As the name suggest, these shoes are designed to be less like shoes and more like feet. Minimalist shoes have been designed to mimic barefoot running and they are very light and flexible for trail running terrain. These shoes are relatively new to the market and it is completely different to the previous theories of catering for foot support and cushioning. Many runners have literally jumped into their new minimalist shoes and been injured because of the shock to their body. The main difference is the flatter sole and lowered heel support when compared with traditional trail running shoes.

Minimalist running shoes include both the barefoot-style running shoes and regular running shoes with minimalist designs.

nike logoSaucony Men's Hattori Running Shoe

The History of Minimalist Running Shoes

Vibram Five Fingers pioneered the barefoot minimalist running trend and these unique shoes were designed with separate compartment for toes. They are like gloves for the feet and the newest running shoe is named after Abebe Bikila. This barefoot African athlete won the 1960 Olympic marathon with a new world record. Running barefoot is common in some African countries and these athletes are running away from modern technology on the feet of Westernised athletes. The Vibram Bikila is designed for running while the other Vibram shoes are designed for yoga, training and other activities. The snug fit is like a glove and there is no space to slip inside the shoe.

The Benefits? Controversy 

The benefits of barefoot running shoes are somewhat in controversy right now. Vibram was sued by the government (and lost) for making inaccurate claims that their barefoot running shoes reduced injuries. A detailed look at the statistics in fact reveals there are MORE running-related foot injuries from barefoot running shoes.

Regardless, there are still many advocates of the barefoot running movement and hordes of people who swear by them, despite the research saying wearing these shoes can cause more injuries than regular running shoes.

Minimalist Running Shoe Technology

With no movement friction between the shoe and foot, blisters do not cause problems as they do not form. The shoe conforms to the foot size and shape and provides a personalized fit. As the foot sweats, the upper material softens and the ventilated mesh panels allow the feet to breathe and prevent fungal infections.

The sockless wear enhances comfort and prevents friction and adds to the “barefoot feel”. There are no thick socks that block the sensation from foot to shoe and this is all part of the natural evolution. Inside the shoe is 3 mm thick polyurethane sock liner that is covered with Drilex nylon lining that keeps moisture away from the foot. Toes fill in the pockets and the toe spring allows toes to be upturned. Stretch Polyamide TPU (thermoplastic urethane) is thicker at the toe and resists abrasion. This keeps the foot protected from stones, thorns, sand and other debris that stay on the outside of the shoe where they belong.

More protection in the form of AEGIS Microbe Shield® antibacterial treatment minimizes foot odor and fungus, leaving the shoes smelling fresh even after it has run through a forest.

On the outside of the shoe, the 4 mm anatomical pod outsole provides protection to the underfoot, even if it is not as thick as other traditional running shoe soles. The topline has a pull-tab that has an elastic gore for easy entry of shoe and this prevents pulling the shoe apart while trying to force this “second skin” on the foot.

Once the foot is safely in the shoe, the loop closure with a single hook, keeps the foot in place. The 3M reflective surfaces make the runner more visible in low light and the shoe does stop water from entering although it is not made for swimming. This type of shoe is made for adventure and trail running where the terrain is uneven and damp.
Characteristics of minimalist shoes include a light weight between six and ten ounces as heavier shoes will influence gait and foot strike as it is more cumbersome to lift off the ground. The barefoot feel is mainly from the heel-to-toe drop that should be between four 4 and ten millimetres. Any higher and the shoe would be classified as a traditional running shoe. Minimalist hoses are lower to the ground for stability and natural running styles. There is also less stride-controlling structures which helps the foot through its natural movement instead of relying on cushioning and shock absorption. When shopping for minimalist shoes, discuss the type of shoe with the salesperson to establish which would be best for your foot.

Tips for Barefoot and Minimalist Running

If you want to start running with minimalist running shoes, you might need to break yourself into them first — this is especially true if you opt for one of the more extreme shoe types like the Vibram FiveFingers.

1 Adapt Yourself Gradually

Don’t just head straight out for a 20k run the first time you put on a pare of minimalist shoes, experienced runner or no. You’ll blast your calves to pieces and your feet will be sore. If you opt for a barefoot running shoe like the Vibram FiveFingers, you’ll even have to “learn” how to run differently, as you’ll be putting more weight on the ball of your foot rather than heel.

A good tip for adapting to your new minimalist shoes is to start walking around in your new set of minimalist shoes for one to two weeks, getting yourself used to the shoes. After a couple weeks of this, start off running a couple times a week, alternating between jogging and walking (equal times). This will get your feet used to the shoes when running

2 Run on Soft Ground

Rather than starting your runs on the hard pavement, start off on the grass or a rubberized surface.

