A difference in height between the heel and the toes.
- The lower drop delivers a more sensitive ground contact, while the higher one provides more heel cushioning.
- In case of weightlifting shoes, a high firm heel lessens the strain on the Achilles tendon during squats.
Training footwear typically weighs between 200g and 300g per shoe to accommodate agile workouts. Minimalist trainers go as low as 150g, while weightlifting shoes can go as high as 500g.
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If you believe that our feet are crafted with an inherent ability to perform a huge variety of movements without the need for any external support, then a pair of minimalist training shoes might be just right for you. It is a growing niche on the market of training footwear, created specifically for people who want to go back to the essentials. The jury is still out on what exactly makes a trainer minimalist; however, based on the ongoing debate, a few core elements can be outlined:
Minimalist training shoes should bend, twist, and stretch in any direction to accommodate every foot movement. They should not get in the way of the natural biomechanics of the foot.
By keeping the foot low to the ground, these shoes aim to mimic the barefoot-like experience. Such a disposition promotes natural proprioception of the foot, giving its sensors comprehensive feedback about the position and alignment of the body. This, in turn, engages the right muscles of the foot, maximizing its innate functionality.
No arch support
The construction of a foot is already made strong enough to support the body weight and absorb shock upon impact. A healthy foot does not require any arch-supporting structures to perform its natural function. The unwarranted use of such will result in weakening of the muscles as well as in loss of proper functionality of the foot.
No added weight
The wearers should not feel dragged down by their footwear. The absence of cushioning and the use of lightweight materials make minimalist training shoes barely noticeable.
The anatomy of minimalist training shoes
This type of footwear normally stands out from the rest of the products at a store with their simplistic look and super-thin soles. In terms of specifications, you will find that these shoes are distinguished by:
Low or zero drop
Minimalist training shoes have a very small or completely absent difference in height between the heel and the forefoot (between 0 and 4 mm depending on a model). This construction offers no forward sloping of the foot as it is placed flat on the sole as if it were standing bare on the ground.
Low stack height
The thickness of the sole in different pairs of minimalist training shoes varies between 3 and 15 mm. The closer the foot sits to the ground, the better control and proprioception it receives.
Minimalist trainers range from 150 to 300 grams per shoe, but the average weight of a man’s trainer in US size 9 hovers around 200 grams.
Little or no cushioning
Cross-training and weightlifting exercises do not require a high amount of cushioning. On the contrary, a firmer and thinner sole creates a stable base for lifting heavy weights as well as for agile multi-directional movements. Some of the minimalist training shoes even use a removable insert instead of a dedicated midsole to minimize underfoot padding.
Absence of stability or motion control features
This type of training footwear is made with no arch support or gait-correcting technologies. The philosophy behind these shoes debates the use of any “crutches”, believing that they undermine the natural strength and functionality of the arch.
Spacious toe box
A natural and unhindered foot movement implies that toes are able to splay, dorsiflex, and grasp the surface easily. That’s why the forefoot of minimalist training shoes is designed to be wide and provide sufficient room for these actions. Some brands, like Vibram FiveFingers, even craft their shoes with pockets for each finger for maximized freedom of motion.
The whole idea of minimalist trainers is to accommodate every little foot movement to mimic the barefoot experience. That’s why their sole units are made to be thin and extremely pliable. Some of the models can even be easily rolled to fit inside a fist.
Popular brands of minimalist training shoes
The shoes from Vibram FiveFingers can be recognized by their “foot-glove” design. The idea of creating separate pockets for each toe is the brainchild Robert Fliri, an Italian designer. He questioned the conventional construction of a shoe, arguing that our feet have five separate fingers for a reason. The ability of our toes to splay, move, and grasp the ground independently is part of the natural biomechanics.
Fliri collaborated with an established Italian brand named Vibram to introduce the first batch of barefoot shoes in 2005. Originally created for after-hike wear and sailing, these lightweight, flexible, and grippy trainers were soon picked up by runners, fitness and CrossFit enthusiasts, water sports fans, yoga practitioners, trekkers, and travelers.
Founded in 1997, Vivobarefoot has always positioned itself as a brand of minimalist footwear. Although its primary focus has been on running, the company has also expanded to making shoes for everyday walking and exercising. The brand’s strategy states: “the less we can give you the better.” In compliance with this philosophy, Vivobarefoot creates its minimalist training shoes with ultra-thin and flexible soles that offer protection without hampering sensory feedback from the ground. The brand also prides itself on making vegan footwear, implying that no animal products or processes were used in its production.
One of the world’s leading sportswear manufacturers has also tried its hand at producing a line of minimalist training shoes, known as the Minimus. These trainers are distinguished by their little-to-no heel-to-toe drop, low-profile midsoles, and a thin yet wear-resistant Vibram outsole. One of the most acclaimed examples of this line is the New Balance Minimus 40 Trainer.
The company started off in 2003 as a manufacturer of running footwear for all types of terrain. Its founder, Wayne Edy, promoted the idea that an athlete’s interaction with the environment must be at the core of designing shoes. Thus, the brand’s approach has been minimalist-inclined from the very beginning. Inov-8’s first training shoe, the F-Lite 195, was highly appreciated by cross-fitness enthusiasts for its flexible and low-profile midsole, lightweight construction, grippy outsole, and lateral stability.
