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.
Vibram Five Fingers
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?
- Sternberg, A. You Walk Wrong . New York Magazine. 2008. ↩
- Running Shoes May Cause Damage to Knees, Hips and Ankles, New Study Suggests . ScienceDaily. 2010. ↩
- Winn, Y. How to Choose Barefoot/Minimalist Running Shoes . REI. 2012. ↩
I finally tried the Vibrams this weekend at a fitness conference and I was VERY impressed. They felt incredible. Hoping to try on a couple types of vibrams and test them out, then possibly create a post with my review. Also going to check out the New Balance Minimus as tons of smart strength coaches and personal trainers rave about them.
I absolutely fell in love with my Five Fingers the first time I went for a run. Like a lot of others, I tried to get into running, but was plagued by knee and hip pain after running in my sneakers. Since I’ve made the switch to the Vibrams, though, I’ve had no problems. I’m definitely a believer!
…and thanks for the article Nate. Well done.
I agree – great article.
I’ve been using a NB Minimus trail shoe for all of my workouts and outdoor sports for about six months now, and the change has been remarkable. They are much more natural-feeling and comfortable in just about every situation. They look nice, too, so I can wear them with shorts and a t-shirt, and I tend to get compliments ).
The biggest thing that I’ve found is that I no longer roll on my ankle like I used to with the big-heel style running shoe. For someone with a history of ankle issues, this is huge.
Regarding the ankle-rolling: I’ve noticed the same thing! The minimalist design definitely seems to help…I’m guessing it’s just because you don’t have the extra leverage on your ankle when it starts to go over. Or maybe because you are constantly strengthening your feet and ankles. Maybe both.
I’d add Invisible Shoes (running sandals) to the list. They’re great for casual summer outfits and the looks you get while running on the trail with them are priceless!
I’m definitely interested in getting some running sandals. VIVOBAREFOOT makes a few that look pretty nice…I’m tempted to buy a pair. What kind do you have?
Huaraches from invisibleshoe.com. Best sport equipment I’ve ever bought in my life.
They seem like a good idea but I am afraid that all the rocks and stuff sticking out on the trails around here might be painful on my feet in these shoes. I mean, I kick rocks a lot. Is there good toe protection? What about those accidental encounters with a sharp pointy rock?
@Heather – That’s a great point, Heather. Nate can chime in, but the vibrams for example have different shapes and padding. For example, there is a virbram made specifically for running on cement I saw this weekend with a thicker and harder bottom so rocks will not be an issue. For the most minimalist vibram, or possible ZEMgear shoe, pebbles are certainly a problem. In my opinion, I think it’s worth having two pairs of minimalist shoes; one for trail running and more tough terrain and another for general fitness. I’m going to be testing out a couple different types of vibrams and hope to do a post on it.
Most of the trail shoes have a slightly thicker sole and great toe protection. I have a pair of Vibram TrekSports and a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves – both provide plenty of protection for trails and road debris. You’ll definitely notice if you land on a big, pointy rock, but you should be fine….and you learn to avoid them pretty quickly.
Nice job Nate. I feel inspired to get some toe shoes. 🙂
What about people with flat feet that over-pronate? If I don’t wear a running shoe with a lot of support, I develop some painful issues in my feet and knees.
I came across this question a couple of times doing research for the article. There are a number of people with your same issue, but a lot have found that the barefoot or minimalist running actually helps because it strengthens your feet so much. Some people have even claimed to go from having flat feet to having strong arches after running this way for a while.
I’m not an expert in foot mechanics or anatomy, though, so if you’re going to jump into it, make sure you do your research and start slow.
I too have extremely flat feet. I used to run in supportive shoes – mostly Asics – and would continuously be plagued by chronic foot, knee, leg and back issues. About to give up, I decided to give the “less is more” approach a chance. I stared using Nike Free Trainers during my lifting and sprint workouts. I was amazed at the results. I decided to give running a try with a minimal shoe. I broke in lightly and purchased the Adidas Climacool Rides. Being a big guy (6’4″ 230lbs) I tend to not even feel the cushioning that most so-called cushion shoes offer, so I really was skeptical, but I was desperate. I could not be happier that I have made the switch.
I regularly run on a trail that is covered in gravel and rocks. I am a natural forefoot striker, so the transition was made a bit easier for me, but I do fully believe that these shoes have tremendously strengthened my feet – especially my arches – and have completely eliminated that typical nagging injuries I used to face. My next pair will be even less supportive and cushioned. I am a true believer in the “less is more” when it comes to running/workout shoes.
Thank you, Jeff & Nate. Now I’m motivated to go out and try a pair!
Thanks for this article. I’ve seen these type of shoes in sporting stores, but I never really gave them much notice. Now that I know what they’re about, I’m heading off next chance I get to pick up a pair!
Nice article, Nate! As a runner, I just started the transition to minimalist shoes and started with the Brooks PureConnect, which I love so far. These were recommended to me as “training shoes,” after a runner friend recommended NOT going straight to barefoot shoes, but transitioning slowly. Although they were not as difficult to get used to as I expected, I still get sore sometimes after a month of use.
