The Best Minimalist and Barefoot Shoes of 2022
You might think a modern shoe with the most advanced technology, the most support, and the highest price tag would be the go-to shoe for runners to maximize injury prevention and boost running performance. And you might also think that with shoe technology advancing with new releases of the most popular running shoes every year, that the running injury rate would consistently diminish over the years.
However, it seems that as the modern shoe has developed, the injury rate has only risen. In fact, recent studies have shown that up to 87% of runners develop an injury over the course of a single training year.
Many runners have identified this interesting coincidence and have opted to drop their clunky running shoes with thick padding and restrictive support for shoes that only supply the bare minimum of protection; that protection really only being there to keep their feet safe from sharp rocks and debris on the road or trail. Or, some even choose to wear no shoes at all!
This article covers everything you need to know about minimalist and barefoot running, its benefits, risks, and our top selections for the best shoes on the market for runners who’ve either decided to transition to a less restrictive shoe or seasoned minimalist runners looking to upgrade to a new pair.
- What are Minimalist and Barefoot Running Shoes?
- Benefits of Barefoot and Minimalist Shoes
- Best Minimalist and Barefoot Shoes
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What are Minimalist and Barefoot Running Shoes?
Minimalist shoes aren’t technically one specific category of shoes. In reality, shoes exist on a spectrum of minimalism from 100% (bare feet) to 0% (thick padding, high foot drop from extra padding on the heel, and restrictive support).
Because of this range, ‘minimalist shoes’ are commonly accepted being defined as:
“Footwear providing minimal interference with the natural movement of the foot due to its high flexibility, low heel-to-toe drop, weight and stack height, and the absence of motion control and stability devices.” – Journal of Foot and Ankle Research
For minimalist runners, the better your shoe can match your feet’s natural biomechanics, the better the shoe. This typically means having a stripped-down shoe with tons of flexibility, low weight, thinner stack height, least amount of support restrictions, and a heel-to-toe drop of zero or near-zero.
Benefits of Barefoot and Minimalist Shoes
The philosophy behind barefoot and minimalist running is simple, freeing your feet to work the way they are supposed to.
It’s not that minimalist shoes are required for staying injury-free. However, shoes that match your feet’s natural movement typically force you back into a natural running form, especially your foot strike.
If you watch a child run down the driveway barefoot, you’ll see an excellent example of what a human’s natural footstrike is supposed to look like. You’re likely to see a child light on their feet, landing primarily on the midfoot to forefoot each time their foot lands on the concrete.
Modern shoes with thick padding on the heel have had the unfortunate side effect of allowing for heel-strike dominant running form. If you were to try running on concrete in your bare feet using a heel-strike, you’d quickly realize how dramatic the impact forces are compared to absorbing each impact properly when you run with a foot strike closer to the midfoot or forefoot.
But if you’re a heel-striker, don’t make the jump all of a sudden just yet. Be sure to read on to the ‘Risks and Tradeoffs’ section of this article first. Because there’s definitely more you need to know first. But with that aside, here are the primary benefits of minimalist shoes and a more natural footstrike,
Benefits of Minimalist Shoes and Natural Foot Strike:
- Less maximum ground impact force
- Less extension moment and power absorption at the knee
- Less ground contact time
- Less foot and ankle dorsiflexion at ground contact
- Shorter stride length
- Increased stride frequency
- Increased knee flexion at ground contact
- Strengthens supporting muscles used in running
- Promotes more natural running biomechanics
- Increases balance, proprioception, and more precise foot placement
Are There Risks and Tradeoffs?
Most minimalist runners will tell you; you don’t “switch” to minimalist or barefoot shoes. You “transition” to them.
For injury rates comparing different foot strikes, biomechanics, and shoe styles, the scientific evidence is lacking to say the least. However, there is evidence that suggests running injury can occur while changing from one footstrike pattern to another.
If you already have a midfoot or forefoot footstrike, your switch to minimalist shoes would likely be pretty seamless. But if you’ve been heel-striking for years, when you start running on your mid to forefoot, your calves and their supporting tendons will take a beating. They’re just not used to that kind of stress.
