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Top 5 Minimalist and Barefoot Running Shoes

"Natural" running shoes to help you go fast and light


By J. David Lantz

If you're new to minimalist running or considering buying your first pair of minimalist shoes, make sure you start slow. While everyone adjusts differently, your body may need time to adjust to a different type of shoe and new style of running, and the last thing you want is to be injured while trying to stay in shape.

Ensuring proper fit

For all footwear, the most important aspect of the shoe is how it fits. Minimalist shoes give you the most accurate "feel" for the terrain you're moving on and, in order to get a good fit, most will have these five traits:

  • A large toe box to allow your toes to spread out and move freely
  • High degree of flexibility to allow the foot to move naturally in all directions
  • Zero drop or low drop (7mm or less) measured from heel to toe, also called "neutral" shoes
  • Light weight to allow a natural leg swing and foot posture while running
  • Slipper-like fit to allow the shoe to slip off without untying, but tight enough to stay on during a run

While you can't know which shoe is best for you without trying on a few pairs, here are five minimalist shoes that you should definitely consider:

Nike Free

Nike started designing the Free line of shoes in 2002 after learning that Stanford athletes had begun training barefoot on the university's golf course. Since then, the Free line has evolved into a series of shoes aimed at the whole spectrum of minimalist runners, from newbies to hardcore minimalists.

One great aspect of the line is that it is available in the Nike iD store, which means it is completely customizable with bright colors and dynamic designs. Can't get the creative juices flowing? Head on over to the Nike iD section of Sneaker News to see what runners from around the world have designed.

Here's the Free lineup:

  • Free 5.0 - Designed for runners newly moving in a minimalist direction
  • Free 4.0 - Designed for runners looking for a blend of cushioning and a more natural ride
  • Free 3.0 - Designed for runners seeking the most flexible and natural ride without sacrificing foot protection
  • Free Hyperfeel - The most minimalist of the lineup designed for optimum sensation
  • Free Hybrid - Customize color and performance options between the Free 5.0, 4.0 and 3.0 to your specifications

Bottom LIne: Comfortable, customizable shoes with a range of support options to match your minimalist journey.

New Balance Minimus Zero

The New Balance Minimus Zero provides lightweight minimal protection with a Vibram outsole for superior traction. This is a zero drop shoe so, unless you've been around the block with minimalist running shoes a few times, you may want to check out one of the other shoes in the New Balance line first.

While all super-minimalist shoes aren't as durable as traditional running shoes, the Minimus Zero comes close, and looks great doing it. New Balance is known for having a wider toe box than many competitors, so if you have wide feet this could be a great choice for you.

Bottom line: Zero drop shoe with great traction and solid durability.

Women's Merrel Barefoot Run Pace/Trail Glove 2Merrel barefoot running shoe

Merrel got a later start making minimalist shoes than some other companies, but they jumped in full force and now offer a complete line with their Barefoot Run series. One of Merrel's most popular offerings, the Pace Glove, is a full-featured minimalist running shoe. Testers love how comfortable these shoes are, and they are a great choice for cool spring and fall runs. While warmer in summer, the enclosed design helps keep out debris, and the Vibram rubber soles make sure you never miss a step.

Bottom line: Vegan friendly zero drop shoes with a little more cushion.

Skora Phase-X

The latest update to the popular Skora Phase is the X model (a top minimalist pick at Runners World), which features a highly reflective digital camouflage pattern to make sure you stay seen as the days get shorter. The closed mesh of the upper will help you stay a bit warmer as the temperatures get cooler, making this shoe is a great choice for fall and spring runs. With the one-piece blown rubber outsole, there is a slight cushioning effect-definitely not as burly as a traditional shoe with an EVA midsole, but a little more protective than some of the other minimalist shoes out there.

Bottom line: A firmer ride than some minimalist shoes, which helps take the edge off road debris.

Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS

Nothing says barefoot style running like a pair of Vibram FiveFingers (VFF). People tend to either love or hate these "toe shoes" and many of the offerings from VFF are actually heavier than some more traditionally shaped minimalist running shoes. The Bikila LS is a lace-up version and one of the most popular that VFF makes, though a little on the heavy side at 13oz per pair. They also make an even more minimalist version called the SeeYa that weighs in at a scant 7.5oz per pair.

Bottom line: Classic barefoot style shoe that helps you feel connected to the ground through all ten toes.

J. David Lantz in Venice


J. David Lantz is an an avid minimalist runner and freelance writer based in Fort Collins, Colorado.