The Best Minimalist and Barefoot Shoes Review
What is the best minimal or barefoot shoe for running? We chose seven of the best minimalist and barefoot running shoes available and put each to the test in this elaborate and detailed review. Embodied in this review are six separate and necessary factors we use to help decide which minimalist running shoe may be best suited for you. After logging at least fifty miles in each shoe throughout the vast oxygen-stripped Eastern Sierra mountains, we reflectively compare all on ground feeling, traction, comfort, weight, warmth, and foot protection. We did all the hard work for you. So go ahead and sit back, kick off those old heavy clunkers, and relax knowing that by the end of this review you'll find the minimalist running shoe that's a perfect fit for you.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Vibram outsole, improving foot protection and durability.
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Analysis and Test Results
For more details on the differences between barefoot and minimalist shoes and for tips on transitioning, check out our Buying Advice article.
Selecting the Right Product
It's easy to feel bombarded with all the different running shoe options available. How do you feel when you show up to the local running shoe store displaying a hundred different shoes on the wall, and the retail associate has only personally run in two of them? Should you keep running in the standard shoe you've owned the past five years? What about transitioning to something more minimal? Or dare you try a barefoot shoe? Here at OutdoorGearLab, we'll do our best to help you answer those questions. Below, we briefly describe the different types of running shoes and explain which might suit you best. For more detailed advice to help you make an informed purchasing decision on the right style of shoes, check out our Buying Advice article.
Types of Running Shoes
There are three primary broad categories of running shoes.
Traditional Running Shoes
Road Running Shoe Review. The Editors' Choice Winner in our this review is the silent but deadly Brooks Ghost 6.
Minimal Running Shoes
Barefoot Running Shoes
Merrell Trail Glove 2 has the appearance of a minimalist running shoe, yet provides the exact same drop and cushion as the Vibram FiveFingers Treksport. So, how do you really know if a shoe is a barefoot running shoe? To us, a shoe in this style allows ample ground sensitivity, has roll-in-a-ball flexibility, very minimal uppers, and ditches all the bells and whistles that many running shoes have these days. This review also includes multiple models that are considered barefoot models.
Criteria for Evaluation
Our favorite part of running in a minimalist shoe is feeling the road or trail under our feet. The connection between our body and the earth is amplified when running in a minimalist shoe, and we love to feel the rocks, sticks, and dirt beneath our feet. Having high ground sensitivity is an important factor in a good minimalist running shoe and is our highest weighted factor in this review. Deciding which minimalist shoe has the best ground feeling is not too difficult, we were able to rate the shoes on ground feeling in just the very first or second run in them. Ground feeling in the group of minimalist shoes we tested varies greatly. Just a 3 mm difference in the midsole or outsole can create a significant change in ground sensitivity. We rate the barefoot style Merrell Trail Glove 2 and the Vibram FiveFingers Treksport as providing the highest ground feeling in the whole group. These two shoes offer more sensitivity than the other shoes we tested, yet still have a substantial enough outsole to protect the feet from anything sharp that could potentially injure. Unlike the New Balance Minimus, which has significant midsole foam exposed on the outsole, both the Trail Glove 2 and Treksport feature a full-length Vibram outsole to completely protect the feet.
Choosing a minimalist running shoe with sufficient traction is a necessary factor, especially if you're a runner who gravitates towards more trail running or technical terrain. We logged runs on a variety of terrain and conditions in every shoe in our test group to decide which one provides us with the best traction. All of the shoes give us similar traction when running on the road, so when rating the traction on each shoe we looked more into how well they perform on trails and off-road terrain. After logging miles in each shoe on brutal trails, through creek crossings, and while rock hopping, we found the Inov8 Trailroc 245 offers the most traction. The Trailroc 245 has large lugs covering the whole outsole, which grip to any type of terrain amazingly. Inov8 calls this their TRI-C Sole, which contains three different rubber compounds to provide the best grip available in any shoe. The New Balance Minimus 10v2 Trail come in at a close second. Though, we find that the Minimus are more versatile and can still be used comfortably on the roads, unlike the Trailroc, which we notice the ride comfort to significantly decline when running on the road.
Less shoe doesn't have to mean less comfort. In fact, we feel the Nike Free 5.0 as well as the New Balance Minimus have as comfortable of a ride as many of the top rated standard road running shoes we tested earlier this year. In addition, the Nike Free 5.0 and Minimus 10v2 Trail have an almost non-existent break-in period. What we look for in the most comfortable minimalist running shoes is reliable comfort that lasts through the whole run on varying terrain. We want a shoe that's not too stiff or too soft, and provides the perfect balance of comfort on road or trail. We give the highest rating in comfort to the Nike Free 5.0 because of the extremely soft landing it provides along with its signature horizontal and vertical grooves that go through the whole outsole, promoting flexibility.
If you're a runner who is used to training in regular cushioned or stability shoes and is transitioning to minimalist running shoes, all of the shoes in our test will likely feel very light for you. The ideal weight for a minimalist running shoe hovers between 6-7 ounces, though, the difference between a six ounce and an eight ounce minimalist running shoe is significant. We notice that the lighter the shoe is, the more significant the weight difference becomes. We really feel a big difference in the two ounce discrepancy of the New Balance Minimus 10v2 Trail and the Inov8 Trailroc 245. The lightest of all the minimalist running shoes we tested are the New Balance Minimus weighing at 6.3 ounces.