That’s why heel strikers are more likely to develop bone and joint injuries (like shin splints or knee issues), and mid to forefoot runners are more likely to develop muscle and sometimes tendon issues.
For many runners, the risk and time required to heal from muscle or tendon injuries far outweighs the risk and time to recover from bone or joint injuries.
And again, these risks are typically amplified during the initial transition period from traditional to minimalist shoes. When you ‘ease your way into it,’ you allow your body the time it needs to adapt and reduce the risk of injury during this period while you’re shifting which primary muscles are put into play during each stride.
How to Transition to Minimalist Shoes
The key to transitioning from conventional to minimalist shoes is to take it s l o w.
If your feet have been constricted in their shoes for years to decades of your life, it will take some time for the necessary adaptations to take place once you free them up. And if you overdo it, you’re likely to feel the pain of stiff calves that will leave you hobbling around for a few days.
To start, just wear your new shoes around the house for several hours a day. Get your feet used to their new home before you start putting miles on them.
Then, to begin the transition to running in them, start off with using them for a quarter-mile warm-up (focusing on also transitioning your footstrike if you’re a heel striker). And then switch back to your regular shoes for the rest of your run.
After doing this for a few sessions, and not experiencing any severe muscle soreness afterward, gradually begin increasing the distance covered in your minimalist shoes on each run.
Be sure to listen to your body. Only you know the difference between “typical soreness” and “I’m pretty sure I overdid it.” So, in the beginning, always err on the side of less rather than more.
Best Minimalist and Barefoot Shoes
With everything you need to know about barefoot and minimalist running out of the way, let’s dive into our top picks for the best shoes for a whole range of categories and styles of running.
Best Overall Minimalist Running Shoes
Merrell Vapor Glove
For years, Merrell has been a juggernaut in the minimalist and barefoot shoe category. And their Vapor Glove series lets you stay connected with the ground beneath your feet. You might even forget they’re there.
Known for their rugged hiking boots, Merrell took what they do best (durability) and combined forces with Vibram for their rubber outsoles to create a long-lasting, well-protected, yet proper minimalist/barefoot shoe to hold up in any conditions.
The Merrell Vapor glove weighs in at only 12 ounces and are constructed out of mesh and TPU uppers, the renowned Vibram outsole, an EVA midsole, and 100% recycled laces and insole top sheets.
If you’re looking for a minimalist shoe that falls further on the index to being a barefoot shoe but still want a toebox versus a barefoot shoe like the Vibram Five Fingers with independent toes, the Merrell Vapor Glove is an incredible all-around minimalist shoe with a barefoot feel.
When you want a natural running shoe but find yourself primarily running on unnatural surfaces (concrete and asphalt), the Xero HFS will be your new favorite running partner.
The Xero HFS has a new and improved lightweight, breathable mesh upper, a tire tread-inspired outsole, a silky moisture-wicking lining, and protected tension straps that make it the ultimate balance of minimalism and protection.
Most minimalist runners also prefer running on natural surfaces, and to be honest, natural surfaces work much better for shoes without cushioning. But the reality is, sometimes you’re just stuck to road running.
That doesn’t mean you have to abandon a more natural shoe if you’re stuck to the roads. The Xero HFS was designed explicitly with road running minimalists in mind. But just because they’re designed for the road doesn’t mean they won’t hold up on the trail. The tire tread style soles provide excellent grip. The additional 2mm insole (which can be removed) gives you just enough cushioning to protect against sharp rocks without sacrificing its natural running feel.
Overall the Xero HFS provides you with an excellent all-around minimalist shoe, especially for those who find themselves road running most of the time but still need a shoe that lets them hop on trail whenever they can.
Inov-8 is a brand that lives true to its name, delivering innovative shoe designs across multiple endurance sports disciplines.
The Inov-8 Bare XF is a minimalist take on your traditional cross-training shoe. Cross trainers are dynamic shoes that need to fulfill the requirements of anything you throw at them, and they need to span the spectrum of performance in the gym just as well as out on the road or on the turf.
