Advocates say barefoot running -- or the barefoot-style feel provided by minimalist shoes -- allows a runner to feel the subtle changes in terrain, and lets the feet, legs and body adjust to better prepare for impact. The theory is that the lower the shoe is to the ground and the more natural the position of the foot, the better. Minimal cushioning also encourages more of a forefoot strike, where most of the impact is absorbed at the front of the foot. Some experts and trainers say this can result in more efficient running and fewer injuries than the more common heel-strike style of running.
In recent years, this category of shoes has garnered much attention from footwear manufacturers. Many brands -- ranging from Adidas to Under Armour -- are jumping on the bandwagon and releasing their own versions of minimalist running shoes. Expect many more mainstream companies to incorporate minimalist-inspired features into their upcoming releases.
The best-known barefoot-style, zero-drop running brand is Vibram FiveFingers. Easily recognized by its unusual toe pods, the Bikila (*Est. $90) weighs 5.7 ounces and is a mere 7.2 mm off the ground. Several reviewers say this minimalist shoe changes the way they run; the encouraged forefoot strike could be beneficial for those who have suffered from previous injuries. Users also say to expect some calf soreness because muscles are affected differently when running in the Bikila than when running in traditional shoes. Users find the toe pods unexpectedly comfortable, but they say the shoe takes some getting used to and should be worn around the house first. Many owners indicate that the Bikala's durability is noticeably poorer than the durability of other running shoes.
Runners with higher arches should consider the newer Bikila LS (*Est. $100), which features a lacing mechanism to adjust for higher insteps. For those who do more trail running, the brand offers the TrekSport (*Est. $100) and the newer Trek LS (*Est. $140) which features top lacing to better lock the foot into the shoe. Vibram FiveFingers offers a more minimalist version, the SeeYa (*Est. $100), which has rubber protection on the heel and toe but no protection along the mid-foot. It's one of the most "minimal" shoes on the market. The SeeYa's recent release means that we found few professional or user reviews, though Runner's World Summer 2012 running shoe guide takes a look.
Merrell has also ventured into the minimalist trail-running shoe market with the women's Pace Glove (*Est. $100) and men's Trail Glove (*Est. $110), which have a 1.4 mm heel-to-toe drop and weigh 6 ounces. The shoes receive high praise from expert reviewers, earning the distinction of Best Debut in the April 2011 Runner's World Shoe Guide; Shape magazine names the Pace Glove the best Trail Running Shoe in its 2011 Running Shoe Guide. Runners who live in colder climates may like the Sonic/Lithe Glove (*Est. $125), a winterized version of the Trail Glove/Pace Glove Series. It has a bit more protection along the bottom of the shoe and the upper provides more insulation.
In January 2012, Merrell introduced the Road/Dash Glove (*Est. $110). Essentially a road-appropriate version of the Trail/Pace Glove, this true zero-drop shoe features more insulation and added traction, making it better suited for icy conditions and colder weather. Bloggers who were looking for a more minimal option from Merrell hold this shoe in high regard.
Altra Running, another company focusing on true zero-drop running shoes, offers the gender-specific Adam and Eve (*Est. $80) that sit 3.4 mm off the ground and weigh less than 5 ounces. Reviewers suggest that runners looking for a bit more protection should consider the Altra Instinct/Intuition (*Est. $100), which has won a best debut distinction from the editors of Runner's World. It's substantially heavier at 8.8 ounces, but it sits 12 mm off the ground and has a 3.6 mm drop. For those transitioning into barefoot-style running shoes, this could be a major benefit. Reviewers call this a particularly unattractive running shoe, but say the wide toe box provides ample room for splay -- the ability for your toes to spread out.
Another highly-anticipated new minimalist running shoe comes from the Portland, Ore.-based Skora. The men's Skora Form (*Est. $195) made its U.S. debut early 2012, and feedback on its durability and comfort has been positive. The women's model likely will be available in Fall 2012. Most noticeably, the shoe is incredibly stylish (one blogger refers to Skora as "the Apple of running shoes"). The Skora is unusual in that it has it's a treated leather upper and an elastic heel strap, which helps lock the shoe onto the foot. Reviewers say the leather takes time to break in, but it is durable, comfortable and fits well. A tester at Wired notes that the shoe is somewhat slippery on wet surfaces, and at 9.6 ounces (8.2 ounces without the insole), this model is heavier than other barefoot-style shoes. Plus, Skoras are nearly double the price of other top-rated minimalist shoes. Yet writer Nicholas Pang at The Examiner says the shoe is worth the price given the high-end materials and incredible fit.