In some places, winter conditions can be harsh. The weather doesn't care if you've come out for your run unprepared, and before you know it your feet are wet, cold, and on the brink of numbness. If you plan to be logging a significant amount of your miles in such conditions and don't want a standard, somewhat suffocating Gore-Tex running shoe, we recommend choosing one of our minimalist running shoes with a high warmth rating such as the Brooks Pure Connect 3, which we rated the highest, or the Nike Free 5.0. Most minimal shoes are light and meshy with very thin uppers, but a few models in our test, like these two models, provide a little more insulation than others. Understand that there is more to a shoe's warmth than having a thicker upper, which you might have initially believed. With someone on the brink of hypothermia, covering them with a blanket doesn't provide nearly as much warmth as throwing a thick ground pad beneath them. The same goes with minimalist running shoes, the thinner the outsole, the less warmth the shoe will provide.
That being said, the barefoot Vibram FiveFingers Treksport and Merrell Trail Glove 2 provide us with the least amount of warmth in the whole group. Since the outsole in these two shoes is so thin, light, and flexible, they give us barely any insulation from a cold running surface. Though, we dont' feel you should worry too much about this unless you're planning to use these shoes in extreme winter conditions for extended periods of time.
Finding the perfect balance between providing enough foot protection yet still allowing ample ground sensitivity and not straying from a true minimalist running shoe design is a tough nut to crack for shoe companies. Essentially, the more minimal the shoe, the less foot protection it will have. We were looking for a shoe that can protect the feet on rugged trails but still allow for a light ground feeling.
Another factor we take into account when giving a minimalist shoe a high rating in foot protection is the ankle roll rate. For example the Brooks Pure Connect 3 have the most substantial midsole of the group, yet also have a narrow fit and high stack height, which we notice to increase the likelihood of rolling an ankle.
After throwing the most unforgiving terrain at each minimalist shoe in the group, we give the highest foot protection rating to the Inov8 Trailroc 245. What the Inov8 Trailroc 245 lacks in ground feeling, it makes up for in foot protection. The outsole contains a Meta-shank rock plate protection, which really puts the Trailroc 245 on a whole different level than the rest of the minimalist running shoes we tested. We searched out the most rugged trails in the Eastern Sierra and the Trailroc 245's outsole wasn't even phased.
Even our Editors' Choice Award winner the, New Balance Minimus 10v2 Trail, is no match when compared to the Trailroc 245's foot protection. The outsole of the Minimus 10v2 has exposed foam between the Vibram treads. We occasionally encounter sharp rocks sneaking in those soft spots when landing, which can potentially cause you a bruised foot.
Ask The Expert: Anthony Culpepper
Below we ask expert ultra-runner Anthony Culpepper a few questions aboutbarefoot and minimalist shoes. Anthony began running in zero-drop minimalist shoes in 2008, and has been running periodically in sandals since 2011. At this point he runs exclusively in zero-drop shoes. He is the veteran of over 20 100-mile ultra races and prefers running hard and technical 50-100 mile races and fixed time races. He is what you would call a trail running junky.
Can you describe your experience transitioning from traditional running shoes to barefoot and minimalist shoes?
I first started wearing Inov-8 F-lite's, a minimalist zero-drop shoe, in 2008. Before that I was wearing high-drop Montrail's, the Mountain Masochist, which I still like, but when Montrail was bought out by Columbia, I switched to Inov-8's. I was wearing their beefier trail shoes at first, but decided to try their F-lite's and loved them. But at that point I was only wearing them on the road or easier trails, and reserved normal shoes for rockier stuff.
Did you suffer any sorts of injuries related to your transition?
No. I didn't intentionally transition slowly like they recommend these days, but that is what happened anyway. I just wanted to use them for easier terrain. Using them exclusively that way eased me through the transition, even though I wasn't intentional about the process. One thing that helped was that if I wasn't wearing shoes, I was wearing flip-flops, so my daily life was spent in a minimal shoe anyway. I will say that for me, transitioning to a lighter and minimal shoe significantly helped with pronation issues I was suffering from long-distance hiking.
Do you advocate splitting your running time between traditional and barefoot shoes?
In a general sense, yes. I think wearing a minimal shoe is good for teaching runners better form, as long as they are aware of their need to learn better form. Even if you're not racing in a minimal type of shoe, I think it's good for training. If you want to migrate towards that type of shoe long term, then splitting time gives you more structure for doing so. But you can transition to a shoe like Altra's fairly quickly, based on the fact they are zero-drop shoes but have lots of padding. Altra's are pretty beefy for a zero-drop shoes, they allow you to run on things I would never run on in something like sandals.
Do you find it necessary to make adjustments to protect your feet when running in barefoot shoes?
Yes. You have to be lighter on your toes, especially when running on rocks.
Would you say that running lighter is better form?
For most people I think so, it is better form.
How do you think running in sandals compares to running in shoes?
You have to be more aware of how you're running and what your foot is striking. I think it helps you with form because of how you have to place your foot while running. There is nothing surrounding your foot to protect it. You can't just bomb down through the rocks. I don't think I would ever run a race in sandals because of the foot abuse. Similarly, with any sort of minimalist shoe with very little sole, you feel things so much more and so have to be more careful about how your foot strikes the ground.
Are there any situations where you would intentionally shy away from using a minimalist or barefoot shoe?
On super technical terrain and for the full distance of 100 miler races. I would wear a trail designed shoe for a 100 miler, and would not wear something very thin like a Minimus. For that distance and type of terrain, it all boils down to cushioning in the sole.
In recent years the plights of hipsters, hikers, and athletes alike have resulted in a market trend towards a minimalist movement in all aspects of life. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that footwear companies have jumped at the chance to fill this niche market in the form of barefoot-style shoes. However, as with most gear, there are other ways to meet the criteria of zero drop (heel to toe), low stack height, and light weight footwear. We've thrown together a mix of substitutes which cater to individual preferences such as style and budget.
— Jimmy Elam
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