The best thing is learning how to run correctly! My knee pain is gone and I can go for longer because I’m not wasting so much energy running heel-toe.
PS thanks for the program Marc, I’ve lost 25 lbs and will be sending you before/after pics when I get down lower!
@Lacie – AWESOME, congrats on your success!!! Looking forward to seeing the pics. You can shoot the pics etc. to support (at) builtlean.com.
Great info. Would you also recommend the Merrill or Minimum shoes for cross training workouts?
Between my Five Fingers and Trail Gloves, I do pretty much everything in minimalist shoes — running, hiking, kayaking, football, weights, cross-training. The only thing I haven’t tried is basketball just because there is so much jumping and lateral movement, but I’ll probably give that a shot, too.
Since I have knee and back issues, you have inspired me to try minimalist shoes for my workouts. Thanks!
I’m wondering if there’s much evidence for their use if there’s compounding issues like knee injuries?
I too have extremely flat feet, and have had an ACL reconstruction + meniscus repair, along with a suspected PCL grade 2 in that same knee that occured a few months after the surgery (not confirmed due to recon screws blurring the MRI).
My two running attempts with some NB trails have been stopped by my knee pain building up significantly rather than any real exhaustion. Frustrating, to say the least.
How do they compare when running with typical sneakers? There should be significantly less stress on your knees if you running in a forefoot-striking style, but you should definitely consult a qualified trainer if you’re experiencing pain.
Here’s a good video that explains the differences between forefoot and heel running related to the impact forces they put on the joints:
well the NB trails are just standard shoes – NB 814 – not minimalist, since up until those two times I had never stepped on a treadmill and the most running I’ve done has been a few barefooted laps around a school gym during taekwondo training.
Don’t have any running-specific shoes, since the 2xtreadmill attempts were done in response to a challenge a friend set me to try running. It would probably help my CV fitness, but I don’t want to do so at the expense of accelerating knee degeneration, so wondered if minimalist shoes might be the answer.
How did your knees hold up on the barefoot laps?
Definitely don’t do it at the expense of your knees, but I’d guess that barefoot-style would help significantly. If you decide to try barefoot running or getting yourself a pair of minimalists, come back and let us know. I’d be interested to hear how it goes!
Hey Nate – not getting an option to reply to your last post for some reason, so replying to your earlier one instead.
I can run fine barefoot but don’t think its comparable: ts usually a 5-lap type of run as opposed to longer distances, and over ground rather than the propulsion forces from the treadmill.
Having said that, I tried running with my Cmuks today (Australian shoes – essentially the same as a minimalist since they have no arch support or padding anywhere) and was pleasantly surprised to find my pain with the same setting as the last 2 attempts was at 3/10 at the end compared to 8/10 the previous times, and pain went away within about 3 minutes as opposed to lingering for half a day.
Even more surprising, I was actually struggling cardiovascularly at the end of it, and could definitely feel my medial calves, all the way down into my achilles insertion being worked a lot. I’m a natural forefoot runner, so I didn’t struggle with form except towards the end due to muscle fatigue.
Won’t say its a solution for everyone, but for me it definitely makes a massive difference on the knee and I’ll definitely be looking into some minimalists to run occasionally (my cmuks are too pretty to wear them down running!)
That’s awesome to hear, Vanessa! Hopefully that proves to be the long-term solution for you and the pain subsides even more! 🙂
Five Fingers were my gateway to minimalist shoes, but after CrossFit introduced me to Inov-8, the ultra-light Inov-8 F-Lite 195s became my top choice for working out and most running (although I prefer the clunkier Merrell Trail Glove for very rocky trails). F-Lite 195 has 3mm heel-toe drop and very slight padding – a barefoot purist might object, but I found the extra bruise protection worth it, and sufficient for me to stay injury-free while training for and racing a 3:04 marathon this spring.
Hard to find in stores but Zappo’s is one reliable way to buy.
I run on treadmill 2.5miles(HIIT) twice a week with VFF bikila. But I get pain on the back of my heel where achilles tendon is attached to the calcanius and some pain on lower achilles tendon(not much on calf muscles).The pain continues several days even the days I am not running to the extent that it stopped me running.
Any solution to my problem?
How long have you been running in your bikilas?
My Achilles was sore for probably the first 3 months when I started just because the tendon had shortened from wearing “normal” shoes for so long. If you’re still in the breaking-in period, I would suggest not pushing it too hard with the HIIT and maybe do more distance running or walking on incline to get your body stretched out and accustomed to barefoot-style. It’s better to go slow than pop a tendon and be out of commission for a few months.
If you’ve been running for a while in them and you’re still having issues, though, you should definitely seek out a qualified trainer and see if they have any better insight.
Nate, I have a quick question
For Nike free does training mean like lifting weights?
Which Nike free does everything combined like training, walking , running, etc?
Mark thanks for helping with my workout out, should I do body weight training and HIT the same say or do body weight training 2x a week and HIT once week?
