How to Choose Minimal and Barefoot Shoes

Cruising down the trail in the Merrell Bare Access 3 with Mammoth Mountain  CA in the background. The training grounds for the elite Mammoth Track Club.
Article By:
Jimmy Elam
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Sunday

So, you want the lowdown on which type of running shoe is best for you, minimal, traditional, or barefoot? Save yourself the time of going into the local running shop to talk with the retail associate who has most likely only run in two of the pairs of shoes. Better yet, save yourself the epileptic seizure and sensory overload from the endless fluorescent shoes on the wall. We understand you have better ways to spend your time and want the facts. So we have narrowed our review down to the top minimalist running shoes available, and formulated this wonderful buying advice section to help facilitate your decision. You won't even need to leave your office work computer. Also reference our full review to compare specific models.

What Distinguishes a Minimalist Running Shoe


So what exactly qualifies as a minimalist running running shoe? There are many factors, and when we look for a great minimalist running shoe we usually want to see numerous attributes that make the shoe minimalist, not just one.

In short, the main minimalist characteristics are that the shoe provides a sensitive feeling of the ground, which is accomplished by:
  • a low heel to toe drop ( mm or less)
  • low stack height (the total distance the shoe is off the ground)
  • thin cushion (if any at all)
  • flexible outsole
  • light weight

Offering roll-in-a-ball flexibility  the Merrell Trail Glove 2 has a barefoot ride similar to the Vibram Fivefingers Treksport. This flexibility is unique to barefoot and minimalist footwear.
Offering roll-in-a-ball flexibility, the Merrell Trail Glove 2 has a barefoot ride similar to the Vibram Fivefingers Treksport. This flexibility is unique to barefoot and minimalist footwear.

Be aware that some shoes may classify themselves as minimalist when they only provide a single characteristic of minimalism, while other models can have many of these distinguishing characteristics. Just because a shoe provides every single characteristic of a minimalist shoe, that doesn't mean it is what will work best for you. Take time to see how your body adjusts to the different styles, and best of luck hunting!

Minimalist vs. Traditional Running Shoe?


Have you yet to dabble in minimalist running footwear and want to give it a try? Are you wondering how a minimalist running shoe compares to a traditional running shoe? We'll do our best to help you on your path to discovering how great your feet and body can feel once you've made the transition to minimalist running shoes. If you've spent your entire running history using traditional running shoes without injury, we still believe you can and will benefit from training in minimalist running shoes. This is of course based on your approach to minimalism. For in-depth details on how to approach minimalist running shoes, scroll to the bottom and check out our section on Transitioning Into Minimalist or Barefoot Shoes.

So how do you distinguish a minimalist running shoe from a traditional running shoe? The initial and most obvious way is by appearance. Many minimalist running shoes omit all the bells and whistles traditional shoes have and stick to simple designs. Minimalist running shoes look smaller and feel much lighter. They also provide significantly less cushion to allow for more sensitivity to the ground, and are typically extremely flexible. The main function of a minimalist running shoe is to give you a more natural ride. To do this, the heel to toe differential is generally around mm all the way down to a 0 mm drop. Comparably, the average traditional running shoe has around 10 mm of drop between the heel and toe. Traditional running shoes are also often characterized by limited flexibility, plentiful cushion, dense posting, and heavy, flashy materials.

Super dense posting on the traditional style Brooks Adrenaline GTS 14 makes for extremely high stability. Notice the thick cushion and high stack height.
Super dense posting on the traditional style Brooks Adrenaline GTS 14 makes for extremely high stability. Notice the thick cushion and high stack height.

Minimalist vs. Barefoot Running Shoe?


How do you distinguish a minimalist running shoe from a barefoot running shoe? We don't feel there is a distinct answer here, and there is a definite grey area in categorizing some minimalist and barefoot running shoes. A barefoot running shoe is also technically a minimalist running shoe, given that if it were truly barefoot there would be nothing at all! So if anything, a barefoot shoe is even more sensitive than the standard minimalist shoe. A couple of the barefoot running shoes we tested are the Vibram FiveFingers Treksport as well as the Merrell Trail Glove 4. Both of these shoes have phenomenal ground sensitivity, flexibility, and low heel to toe drop. We feel you start to cross that line into a barefoot shoe once you noticeably have that true feeling and sensitivity with the ground. There are many minimalist running shoes available, such as the Nike shoes we tested that are in no way near what is classified as a barefoot running shoe. They have too much cushioning and a very high stack height which inhibits the feeling of the ground.