3 Shorten Your Stride When Running

You’ll run differently with Minimalist running shoes (especially barefoot running shoes). Try shortening your stride when you run; this will change where your foot strikes from the heel to the midfoot/front area. Your muscles will absorb the impact better this way (and you’ll avoid bruised heels).

4 Stretch

This is a given before any run, but especially when you first break start running with minimalist shoes.

What to Look for in a Minimalist Shoe

1 Comfortable Fit

The myth that you have to “break in” running shoes is simply that: a myth. Put them on and walk around for a few minutes. If you feel a tight spot in the shoe, it’s not the right fit. If it hurts after a couple minutes, your feet will be in agony with a long run.

2 Small Heel Drop

The difference between the forefoot height of the shoe and the heel height. Minimalist running shoes usually have less than a 9mm heel drop while traditional running shoes have 10+ mm heel drop.

3 Flexibility

Minimalist running shoes should be flexible and not rigid (especially lengthwise). When you move your foot, the shoe should move with it — even more so with the barefoot running shoe style which fits like glove against your foot.

4 Lightweight

Minimalist running shoes are ultra light. They should feel MUCH lighter than regular running shoes.

5 Wide Toe Box

There should be space for your toes to wiggle. Some shoes even provide “toe inserts”.

Popular Minimalist Running Shoes

Our editors have sorted through the various minimalist running shoes on the market and provided some of the top recommendations for those looking for “the best.”

The brand that started the minimalist running shoe craze that’s become a bit of a global obsession. Vibram shocked the running world with their first “barefoot running shoe.” The other “big name companies” have been scrambling to catch up since then. There are different “types” of minimalist running shoes on the market, but if you want the ultimate minimalist, then Vibram FiveFingers should be your top pick. Their line of shoes are basically thin “foot gloves” that fit over your feet, giving you the closest barefoot running experience short of ditching shoes all together. Some runners swear by these shoes while other scoff. However, the FiveFinger brand has helped to change the running world and has spawned a barefoot running mania.

As for which FiveFinger model is “the best”, most people prefer the FiveFinger KSO which adds a slightly thicker pad on the bottom of the foot, allowing more flexibility as to where you run without bruising your feet.

The New Balance minimalist shoes were based on the NB790s with many modifications based on years of research. Being a relatively new discovery, the issue of barefoot running had to be researched and tested. The designers trimmed the midsole to deliver a less steep drop from heel to midfoot, which results in a flatter shoe that is more flexible. Before putting on the shoe, it can be moulded and bent much more than the previous models and the shoe is light and pliable to the touch. More than half of the tongue was cut to give the foot more space, which also decreased weight. A notch was cut in the rear of the upper for the Achilles tendon and initially these shoes were designed for two runners who did not want to run on a platform. They created flatter drop between the heel and the forefoot to have a more flexible trail run and more sensory messages being sent from the trail to their feet. They widened the toebox to allow for toe splay which would help for grip on rough terrain and prevent slipping. Uppers were constructed to be worn without socks because the seamless sock liners minimize chafing and contour the shape of the foot.

The NB Minimus crash pad has the point of contact farther forward, but there is still a 4mm heel lift because it is too risky for the runner’s health to have a completely flat heel after running on platforms for years. While the NB Minimus is more of a flexible training tool, the 100 series is meant for race conditions, although it is also used for training. The new NB Minimus line has been in shops and trails since March 2011 and it is proving to be a popular shoe.

The Asics Speedstar is designed for “natural running” and it is a lightweight, minimally constructed trainer. Weighing 9.2 ounces, the wearers hardly feels the shoes as they run. With a low profile and having a stiffer toe-off, these shoes also have a two-piece outsole to encourage flexibility.

The rearfoot GEL Cushioning System absorbs shock during the ground strike which is also called the impact phase. Then the shoe adjusts and allows for a smooth transition to midstance. For comfort, there is a 45 degree full length Solyte® lasting material for a soft platform to absorb impact and this upgrade is a lighter weight midsole compound than ASICS’ standard EVA and SpEVA. The name ASICS is an acronym derived from the Latin phrase, Anima Sana In Corpore Sano which means “sound mind in a sound body” and they are keeping with the minimalist trend.
They also manufactured the Gel Noosa Tri which is a flat shoe designed to meet the needs of triathletes. It is meant to be worn barefoot and the foot is kept cool and sanitary with an open-mesh upper and perforated sock liner. Triathletes benefit from this shoe as the speed laces save time in transition and the propulsion Trusstic helps with speed changes when it mimics connective tissue in the foot by creating tension as foot enters propulsion stage.

