To test women's barefoot shoes, we assembled 6 metrics, aiming for them to be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive in their assessments. This gives us a more clear picture of the strengths, weaknesses, and versatility of each product in a very interesting and competitive niche market.
To assess the performance of each shoe, we conducted two main tests: Fit and Ground Feel.
In the Fit Test, we looked for how malleable the shoe is to the foot, and how well it lets toes move, flex, and spread naturally. This requires lightweight, supple materials and a wide toe box. We wanted to feel that the shoes hugged our feet, giving a precise fit without being too tight or too bulky. This is key to making a shoe that feels almost like running barefoot—and key to a shoe that promotes a more natural running gait.
For the Ground Feel Test, we embarked on many runs, walks, and hikes on a variety of surfaces and noted what we could feel—and what we couldn't. We also noted how comfortable these shoes are without socks. Barefoot-inspired shoes should allow excellent proprioception, even through thicker soles.
For this metric, we examined each shoe more thoroughly for its structure and researched its specifications. We twisted and flexed the sole to assess how supple and thin they are (less than 10mm, ideally); we examined each shoe for any arch support (something we don't want in a true minimalist shoe); and we ensured minimal or zero heel-to-toe drop and no toe spring (the upward curled toe). Instead, we want a flat, wide toe box that allows your toes to spread and grab the ground. The uppers should also be breathable and the laces secure but non-restricting—and they definitely shouldn't strain your feet or cut off circulation.
This test was simple. We tied the shoes together and hung them on a scale.
To assess traction, we first established what surfaces each shoe was meant for. We did not penalize any road running shoes for poor performance on trails. We then spent time running, walking, hiking, and parkour-ing around various environments and assessed how sticky the soles were and how well the lugs gripped the ground and shed loose dirt or allowed water to drain.
Another element of traction with minimalist footwear has to do with the soft, supple, thin soles. We often found that smooth soles performed surprisingly well in this category because they allowed our feet to grab the ground easier, thus relying less on lugs for traction. Very cool.
Again, we did not want to penalize any shoe designed for warm weather for its inability to hold up to cold-weather runs. We examined the design of each shoe, giving it points for any versatility it offered, but also assessing how well it breathed (for warm weather models) and how well it kept out water or dirt for those meant for cooler seasons or more rugged terrain.
We spent many months testing these shoes and took them on a wide variety of terrain types. Our testing is inherently limited in its ability to determine how well the shoes will hold up a year or two from now, but our expert testers know a few things about materials and design, so we researched the specifications of each shoe and examined them for any manufacturing flaws or shortcuts.