The eco-friendly VivoBarefoot Evo (*Est. $130) and more budget-friendly Neo (*Est. $110) also impress reviewers. Both are slightly heavier than comparable models at 8.5 ounces and sit higher off the ground at about 11 mm. Still, testers say the Evo is a good bet for those who like a barefoot feel with a bit more protection and durability. The Neo has a style more reminiscent of a traditional sneaker, but some users say the minimalist shoe feels too loose at the arch/midfoot.
Weighing just 4.4 ounces, the Saucony Hattori (*Est. $80) was one of the first true zero-drop shoes released by a large running shoe company. There are few reviews of this minimalist shoe, but those we found are quite positive. Reviewers call the Hattori roomy and comfortable, although some say it could benefit from more support along the arch and that it rubbed a bit while running -- particularly for those prone to sweaty feet.
The brand's ProGrid Kinvara 2 (*Est. $70) straddles the line between a lightweight traditional shoe and a minimalist shoe (we include it in our report on running shoes). It sits 28 mm off the ground, nearly as high as a regular running shoe, and it has a similar fit and feel. At 7.7 ounces and with a 4 mm heel-to-toe drop, however, it provides much of what minimalist runners seek. In fact, experts call the Kinvara 2 a good transition model for those looking to ease into the minimalist/barefoot trend. The updated Kinvara 3 (*Est. $100) is said to include a more durable sole and a redesigned upper.
Most other major brands also offer minimalist-style running shoes. New Balance's Minimus 10 Trail (*Est. $105) and Minimus 10 Road (*Est. $105) were criticized for not being true minimalist shoes, sitting 16mm from the ground with a 4 mm drop. New Balance took a second shot with the Minimus Zero Trail and Zero Road (*Est. $110), which receive decent reviews. The shoes' low profile and light weight (6.1 ounces) make them a winner for those looking for a minimalist experience with a bit more protection, although other reviewers say the shoes are poorly suited for long distances.
Many options exist for those interested in minimalist but not necessarily zero-drop running shoes. Traditionally popular brands such as Brooks and Nike also offer minimalist models, but some running communities consider these to be "reduced running" shoes rather than "minimalist." Those earning the most praise and popularity include the now-discontinued Nike Free Run+; the updated Free Run+ 2 (*Est. $80) and the Free Run+ 3 (*Est. $100). Like the Saucony Kinvara, the Nike Free Run+ series straddles the line between a traditional and minimalist shoe with a weight of about 9 ounces and a 7 mm heel-to-toe drop. Reviewers say this flexible model is ideal for use as a recovery or race-day shoe.
The 7.2-ounce, 8 mm-drop Brooks Green Silence (*Est. $70) is another favorite, with reviewers saying it moves easily with the foot. The shoe is composed of recycled material and breaks down more readily than most running shoes, making it a good pick for eco-minded runners. The Pure Connect (*Est. $90), Brooks' lowest profile offering, also garners substantial attention. Weighing 7.7 ounces and featuring a 4 mm drop, it's known for its elastic nav band, which wraps along the upper to help the shoe lock nicely onto the foot. At 22 mm, the stack height is greater than barefoot-style models from Vibram or Merrell, but it is still a lower profile than a traditional running shoe.
The Pure Connect is less flexible than the Nike Free Run+ 2 and slightly heavier than the Green Silence, however, and some reviewers question its durability and say it runs particularly slick on wet surfaces and mud. The toebox is also substantially narrower than other models. However, for those looking for a transitional shoe with excellent arch support and a softer landing, this shoe is a good pick.
The most detailed and vetted sources of reviews and information on minimalist and barefoot-style running shoes can be found in Runner's World and Running Times magazines. Runner's World is known as the gold standard for running-shoe reviews, including minimalist models. Likewise, Running Times provides expert articles about the biomechanics of minimalist running, as well as evaluations of individual shoes. Detailed reviews of minimalist running shoes are often written by dedicated minimalist-running enthusiasts at a variety of blogs; the most well-known is RunBlogger.com, where shoes are wear-tested and written about, as well as RunningandRambling.com and RunningShoesGuru.com. We also found stellar and comparative reviews at the Average Guy Hits the Road blog. User comments on sites like REI.com offer insight, too.