Side profile of our Editors' Choice winner (bottom) and Top Pick winner (top). The New Balance Minimus has a much lower profile than the Innov8 Trailroc and therefore provides a more sensitive feeling of the ground.
Side profile of our Editors' Choice winner (bottom) and Top Pick winner (top). The New Balance Minimus has a much lower profile than the Innov8 Trailroc and therefore provides a more sensitive feeling of the ground.

We don't feel you should be intimidated by minimalist or barefoot running shoes and stories of other runners becoming injured. Be confident knowing that if you take the correct approach and have patience, they can absolutely benefit you. Vibram FiveFingers even has a new guarantee that you can test out any of their barefoot shoes for six weeks and if you aren't satisfied, you can return them by the end of 2014. For this guarantee to apply, you must purchase them from Vibram's site.

Are Traditional Running Shoes A Gimmick?


It's safe to say the majority of running shoe companies create what they feel will sell the most. If the most flashy, funky, and clunky product available is what consumers want, then that's likely what companies will make. In our experience, it often seems as though many companies dish out products where style and appeal take precedence over functionality. Traditional cushioned and stability running shoes have dominated the running market for over a decade, but does that mean those types of running shoes are what we really need? We don't necessarily believe so. Believe it or not, the relatively "new" minimalist running shoe movement is nothing short of decades old. In fact, many of the recent minimalist shoes being released are not very different from running footwear that was used in the 60's and 70's for racing. So the real question worth reflecting on here is "how have the traditional running shoes helped in preventing injuries?" The simple answer is that there is no evidence showing that traditional running shoes have either prevented more injuries or increased the risk of injuries. What we do know is that the more substantial the shoe, the more it will change your natural running gait. We can't help but wonder, why would you want to do that? So are traditional running shoes a gimmick? We'll leave that up to you to decide.

Transitioning Into Minimalist or Barefoot Running Shoes


There are 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments in each foot. If you have worn traditional running shoes your whole life, it shouldn't be too hard to imagine how that can affect your feet. Traditional running shoes typically have limited flexibility, tons of cushioning, dense posting, and heavy materials that restrict our feet from their most natural movements. Stiff, rigid, and clunky traditional running shoes prevent the feet from working to their full potential, and we feel this can hinder overall performance. Down the road this can cause a slew of problems stemming from plantar fasciitis to weak calf muscles, just name a few. Our feet are perfectly evolved to be our body's shock absorber while also providing propulsion. So even if you've managed to stay healthy while running for most of your life, you can still strengthen your feet and lower legs by making the transition to minimalist running shoes.

So, how do we suggest going about this transition into minimalist running shoes safely and effectively? To start off, everyone's feet are different, which means we all take different amounts of time to adjust to any new type of footwear. One thing to note is that the longer you've been wearing traditional running shoes, the longer it will likely take you to adjust to minimalist running shoes. Start slowly with a walk around the neighborhood. Then maybe do your warm-up in your new minimal shoes, but take your longer run in your usual shoes. Eventually, you can start wearing the minimal shoes for longer periods of time.

The Bare Access 3 have a decently comfortable ride on the road  though not the sensitivity we look for in a minimalist running shoe. It could make a good transition shoe if you are just starting out with minimal footwear.
The Bare Access 3 have a decently comfortable ride on the road, though not the sensitivity we look for in a minimalist running shoe. It could make a good transition shoe if you are just starting out with minimal footwear.

If you're brand new to minimalism, we suggest beginning with something not-so-minimal. If you've already spent the time strengthening your feet and you're looking for a minimalist running shoe to take you to the next step, we highly recommend the New Balance Minimus 10v1 Trail or the Merrell Trail Glove 4, which both provide that true, sensitive, minimalist ride.

In all honestly, no one can give you a perfect answer to how long it will take until you're safely doing all your runs in your minimalist shoes. It's important to listen to your body and have patience. Years of wearing traditional running shoes can't be changed by two weeks of minimalist running shoes. However, we believe that once you have begun to use minimal footwear, your body will thank you.

Jimmy Elam
About the Author
Jimmy graduated from Chico State University in California and competed on the Track and Cross Country team on scholarship while obtaining a degree in Psychology. At Chico he received All-American honors in both sports and currently has over 300 races to his name. After living and training in Mammoth Lakes CA, Jimmy raced his debut marathon in Chicago finishing with a time of 2:21:18 and 25th overall. He now lives and trains in the trail running mecca of Bend, Oregon and also works for a wilderness therapy program.

 
 

Follow Us




Unbiased.


You Might Also Like