the shoe, it can be misleading.

What is the Right “Drop” for You?
No magic number here, but I recommend that you start by finding out what the drop is in your current shoe. Online is the easiest way to do this. Then, when it’s time to buy new shoes, try to work your way down, gradually.

I always recommend 6mm or less of drop for any shoe, running or casual. The reason I recommend 6mm or less is because that’s the way I was taught (by people who are way smarter than I am), but also because I have seen the success of getting people out of an elevated heel and into a shoe that doesn’t change their natural position.

I work part time as a personal trainer, and it is daily that someone tells me their low back hurts. My response to them is always to check their shoes.

If you’re wearing a shoe with an elevated heel you are living each moment of your life out of your body’s natural alignment. It might only be a little bit out of alignment, but over time, that will cause trouble.

Transitioning to Level Running Shoes

I could write an entire article on transitioning from a traditional running shoe to one with a lower drop, but the bottom line is: do it SLOWLY . . . and with professional help!

An easier subject is casual shoes. A really sneaky way to strengthen your feet (and thus improve your running form) is to make your everyday shoes level and/or minimal.

  • Truly minimal or barefoot style shoes are more than just level, but they are also very flexible and have little to no cushion. For everyday use, I encourage you to consider trying a minimal shoe.
  • Our feet are wonderfully complex and have lots of muscles in them. These muscles become weak after being supported, but will strengthen when given the chance. A minimal shoe will help with this. Instead of supporting your feet, consider training them to support you!
  • Transitioning to a less supportive shoe for everyday wear might take a little time, but that varies from person to person. The risk of injury is also quite low, whereas transitioning to a minimal shoe for running can easily lead to injury if you don’t do it carefully.

Running in less of a shoe is a beautiful thing, believe me, you will feel like a kid again… but it takes a long time to transition and some people have no interest in doing that. If that is you, then at least consider walking and just living in less of a shoe. Think of it as strength training for your feet!

In a Nutshell:

  1. Figure out what the drop is in the shoe that you wearing now and consider slowly stepping it down.
  2. Try a minimal shoe for casual wear to help strengthen your feet and live in your natural position.

11 Responses to How to Get “Level” When Buying Shoes

  1. Trevor December 1, 2013 at 8:51 am #

    I’ve head the dudes at the running store talk about “drop” and now I can see why a more minimal drop is better for my body’s natural alignment.

    Thanks Lynn for another great post!

  2. Amanda December 1, 2013 at 10:03 am #

    Oh no! I just found out my shoes have a 12mm drop. I love my shoes, but my back does hurt some after long runs. I just ordered another pair, so I guess I’ll have to cancel that order. Should I go down to 6mm, or is that too much of a drop to start?
    Thank you for the article.

    • Lynn December 1, 2013 at 11:55 am #

      Hi Amanda!

      Excellent question 🙂

      The transition should be gradual, but you could purchase a shoe with 6mm of drop and ease into it…are you training for something right now?

      If you’re doing more off-season training (such as strength & easy running/low miles) this would be a good time to transition to another shoe.

      However, if you are currently training for a race and are required to put in a certain number of miles each week, then I’d be very conservative with your shoe choice.

      As always, I’d recommend you have your running form looked at to identify inefficiencies and ensure you are running with proper mechanics. Something that can happen as you change your shoes is your foot strike may or may not (this varies from person to person) change. As you change your foot strike, the metatarsals are loaded differently than they were before. This is why it is important to transition running shoes carefully & have form critiqued…you could end up with a stress fracture if you do too much, too fast, too soon.

      Does this help?

      Visit and send me a quick video of your running form…I’d love to take a look at your mechanics and give you some more guidance on how to ease into a different shoe~

      Have a wonderful holiday season!

  3. Mike December 1, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    I agree with Trevor, another great post. Thanks, Lynn

  4. Paulette December 1, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

    Great article Lynn…but why didn’t you mention Newton as a zero or level choice…in my opinion one of the best out there…feels like a slipper but with the protection needed and with less injuries.

    • Lynn December 2, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

      Hi Paulette!

      I am so glad you asked this because I agree 100% on Newton Running Shoes being a great choice!

      I started in a Terra Momentus and have transitioned to a Distance…and I love them. I run exclusively in a Newton, but for everyday wear I have several different minimal shoes that I really like.

      The only reason I didn’t mention Newton in the article is because I don’t want to try to push people in one direction or another. I am a true believer that great running form is not about the shoes, but rather how you run when aren’t wearing any! So, for this reason I didn’t want to drive anyone to a certain brand~

      Take care & happy holidays!

  5. Mark December 2, 2013 at 12:27 am #

    I keep having trouble with Achilles pain near my heel on both feet. I was wondering if a level shoe might help with this. It’s very frustrating, as it seems to continually plague me. Enjoyed your article about level shoes. Appreciate any help. Thanks

    • Lynn December 2, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

      Hi Mark,

      Sorry to hear that you have pain and yes, a minimal shoe for everyday wear might help you. Also, I’d recommend foam rolling your calves and even the upper leg. Sometimes an issue in a higher section of your kinetic chain will cause trouble farther down.

      My next advice would be to ice the affected area before you turn in each night…20 minutes on and then 20 off, this will help reduce inflammation.

      This is going to seem like a broken record, but consider having your running form looked at 🙂 I may be able to identify a form flaw that is causing your trouble and I can give you some strength training and drills to correct it…check out my website…if you don’t feel that I’ve helped you, then you don’t pay…it’s pretty sweet!

      • Mark December 2, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

        Thanks Lynn for your help. I will get on your website and have a look. :). Mark

  6. Pc December 2, 2013 at 10:45 am #

    Perfect post at a perfect time! I have been considering easing myself into running with barefoot shoes!!! I have discussed with fellow runners. There are so many mixed reviews/opinions. You convinced me!

    • Lynn December 2, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

      Great to hear! Don’t forget to transition slowly and consider having your gait analyzed 😉
      Happy Running,

Leave a Reply