There's a particular freedom and personal fulfilment to be experienced from running challenging distances in all terrains on feet which have been trained to be tough.
Over the last 45 years, biomechanical engineering has thrown the doors of the running world wide open, making this sport an accessible and comfortable form of catharsis even for those with painful foot conditions.
While that evolution continues apace, there is still a dedicated body of runners who prefer to see what kind of performance can be coaxed from minimalist shoes; there's something exhilarating about building up the same kind of strength and stamina as the barefoot super-athletes in parts of the world where their own body is their chief source of power, and their shoes feature no bells or whistles.
In this context, the bells and whistles come in the form of all the efficiency-boosting mod cons which individualize “traditional” competitive running shoes and maximize their comfort. Biomechanically designed midsole cushioning. Gel heels. Gel-infused midsole memory foams. 3D-printed uppers. The list goes on. However, across numerous makes, lines and models, one thing most traditional shoes have in common is a higher heel-to-toe (HTT) drop. The “drop” is also referred to as the offset, or the differential.
Shoes with “zero drop” (where there is no difference in height between the heel and toe) come closest to emulating the barefoot running experience, albeit with a rubber sole to prevent puncture injuries. Running shoes with a 4mm drop between heel and toe heights are in the “minimalist” class of shoe, the gentle HTT gradient coming from the modest cushioning which stabilizes the foot.
Runners who are looking for a more natural feel in their shoe while acclimating to a lesser proportion of cushioning may find that minimalist shoes offer the perfect balance of protective but unfussy footwear.
We’ve cross-referenced the 4mm drop running shoes which are both recommended by running enthusiasts and widely appreciated by verified purchasers, and we’ve narrowed down a list of our four best minimalist shoes with this precise gradient in the cushion. If you have time, you might want to read on for the factors to take into consideration if you’re new to wearing this kind of shoe.
Best Running Shoes with a 4mm Heel Drop
OUR TOP PICK
These shoes provide that lovely cross between the barefoot running sensation and the cushioning you would expect in an all-rounder sneaker. Along with the calves and hamstrings, the arches of the feet always take a little punishment to begin with when transitioning to a shoe with a smaller drop, so if you have a moderate or higher arch than usual, then the cushioning in the midsole should still give you good impact protection.
Brooks’ own BioMoGo DNA cushioning helps to manage the change. Brooks takes great pride in producing a foam which adapts to your stride and stress points, and which dissipates impact stress away from your body with each foot strike. The Pureflow 7 is in Brooks’ ‘Connected’ class of shoe, meaning that the cushioning is responsive rather than soft and enables you to feel the ground as you go, enabling you to develop a natural cadence, rhythm and strike pattern.
It’s a particularly flexible shoe, good for speedy runners. The flexibility comes from the depth of the grooves between the traction pads of the outsole. They almost meet the sockliner, which means that the shoe practically segments when you push off from the toes. This makes the Pureflow 7 popular with runners who land further forward on their feet. For those who strike towards the rear, there’s solid support from the heel counter from the padded collar right down to the insole.
The outsole is made of a gum rubber which absorbs and dissipates the impact shock of each footfall. This is going to help take the stress out of your first runs and provide good comfort over longer distances.
The seamless upper is a stretch-woven fabric which fits close around the internal bootie for that plush feel. An unadorned toe box is an absolute plus when you’re looking for an unfussy shoe to help you to find your natural pace. No seam chafing, no depression along the line where toes meet foot, and no added blistering risk.
This is a good entry-level shoe in terms of comfort and budget for those moving towards a more minimalist fit.
Attractive and multi-purpose
Lightweight and breathable
Good for speed
Good ankle support
Nice breathable inner bootie
Widely recommended by running groups
Women’s size range runs small (5-9.5) compared to other brands and Brooks’ own alternative lines
The deep grooves can collect smaller stones on extended gravel runs
- SHOE SIZE: “D” = Medium width
- FOOT SUPPORT: Ideal for runners with a medium to high arch looking for neutral support.
- CONNECTED FEEL: Provides a lightweight and flexible feel that lets you move naturally and connect to your run
Overall, shoes by Hoka One One overall tend to veer towards a moderate-to-minimalist HTT gradient in their designs and the Bondi 6 is one of the softest rides you’ll get with a 4mm offset. It’s a road racing shoe which also serves as a comfortable all-day experience for people whose jobs keep them on their feet for eight hours plus.