Even though the shoe was not intended as minimalist, it revealed the athletes’ crave for simplicity in training footwear. This inspired the company to explore this niche, which resulted in the development of the Bare-XF line (“bare” is short for “barefoot” and “XF” stands for “CrossFit”).
Frequently asked questions
What are the benefits of wearing minimalist shoes for training?
Health and natural functionality
A human foot has an innate capacity to properly carry the person’s weight and absorb impact. In fact, it was even called “a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art” by the great Leonardo da Vinci. Thus, when a healthy foot receives constant support from the overly cushioned shoes, it tends to get weaker and lose its performance. That’s where minimalist training shoes come to rescue. They promote the right, natural muscle activity of feet and ankles, help in developing reactivity and stability of the foot, building up ankle mobility, etc.
Athletes in minimalist training shoes can benefit from improved proprioception, lateral stability, multi-directional grip, sufficient room for wiggling and splaying toes, and an overall flexible and lightweight construction of the footwear.
Those who are into doing squats and lifts barefoot will rejoice in the steady base and the reliable grip of minimalist training shoes; also, the lack of a thick, plush midsole will result in the unhindered transfer of force from the feet to the ground. For more science-backed information about the use of minimalist footwear for this exercise, check out our in-depth research and guide to lifting shoes.
Those who wear minimalist training shoes for fitness or casual walking will be able to enjoy the barefoot-like experience while still being protected from sharp objects on the ground.
A pair of non-cushioned minimalist training shoes will force the runner to land on the middle and front parts of the foot, engaging arches and calf muscles to absorb shock in a natural way.
An all-in-one option
No matter what your fitness regimen is, minimalist training shoes will most likely fit it all. As long as your feet are accustomed to using this type of footwear, you will be able to switch from one athletic activity to another without the need to change footgear.
What are the drawbacks of wearing minimalist training shoes?
Wearing a pair of minimalist shoes for the first time may seem like stepping out barefoot or in socks. If your feet are used to the plush underfoot feel of regular trainers, you might experience discomfort as you walk over rocky or other uneven surfaces. It requires a period of getting used to.
Risk of puncture
Even though most minimalist training shoes are equipped with puncture-resistant technologies, none of them can give a 100% guarantee that the sole wouldn’t be cut when forcefully stepping on a sharp object. However, minding your step will minimize the risk of this unpleasant outcome.
Injury due to improper physical preparedness
Over a few decades, our feet have gotten used to the plush, thick soles of cushioned trainers and sneakers. Dress shoes and high heels, on the other hand, have also been limiting and constricting the freedom of foot motion. The above-mentioned footwear is rarely designed with the natural biomechanics in mind. As a result, the foot’s innate abilities to absorb shock, to carry and transfer the weight, and to adjust to the surface have been blunted significantly. That’s why jumping into a pair of minimalist training shoes may not only be uncomfortable at first but could even lead to injuries. Individual health conditions (like diabetes) should also be taken into account before going minimal to avoid unpleasant consequences.
How to transition from regular cushioned trainers to minimalist training shoes?
Reclaiming the native strength and movement patterns of the foot takes time and patience. Here are a few things that could help you build up the preparedness and confidence for shifting to barefoot shoes:
Walk and exercise barefoot wherever possible.
Before purchasing a pair of minimalist training shoes, try to increase the amount of time you spend walking barefoot or in socks around the house, the yard, or any other common places. Also, do warm-ups and light, low-impact exercises without shoes. These habits will give your feet an initial preparation.
Do exercises for feet and ankles.
There is a huge variety of simple exercises available on the web today. Some of these include heel raises, toe curls, mini foot massages with a tennis/lacrosse ball, etc. Choose a few and make it your habit to repeat them on a daily basis to further prepare and strengthen your feet.
Walk in minimalist shoes first.
We understand that the moment you get a brand new pair of minimalist training shoes, you cannot wait to put them to a test and get the most out of them. But before trying to run or train in them, let your feet and legs get accustomed to the new sensations. Do a few strolls around the park or another place before doing any high-impact activities.
Take it slow and be mindful.
As there are no identical pairs of feet, it is difficult to give a specific time span required for transitioning into minimalist trainers. It could take from several weeks to several months, depending on your foot condition, athletic experience, and previous footwear. It is also important to listen to your body: be ready for a certain discomfort as the muscles are readjusting but take a break when it gets too intense. However, don’t hesitate to consult a doctor when the pain during or after wearing these shoes intensifies.
How to choose minimalist training shoes?
Even though all minimalist training shoes have similar characteristics, there is still a range to choose from. They can be roughly placed on a spectrum from the lightly-padded minimalist shoes, like the F-Lite 235 v2 from Inov-8, to extremely barefoot-like trainers with separated toes, like the V-Train from Vibram FiveFingers.
If you are relatively new to the world of minimalist footwear, try going with models that have a bit higher drop (3-4 mm) and a thicker sole (10-15 mm). Make the transition from cushioned shoes gradual to protect your lower extremities from pain and injuries.
Also, be very precise about the size and fit of minimalist training shoes as each brand tends to have its own measurement scheme. That’s why most of them offer online fitting tools on their official websites to help buyers find the right length and width. However, if you have an opportunity to try a pair in a store, it is strongly advisable to go with that option.
Can I wear socks with minimalist training shoes?
Yes. You can wear a light pair of socks as long as they don’t interfere with the way your footwear fits and feels on the foot. You can even purchase special “toed” socks from Vibram Five Fingers. They are created with a moisture-wicking ability to maximize comfort.