With a zero-drop heel featuring a Y-lock heel system and 3mm of their patented rubber outsole, the Bare XF gives you maximum surface area coverage and foot security while maintaining a natural forefoot flex.
If you’re looking for a well-rounded shoe that you can use in the gym one day and out on the trails the next, the Inov-8 Bare XF is the shoe that will get the job done.
Best Minimalist Trail Running Shoes
Xero Mesa Trail
If there’s a minimalist shoe built for trail running, it’s the Xero Mesa Trail.
The Mesa Trail comes equipped with a 5.5mm FeelTrue rubber sole with 3.5mm lugs to give you the perfect combination of protection and grip without sacrificing ground feel.
Most trail shoes sacrifice weight for added protection. Which for runners, a pound on your feet is like five pounds on your back. The Mesa Trail keeps it light, weighing in at only 7.6 ounces thanks to its low profile design and breathable mesh upper (which is also fantastic at shedding water.)
The Mesa Trail is a phenomenal minimalist trail shoe if you spend most of your time bounding through the mountains or running obstacle course races.
And if you’re worried about a minimalist shoe not holding up to the harshest of terrains, Xero stands by the quality of their products with a standard 5,000-mile warranty on the soles of the shoes.
Merrell Trail Glove
The Merrell Trail Glove is a pioneer in minimalist trail running.
The shape of the Trail Glove is designed to mimic the shape of the human foot, giving you the most natural feel to barefoot running that you can have with a toebox without sacrificing the necessities of a robust trail shoe.
The Trail Glove has an 11.5mm stack height, zero heel-to-toe-drop, Vibram TC5+ on the outsole, and a Rock Plate to give you additional protection on the most rugged trails.
It comes in at a slightly heavier weight (1lb 14oz) but makes up for that weight in its additional durability and added traction with its Vibram soles. So if you’re the kind of runner who loves getting out into the most severe terrain and needs a shoe that will keep up without having to strap a 2.5lb restrictive hiking boot to your feet, the Merrell Trail Glove is the perfect shoe for you.
Vivobarefoot Primus Trail II
No list can be complete without including the Vivobarefoot Primus Trail II.
The Primus Trail II is a solid multi-terrain minimalist shoe that provides barefoot feedback while maximizing traction. Its 2.5mm base and 4mm lug height give you a fantastic ground feel while still allowing you to grip everything from wet, dry, rocky, and firm terrain.
Another interesting benefit of Vivobarefoot shoes is that they are made from a combination of recycled materials and by removing and using algae biomass that damages our oceans. You can get a great shoe while cleaning up our landfills and oceans at the same time with the first sustainable alternative to synthetic and petrochemical EVA foam.
Best Traditional Barefoot Shoe
When you think of true barefoot running, you’ll likely immediately think of the Vibram FiveFingers.
The FiveFingers shoe line gives you the ultimate outdoor minimalist training tool. It’s designed explicitly to match the foot’s natural movement (and shape) while providing the best ground sensory perception, performance, and durability.
Vibram shoes were initially designed as deck shoes for boat crews. Boat crews working on slippery surfaces need superior traction and full use of the complex grip provided by the feet. It didn’t take long until the minimalist running community quickly identified the five fingers as the best possible option for true barefoot running.
Weighing in at only 4.8oz, the Vibram FiveFingers is almost like a glove for your feet. And with its synthetic breathable upper, you might even forget you’re wearing them.
Best Running Sandals
Xero Z-Trail Running Sandals
If you’ve ever read Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, you’ve likely wanted to get your hands on the footwear that powered the Rarámuri’s superhuman feats of ultra-endurance.
Xero’s running sandals, especially the Z-Trail, take the Tarahumara-inspired design for minimalist footwear and add modern features and materials to maximize durability and foot protection without sacrificing that true barefoot feel.
The Z-Trail provides the perfect combination of protection, comfort, lightweight, natural flexibility, durability, versatility, and affordability, all into one barefoot running sandal.
If you’re looking to truly free your feet, Xero’s lineup of running sandals changes the game for superior comfort and freedom to let your feet do what’s natural on any terrain.