As ever with a Bondi shoe, cushioning and comfort are the priorities and the Bondi 6 has pillow-like support in the full-EVA midsole. Customers have made comparisons to running in marshmallows.
At first glance you wouldn’t think that the drop is so small because of the sheer height of the heel stacks (33mm for men and 31mm for women, stepping down to 29mm and 27mm respectively at the forefoot.) Nonetheless, the internal gradient is exceptionally shallow. If you’re a former or recovering sufferer of plantar fasciitis who is looking to transition gently to a flatter, more minimalist shoe, then the Bondi 6 could be your best option as a recovery shoe on the barefoot running path. You’re not going to get a much softer shoe in a gradient which comes close to zero-drop.
The midsole cushioning helps to keep your feet in position inside the shoe and there is generous room in the toe box, even for those who don’t take a ‘wide’ option with the sizing. The EVA cushioning can handle a heavy tread and is exceptionally durable, testers confirming that it keeps its day 1 spring after the first 200 miles.
Both the cushioning and the wide base make for a very stable ride with a responsiveness which could help you to make the best of your natural stamina levels. This stability is helped by a slight update to the tread design in the outsole. The lugs remain grippy (as with the Bondi 5) but the shallower grooves allow for better contact with the sidewalk.
The upper has seen a redesign which introduces Lycra into the mesh pattern. The result is a soft and snug enclosure which allows for good flexibility for those who land heavily on the forefoot.
The Bondi 6 comes in a generous array of colors. Guys get a choice of 21 designs in half sizes from 7 to 14; women can choose from 17 color combinations in half sizes from 5 through 11. Many of the designs for both male and female iterations come with wide options.
Although the high-stacked soles give the impression of heaviness, these shoes come in the middle of the pack in terms of weight with an average 10.9oz for the men’s and 8.6oz for the women’s.
Metarocker sole and EVA cushioning make for a super-soft ride
Good durability of the outsole and cushioning
Great for comfort over longer distances
Great value for money but still an investment shoe
A little difficult to dial in speed for shorter distances
New Balance have gone to town with the ventilation on this shoe with a wider weave diamond-shaped mesh across the forefoot and sewn-in tongue, and a finer mesh lapping the sides and the rear. This relaxed material and light fit does not hamper the supportiveness of the upper, however. There is welcome toe protection for those less forgiving sections of trail, and diagonal rubber bands stretch outward from beneath the collar to the midsole to add a little more external heel support without the anti-minimalist clutter of an inbuilt heel counter.
The outsole is made of Vibram rubber with multi-directional lugs for good grip over uniform surfaces. The 10 v1 is popular for its versatility, runners hitting the road with them in between trail events.
Now let’s look at the interior. In keeping with the ‘Minimus’ pared-down ethos, there is no insole for this shoe. The cushioning comes from Acteva foam midsole which is lighter than the competitors’ EVA self-molding support. Acteva is lighter, yes, but not softer. In fact it compresses very little, even under pressure, which gives your soles excellent protection from the pain of traversing uneven surfaces. That said, the density makes it rather difficult to apply downward stabilizing pressure with the toes. This could make steep hill ascents even more challenging than usual.
Overall, it’s a durable, popular trail shoe which offers good protection and the opportunity to build up impressive speed. The men’s range comes in 7 designs with wide options and half-sizes from 5 to 14. Somewhat unfairly, the women’s shoe comes in the single style option of gray and guava (pink), though the sizes run large from 5-12 (also with half-sizes and wide options).
Comfortable and versatile
Extremely lightweight with good ventilation
Good traction from the outsole
Extra toe protection for harsher terrain
Excellent customer feedback
Fits a narrower foot
Price oscillates wildly according to design and size availability (prevent frustration by setting a budget filter on Amazon’s left-hand search facility).
Downward flexion a little difficult
Women’s ‘line’ looks like an afterthought
The Saucony A9 is a speed shoe from a popular line of racing flats. This 4mm-drop A9 is minimal on the detailing, the weight (6oz!) and the cushioning. If a design feature doesn't directly contribute to speed, it's not part of the shoe’s spec.
