10 Best Minimalist Running Shoes in 2021
The idea behind minimalist running shoes is that feet should experience movement in a more natural way. This means stripping away all the extra cushioning, making space for toes to move freely, and letting your feet feel the surface more. This way, feet are more aware of the terrain and send signals to your brain on how to run better.
Although minimalist shoes make up a small portion of the running shoe market, we still dug in to find the best ones. We have tested over 20 models in our lab to see which ones perform the best in various categories.
For expert tips on how to choose the best minimalist running shoes for you, scroll down to the guide below.
Overview of this guide
- 1. How we review minimalist running shoes
- 2. Best overall
- 3. Best for trail
- 4. Best budget shoe
- 5. Best with toe pockets
- 6. Best vegan
- 7. 3 expert tips for buying minimalist running shoes
- 8. Scientifically proven effects of minimalist running shoes
- 9. 5 characteristics of minimalist shoes
- 10. Minimalist vs. barefoot running shoes
- 11. Popularity of minimalist running shoes
How we review minimalist running shoes
With the rapidly growing popularity of max-cushioned running shoes, there aren’t that many minimalist shoes on the market. But we still put them through an extensive review to pick out the best ones:
- Our testers run 30-50 miles in each pair on average to provide an in-depth overview of its comfort, fit, and performance in various conditions.
- Over 30 different shoe parameters are measured at our RunRepeat lab. This is how we get comparable data to put each shoe against all others.
- Our system gathers all available user and expert reviews on minimalist shoes (120,000+ so far) that contribute to the review.
- We buy every pair with our own money and receive no free shoes from brands.
As a verdict, each pair receives a score from 0 to 100 (CoreScore). The best-rated ones are featured on this list.
The Xero Shoes HFS packs a lot in such a minimalist design. It promises a lightweight and comfortable shoe, and to our amazement, it delivered with flying colors!
The real star of the show was the shoe’s amply spaced toe box. Seriously, there’s more than enough room up front for toe splay and wriggling. But what’s great about it is it does NOT make the shoe loose at all. It hits the sweet spot between security and comfort.
And wow, it’s the superlative of flexibility. Apart from making our runs very natural-feeling, it also takes comfort to a whole different level. It’s just out of this world!
Weight? What weight? It’s so light, it barely has any bulk. It’s almost like we were running with nothing on.
With this shoe, looks can be deceiving. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like the most “minimalist” shoe on the market, but dang, it’s a surefire marvel in allowing the most ground feel.
Given its lightness, it’s easy to run in it in fast-paced efforts. Sprinting? It’s a no-sweat activity for this shoe.
Because it’s minimalist, we weren’t expecting much from it, especially in the durability department. But we had to swallow our words. After raking 50 miles of rough wear testing, this bad boy came out as good as new - no wear and tear!
And if you want to do some night or low-light runs, count the Xero Shoes HFS in. It’s got a ton of reflective elements that sure will power visibility.
Best for trail
It’s versatile and it’s everything great in a minimalist trail running shoe. The Merrell Trail Glove 6 just wowed us with its performance!
For such stripped-down design, this minimalist shoe is anything but stripped-down on functions. It can be a running shoe, a hiking shoe, a training shoe, or even an around-town shoe. To put it simply, it can morph into anything you want it to be!
And traction is fine as hell. On paved surfaces, light trails, and in wet conditions, this shoe just proved itself a pro. It crushed everything underfoot, making us tread through uneven and slick terrain with confidence.
The weight just takes everything up a notch. It’s EXTREMELY light, we totally forgot about it on the run.
Support is the name of the game. The upper is fantastic in keeping the feet locked in place, and to add structure, there are overlays welded to the sides, preventing excess movements.
If there’s one thing this shoe made us feel, it’s surefooted on the trails!
Even more, it’s a sustainable shoe. So, if you want to lessen your carbon footprint, buying the Merrell Trail Glove 6 is a step in the right direction.
Best budget shoe
It doesn’t break the bank and it does a lot! 50 miles in, and we just can’t get enough of the Merrell Vapor Glove 5.
It does what minimalist shoes are supposed to, and it does everything EXCELLENTLY. Apart from its superb ground feel, it’s a do-it-all shoe.
Yes, you read that right. For such a low price, it can be everything and anything. From running, walking, gym workouts, and even hiking, this shoe just eats up everything! And to be completely frank, we were surprised.
The fit is spot on. Not once did we experience any slips, and the forefoot is just terrifically roomy. Our toes are able to splay naturally, making our strides even more natural.
And the durability is just as good as the more premium running shoes. Wait - it’s even BETTER.
After pacing it through, the shoe’s upper and outsole proved themselves practically indestructible! If anything, this shoe is a tank.
We also took it out on some rocky trails, and without hitches, the Merrell Vapor Glove 5 delivered top-notch protection and grip.
Best with toe pockets
Vibram FiveFingers is king when it comes to barefoot running shoes, and the KSO EVO is here to prove just that. And miles of testing later, we just couldn’t disagree!
It looks cool, but there's more to it. The comfort is just far out! And that’s thanks to its glove-like fit. As in, there are dedicated toe pockets for each toe, and running in it has been nothing short of amazing.
They don’t only amp up comfort, they also take lockdown up a notch. There are NO excess in-shoe movements at all.
And upon step-in, the instant reaction is just “wow!” The upper is plush-wrapping, and there’s ZERO rubbing.
In the traction department, it’s a solid 10/10. We hit the road and the light trails in this baby, and it just bit into everything! No missteps at all. We were as surefooted and stable as ever.
Speaking of stability, given its minimalist approach, you might think that it has none of it. Well, it’s here to change your mind. Underfoot, there’s an insole that’s very thin yet rigid (almost unnoticeable), keeping us well-supported and upright!
Although the Vibram FiveFingers KSO EVO really heightens ground awareness, we never felt tired nor beat-up after long excursions. That’s how awesome it is!
No offers available
For runners who are turning to veganism, if we could recommend only one trusty running shoe that suits your lifestyle, the Vivobarefoot Primus Lite II is a no-brainer.
Apart from it NOT containing any animal products (nor is it tested on animals), it’s a shoe that’s a rockstar on the road and the trail. It just sticks into everything underfoot.
Even though it's a minimalist shoe, it’s big on protection. When we ran into some sharp rocks and debris, it muted out everything. We had NO issues with poking nor discomfort.
And the real scene-stealer - the upper - is extremely comfortable. We didn’t expect this, given that it's made from recycled plastic. We thought it was scratchy and overall just bad, but boy were we in for a treat! It’s anything but uncomfortable.
Even better, it’s a soft yet secure-fitting one too. No slippage nor tightness. It’s a very balanced fit that molds into the foot, thanks to its very flexible material.
And the toe box? Simply superb. It’s VERY spacious, the toes can move freely.
Although the Primus Lite II is not as light as the other minimalist running shoes on our roster, it still felt like we were walking on air. It didn’t drag us down. If anything, it made us efficient in our tempo runs!