I did a little research and there is a ton of confusing information about the different styles of the Nike Free (Trainer 5.0 vs Run+, etc), but it looks like the original, plain-vanilla Free is meant to be more of a straight-line running shoe, whereas the Trainer provides more support and balance for lateral movements in cross training and sports.
The general consensus seems to be go for the Trainer as your all-purpose shoe.
Thanks Nate!!!!!!! for answering my question I appreciate it a lot! Now I know to get the Trainer shoe.
Thanks Nate for answering myquestion.I have been running more than a year in Bikila.
Pain is getting worse in the last 3-4 months.
Please convey my special thanks to Mark for his so helpful website,
Thanks Sabbir A. for your kind words! Nate did an awesome job with this article and i can assure you we will be exploring barefoot running in other articles.
Great article, thanks for giving all those examples of minimalist manufacturers.
I love going barefoot, but since it’s a bit culturally awkward going barefoot to work or the store I try and make a point of wearing my water socks whenever possible. 🙂
They are a cheap alternative I thought of while in a pinch to buy new shoes when my old ones were falling apart, cash was short and I had only a small window of time before the group I was with would be leaving.
I’m not sure how long the rubber soles last compared to traditional minimalist shoes, but if you’re interested in trying out minimalist walking/jogging/running, don’t like the thought of full barefoot and aren’t sure you want to make the minimalist investment, I’d recommend starting out with a pair of $10 water socks.
However, as Nate said: Start slow! It may feel a little weird at first and your feet may get tired, or even sore, more quickly than seems appropriate, possibly even when you’ve only been walking around. If you go barefoot in your home more often than not adjustment may come more quickly, although this depends on how much walking you do around your house. (Also, you may notice that you suddenly lose 1/4 to 1 inch in height. Equally possible, you won’t notice at all. It kind of comes and goes for me, but the sensation, or more accurately ‘realization’, isn’t unpleasant, just funny to think about.)
The difficulty I have with being able to go minimalist is that, instead of driving, I ride my bike everywhere and neither riding barefoot nor with water socks nor with minimalist shoes are the safest, or most comfortable, choice of footwear for biking.
After reading this I want to start bringing them with me though . . . the trick being that then I will need to lug my sneakers around tied to my backpack all day.
Great info Nate. A lot of the problems I was having related to flat feet and overpronation went away after I transitioned to minimalist shoes. Just like you mentioned, I started with Nike Frees over a year ago and then went to Merrell Trail Gloves because I wanted a shoe with a zero heel-to-toe differential and a wider toe box.
I think the raised heel on a lot of stability shoes can actually cause more pronation because it limits ankle range of motion. That was the biggest issue in making the switch for me. I was already a forefoot striker using the Nikes but when I started using the trail gloves I didn’t have enough ankle mobility to do every run in them without being sore for several days. It’s definitely a gradual process but I’m so happy now that I’ve made the transition and I can say that the muscles in my calves and arches have gotten a lot stronger.
@James – Thanks for sharing your thoughts James. It’s super helpful to hear your story.
I read the comments about the flat feet issues
& it was useful
so I want your advice, I have flat feet, what to wear? how to excersize? & so on.
thanks so much.
@A.K. – I think that’s a great questions for your podiatrist.
4 months after I started to use Nike Free I’m having knees pain. I had had knees pain with cushioned shoes but much less often and less severe. Should I assume this is still an adjustment period or call it quits and go back to cushioning?
Stats – My favorite footwear after extensive testing are vibrams. Nike frees I consider still quite padded. Regarding your knee pain, you may want to consult with a doctor/physical therapist to see where the knee pain is coming from. Knee pain can occur because your IT band is tight, your hamstrings, quads, really a number of factors that can contribute to knee pain. Going to padded sneakers can be ok as long as you run on your toes. If you are an avid runner, the vibrams may not be the best fit for you. I’m going to write a lengthy post about them soon.
Adidas adipures are great trainers also, they are pretty much a vff copy and they have a thicker sole with a little more padding which isn’t quite as flexible but they are very comfortable with the neoprene upper and they make an awesome gym shoe and are especially good for lifting.
@Mike – Thanks for sharing.
I had purchased a pair a while back; however hard to where due to the material getting so hot in the summer heat and concrete. Wonder if that has improved.
what about the clark’s trigenic shoes series? I have a trigenic flex and it’s really good that I don’t need my insoles for my flat feet anymore.
I’ve never heard of the trigenic shoe series, but I’ll definitely check that out. It’s awesome that it has helped your feet and you no longer need insoles. Thanks for sharing!
-Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor
Why don’t these companies offer different widths??? NB has just a few different widths in Minimus (and I love those so far) but most companies offer just 1 width. It seems odd since it is all about the right fit. Am I right? Please help me find some 4e zero drop, low stack, shoes. Also ditto to what most others have been saying. 40+ years of soccer and carpentry got me glass ankles. Also broke an achilles a while ago. But cannot stop playing soccer at 51. Right? So switched to NB Minimus for play and work and everywhere, and it is great. Major change. Not 1 injury in 6 months. Wish I switched sooner. Also got a standing desk BTW which, off topic, helps a ton FYI. — Mark Kamoski