The uncomplicated construction of this shoe should appeal to the runner working on his or her natural gait and footfall style. The midsole is shaped with Saucony's own Superlight EVA foam for stability with a snug, soft synthetic mesh upper which has been 3D printed as a single entity and built into the PWRTRAC outsole.
PWRTRAC is Saucony's signature tacky and durable rubber designed to retain outstanding traction, even in wet or slippery conditions.
In terms of performance, they allow you to achieve fantastic speed with solid connection to the ground, and they'll lower your odds in short races. However, though responsive, the EVA midsole foam does its minimalist job in stabilizing your foot rather than cushioning it. Although this could move you closer to the ideal of barefoot running, there is a slight danger of developing hot spots if the event is longer than 5 or 6 miles.
The aesthetic design for both male and female lines could divide opinion, admittedly. On one hand, you might feel that the colorway is cheerful and motivating. On the other hand, you’ll never blend in with the greenery if you're doing competitive paintballing with colleagues.
The size range is generous, offering half-sizes and wide options up to size 15 for men and size 12 for women.
Stable and reliable price point across all size variations for the designs
Soft and lightweight
Better for short distances or brief events
Not a forgiving sole for the heavier runner (200lb+ or BMI over 27)
Best Running Shoes with a 4mm Heel Drop - Buying Guide
We've listed a few things you could take into account while shopping for minimalist shoes to help you pick the best pair for your purposes. We also hope to answer some of your most frequently asked questions in this section.
Are minimalist shoes better for you than traditional ones?
Between approximately 2009 (following the release of Christopher McDougall's 'Born to Run') and 2012, the debates surrounding this question raged very much more ferociously. The arguments in favor of a more minimalist running shoe are that they encourage a more natural gait (with a stronger tendency to land on the fore or midfoot), and that barefoot running strengthens the ligaments in your feet and legs.
The one benefit that isn't in doubt is the self-esteem and confidence boost which is derived from the ability to run long distances on unforgiving surfaces with particularly tough feet.
Multiple studies ensued, the upshot of which showed that there was no significant statistical correlation between adopting a natural, front-striking gait and acquiring fewer injuries. Likewise, there is no discernible, direct relationship between the continued use of a traditional shoe with a higher heel stack and HTT gradient and damage to the hips, knees or arches. Frustratingly, the outcome of all that research seems to be the rather prosaic message that whichever footwear you favor, you should run safely in them.
So, should you stick to one type? Traditional or Minimalist?
You can make a transition, but it's best to do this cautiously. If you're used to a 10-12mm drop, then you're less likely to incur injury if you move first into a moderate drop shoe (6-10mm) before something more minimal (4-6mm) and then a shoe that is or which approaches a zero differential between heel and toe.
If it seems that this would take a very long time, then alternate between your current shoes (or a budget replacement of them) and your minimal drop shoes until you become comfortable with the associated change in gait and posture.
You're also recommended allowing for a generous breaking-in period for new minimal-drop shoes. Unless you're already replacing a shoe which is of the same HTT gradient, don't expect 4mm drop shoes to be comfortable right out of the box. If they are, then by all means have a small but joyful party. However, it's more likely that your calves and soles will need time to adjust to the changed demands on them, and even a wider shoe may seem tight at first because the foot tends to spread when there's minimal build around the midsole.
In fact, Vibram, who produce their own toe-shoes as well as being a leading manufacturer of outsoles, recommend that you allow at least six weeks between purchase and your first attempts at a competitive event.
The same advice applies if you're moving from a shoe with a high heel stack to a low one, even if both shoes have the same HTT gradient. Your heel strike pattern will change and you need to give yourself time to adapt.
Expand your options by paying attention to the cushioning
A softer foam will compress more under pressure. A soft-cushioned shoe with a drop of 5 or 6mm may serve your needs just as well as a 4mm drop shoe with a firmer base.
Finally… consider a wider fit than usual
Until you build further strength in the ball of your foot, the heel, and along the ligaments in the arch, the repetitive motion of hitting the ground harder with the full surface of your sole may cause more heat, expansion and spreading at first. Look for a shoe with a generous toe box, or consider a wide fit at the start. If you have naturally narrow feet, then this is unlikely to be an issue.