Before setting out to test the best minimalist and barefoot shoes on the market, we first considered what features are most important to this very particular type of shoe. From there, we assembled six metrics, designed to be both mutually exclusive and comprehensive. Within each metric, we considered the relative importance of each design attribute when assigning values to score each pair of running shoes. With these essentials in mind, we then took them out to test, side-by-side.
Where We Tested
Our test runs took us over sidewalks, down gravel side-streets, on river trails and dirt running paths, on hot desert loops, up into the mountains on longer trail runs and hikes where we scrambled up rock faces and ran through creeks, back into the gym for weight lifting, and to kick around town. We researched, measured, and examined these shoes to verify manufacturer specifications and to better understand the design components that factored into what we felt while out running. Through our in-depth analysis, we gained insight into what makes the best minimalist and barefoot running shoes.
For months, we set out on runs to test how well a shoe lives up to its intended purpose. If it is a trail runner, can it handle uneven terrain and variable trail conditions? We tested on trails both in the desert and alpine (benefits of having a testing ground in northern New Mexico), on well-buffed paths and rocky scrambles. If it is a road shoe, how efficiently does it move over concrete? We also took road shoes onto trails, and vice versa, to test how well a shoe can transition between disciplines.
We then examined the shoe's structure, and awarded points to shoes that ran well without extras — points were deducted if a shoe included any stability or motion control devices. To record observations on platform stability, we took these shoes into the gym to perform exercises that specifically require good footing, like deadlifts, squats, and kettlebell swings.
We first examined the shoe's design, measuring the thickness of the outsole, width of toe box, flexibility, weight, and height of the drop. We also made notes on whether or not the shoe incorporates conventional support devices, and adjusted scores accordingly.
Then we took all of the shoes to a grassy sports field to compare ground-feel side-by-side. We first ran a few laps barefoot to develop a baseline, and then in each pair successively to gauge how closely they resemble the feeling of actually running barefoot.
This is largely a qualitative metric gathered over miles of running, but there are some important design features that add to comfort. We tested breathability by running in the heat of the day — with the shoes subjected to direct sunlight — and adjusted points based on how much moisture built up inside the shoe by the end of the run.
We also wanted to judge comfort running when wet — an important attribute, particularly for trail runners, who may encounter multiple creek crossings without any bridge options. We dosed each pair of shoes with the hose before setting off on a short loop in similar weather conditions.
We approached this metric with a rock climber's mentality, testing shoes side-by-side while scrambling up and down the same rock face — we attempted to seek out multiple types of rocks, and also took these shoes to the climbing gym for a better control-scenario. To gather notes on how well these shoes perform running downhill, we ran the same steep, loose, rocky slope with each pair sequentially to test braking ability.
As a lab test, we poured water over the outsoles to examine how quickly it passed through the shoe's various lug-designs. We also examined the thickness of the outsole and lugs to help determine how well these shoes allow our feet to grip terrain naturally.
The best way to test this metric was to try and do everything we possibly could in these shoes. At the end of our test period, we adjusted points based on how well they transitioned between road running, trail running, and gym exercise.
We also awarded points in this category based in-part on pieces of other metrics, namely water-resistance, insulation, and breathability. We also tried to consider how a shoe's particular design may help one transition from conventional to minimalist running shoes, awarding points for increased cushioning and stack height.
This is easily the toughest metric to judge because of our limited testing period, and it is hard to say how well a shoe will hold up over extended use. However, we did our best to seek out harsh terrain — talus slopes, coarse-sandy arroyos, rough concrete. The best way to judge is by examining the shoes closely for any manufacturing flaws in the beginning, and early signs of breakdown at the end of our test period. Our testers also considered the warranties offered from various manufacturers.