Space Trusstic System is a midfoot stabilizer that creates a pocket or air and stress relief between the Trusstic System device and the midsole which leads to more efficient foot function. Dual Density Solyte Lasting employs more than one density of Solyte lasting material in the heel and forefoot, which should be double as effective. As usual, the Guidance Line keeps the foot stable in any external conditions.

Merrell is known for designing trail shoes and their minimalist shoe fits like a glove. It is designed to strengthen the foot muscles, stimulates the correct systems and realigns the body naturally, while encouraging forward momentum to develop more of a midfoot landing running style.

The close fit comes from the Merrell Omni-Fit lacing system secured with welded TPU and the shoe will not break because the fused rubber toe bumper makes the shoe durable. The synthetic leather rear foot sling keeps the foot from moving around and adds stability to the gait. To prevent stubbing the toe in the thinner shoes, the flexible plate in the forefoot forms protection and the 1mm forefoot shock absorption plate maintains forefoot flexibility. This distributes pressure and prevents overuse of certain ligaments and muscles and the heel to forefoot height differential prevents nasty falls. Nasty smells are prevented by Aegis antimicrobial solution in the microfiber footbed, but the shoe can be washed in cold water and placed outside to dry naturally.

You could fill an entire wardrob with the different Merrell shoe models. THE shoe model that defines the minimalist approach is their Barefoot Glove models.

kigo shoes
Kigo Shoes

Kigo shoes are for everyday living and active people and this minimalist shoe is light and easily stored. There are a few varieties of the hook and loop system and these kigo’s weigh about 5oz and they can even be washed in the washing machine. The kigo Edge is designed for active people. 

The Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot range began manufacture in 2004 and they have the biggest variety of minimalist shoes that are pliable and flexible. There are shoes for casual wear, yoga and running on their website.

Nike Free shoes are made on the premise of barefoot running and there are different levels of minimalism. The Free 3.0 v2 is the lightest and offers most sensory feedback from the feet and the Free 5.0 v4 is the most heavily cushioned.

Still want more information about Minimalist running shoes??

Minimalist Running Shoe Advantages

  1. These shoes are designed for athletes who have knowledge of their fitness capacity and should be introduced to runners who are beginning to run long distances.
  2. They should never smell and they have been treated with hygienic substances.
  3. Money is saved on purchasing socks.
  4. Barefoot running is imitated and the athlete’s natural running style will be enhanced and this will hopefully improve speed and performance.
  5. More of a flat run means that the runner has a better feel and understanding of terrain.
  6. The thinner sole tends reduces frontal plane movement when running.
  7. Being closer to earth, there is more foot position awareness by the runner and this is known as proprioception.
  8. Minimalist shoes try to avoid heel striking by promoting a transition to a midfoot landing pattern, carrying more stress to the forefoot.
  9. Less padding and cushioning will encourage calf and leg muscles to work harder and provide better support during running.
  10. Barefoot and minimalist running encourages shorter running stride which will alleviate some of the impact forces.

Minimalist Disadvantages

  1. Minimalist shoes are not used on the road as the shoes have been designed for offroad and track use.
  2. These shoes should not be used by athletes who have Achilles and ankle injuries.
  3. It is not really “barefoot running” as there is less sensory feedback from the bottom of the foot.  Skeptics insist that minimalist shoes and racing flats are not the same as barefoot running because the shoes will eliminate plantar surface contact and the foot is not on the ground.
  4. The transition places more strain on the on feet and ankles, causing calves, hamstrings and tibialis muscles to work harder.
  5. Most runners would rather run over glass in thicker shoes.

More Minimalist Running Shoe Tips..

These shoes need to be broken in gradually and expert advice should be obtained before hitting the trails. If determination to make the changeover to minimalist shoes set in, do not go for a long run. Rather adapt gradually by building a better base with core, balance exercises such as standing on one leg. Use the shoes for these balancing exercises as well as running on the spot for intervals of 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat these intervals between four and six times and this drill can also be used as a warm up. Running short intervals or 30 seconds on a treadmill will help to adjust to these minimalist shoes as long as the runner is warm and does not start too quickly. After these drills, it is important to warm down, then stretch the calf and hamstring and massage the lower leg and foot to get the soft tissue structures and ligaments familiar with the shoes.

Minimalist Running Shoe Resources

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Barefoot Running

Vibram FiveFingers Barefoot Running F&Q

RunningWorld Bare Foot Running Article