Chances are you’ve already seen toe shoes at the gym, on the street or even at work. They are those sock-like creations with individual pockets for each of your little piggies, which are turning up everywhere these days.
But footwear like the über-popular Vibram Five Fingers are only a small sign of the much bigger movement towards minimalist or “barefoot” shoes.
Even mainstream brands are getting into the act, capitalizing on the growing number of people (especially runners) who are ditching their thick-heeled, designer sneakers for less-restrictive minimalist shoes like the Nike Free or Merrell Trail Glove. And it’s no wonder…
Recent barefoot running research show that the heavily-padded footwear we’re accustomed to actually causes us to walk and run in an unnatural way, creating more injuries than their slender counterparts. It may seem odd at first – after all, more cushion should mean less injury, right? The truth is that adding a thick sole to the heel of your shoe introduces a couple of problems:
- Forces you to land on your heel – your legs are sophisticated shock absorbers that have evolved over millions of years (without shoes, mind you), but the heel is really made for balance, not absorbing the repetitive jolts of running. The natural motion is to land towards the front or middle of your foot (like if you were jogging barefoot), letting your arch and calf muscles absorb the force of impact. A thick heel makes this almost impossible.
- Shortens your Achilles tendon – your typical sneaker is designed such that the rear of your foot is always higher than the front, creating a constant downward slant. This means your Achilles is always slightly retracted and eventually leads to a shortened tendon, making it much more prone to injury.12
Two Types of Minimalist Shoes
The ultimate goal of the minimalist shoe is to provide protection while still allowing your foot to move naturally. After all, humans have been walking and running around this planet for as long as we’ve been here and have done pretty well without the latest pair of super-sneakers strapped to our feet.
That said, there are a plethora of minimalist designs currently available, but they mostly fall into two main categories:
- “Barefoot” shoes – designed to provide as close to a barefoot experience as you can get while still offering protection from road debris, these shoes feature super-thin, flexible soles and zero drop from heel to toe. Most are meant to fit like gloves and often have individual pods for each toe, allowing for a greater range of motion.
- Minimalist running shoes – somewhere between the barefoot experience and traditional running shoes, these typically have a single, closed toe pod and slightly thicker sole to provide more protection. Though not zero drop like barefoot shoes, these hybrids still have minimal heel-to-toe decline and allow for the more natural midfoot or forefoot landing.
Minimalist Shoes | What’s Most Popular
As mentioned before, the minimalist shoe scene has exploded in recent years. From big players like Nike and Adidas to up-and-comers like Vibram and VIVOBAREFOOT, companies are flooding the market with minimalist footwear. There are way more models and brands than I care to go into here, but let’s take a glance at what some of the hot names in minimalism have to offer.
VIVOBAREFOOT (affiliate link)
Introduced in 2003, VIVOBAREFOOT pioneered the modern barefoot movement with their moccasin-like footwear. A machination of Galahad Clark (of the Clarks shoe family) and Earth-friendly shoemakers Terra Plana, the original Vivo features a thin, puncture-resistant sole with a non-restrictive, lightweight body. Fast forward to the present and VIVOBAREFOOT now offers the most comprehensive line of minimalist shoes on the market. Whether you’re in the mood for dress-casual loafers, heavy-duty hiking boots or even light and sporty huaraches (running sandals), you’re sure to find something to your liking.
Originally known as a premier manufacturer of rubber soles for hiking boots, Vibram introduced the Five Fingers Classic in 2006. Prominently featured in Christopher McDougall’s bible of barefoot running, Born To Run, these toes shoes quickly lit up the minimalist scene and have been gaining mainstream popularity ever since. Over the past few years, Vibram has taken the market by storm and now sells a truly mind-boggling array of different types of Five Fingers. From the versatile KSO to the rough and ready Trek, there are styles for every taste – as long as you have a taste for toes. Update: BuiltLean now recommends Vibram Five Fingers.
Merrell Barefoot (affiliate link)
Last year Merrell introduced their own line of low-profile, zero-drop running shoes featuring a sole specially designed by their long-time partner, Vibram. The Barefoot Glove series is not nearly as diverse as the Five Fingers or VIVOBAREFOOT collections, but has already established itself as a contender in the market, led by the sleek Road Glove and sturdy Trail Glove. High quality, great looks and a reasonable price point make these an excellent choice for just about everyone.
ZEMgear (affiliate link)
Modeled after traditional Japanese tabi, ZEMgear’s split-toe design looks more like a ninja boot than a running shoe, but has been generating buzz in the minimalist community. Noted for being an extremely comfortable, near-barefoot experience, they also hold up well for road or light trail running and are so flexible you can roll them up like a sock.
New Balance Minimus (affiliate link)
The initial offerings of the Minimus line were not as true to the barefoot ideal as some had hoped, but New Balance is now becoming a serious contender in the minimalist market. The newest member of the family, the Minimus Zero, features a specially-designed Vibram sole and a true 0mm heel-to-toe drop. While more restrictive than the Five Fingers, Vivo and ZEMgear shoes, these are still very lightweight, stylish and reasonably-priced to put them on par with Merrell’s Barefoot line.
Nike Free (affiliate link)
Taking a slightly different approach, the Nike Free uses a series of deep lengthwise and widthwise grooves in the sole to create more flexibility and allow each “block” to adjust individually to your foot as it moves. Affectionately dubbed “marshmallow shoes” (on account of the big white blocks all over the sole), the Free comes in a multitude of flavors – from 2.0 to 7.0 – which are meant to signify the level of support each shoe gives, where 0.0 would be going barefoot and 10.0 would be a traditional running shoe. Nike Frees also have a cross trainer line, which are similar to the Minimus, but with more support.
Whether you’re a vet of the barefoot movement or just getting started, there has never been a better time to get yourself into a pair of minimalist shoes. The number of brands and styles available right now is truly impressive and there are still more on the horizon.
If you’re serious about finding shoes that are right for you, I recommend checking out Birthday Shoes, as they have comprehensive reviews of minimalist gear and are adding more all the time.
Also, if you’ve never run in barefoot or minimalist shoes before, please start slowly.3 You’ll be working muscles that have not been used much before and it’s very easy to hurt yourself if you’re not careful. Consider starting out with Nike Frees, moving on to either the Minimus, or Merrill, then giving the least supportive barefoot shoes like Vibrams a try.
Did I miss any minimalist shoes that you like? Which is your favorite?