10 Best Minimalist Running Shoes in 2021

Jovana Subic
Jovana Subic on
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.

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.

Best overall

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.

See our full review and facts

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.

See our full review and facts

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.

See our full review and facts

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!

See our full review and facts

Best vegan

Vivobarefoot Primus Lite II
Vivobarefoot Primus Lite II Vivobarefoot Primus Lite II
Men
Women

No offers available

Top pick

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!

See our full review and facts

3 expert tips for buying minimalist running shoes 

Here is expert advice on buying minimalist running shoes so you make the best out of the experience.

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1. Make sure your current health allows you to start running in minimalist shoes 

Minimalist shoes tend to go minimal in all directions: weight, stack height, heel drop, stability and motion control. You should be aware how low values of those features affect one’s body while running and if you’re ready for that.

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Merrell Vapor Glove is one of the iconic minimalist shoe models.

Shoe features Effects on the body and running
Lightweight The lighter the shoe, the less features it has. If you’re ready to give up on those, you might benefit from light-weight shoes. A study has shown that minimalist shoes, weight-wise, are better for running economy: If one considers that a typical standard shoe weighs about 350 g, about 200 g more than most minimal shoes, and that every 100 g adds about 1% extra cost, then the net savings to minimal shoe running is between 4.4% and 6.8%.
Low stack height Loading rates (the speed at which you apply forces to the body) are significantly higher in minimalist shoes than in maximalist shoes, as shown in this study.
Low heel drop Lower heel drop can place greater stress on the foot, ankle, lower leg, but might help with ITB, (anterior) knee pain, gluteal overuse syndrome.
Even Nike tried stripping off heel drop while chasing the sub-2-hour marathon. The only issue was: runners hated it.
High flexibility Some brands have been doing the stiffer models - whether it’s the material of the sole itself or inserting carbon plates. Forefoot stiffness is something to forget about when buying minimalist shoes.
No or minimal stability and motion control You should be ready to give up (or go really low) on
a) motion control - the ability of the shoe to support the inner foot and reduce inward rolling (overpronation) and on
b) stability features - the ability of the shoe to offer support and alleviate foot discomfort.

2. Find the perfect fit 

Minimalist running shoes tend to feel glove-like. It's an imperative to find the shoe that fits perfectly and is comfortable. Make sure you try on different models (with separate fingers, wide toe-box, foot-shaped, etc.) before choosing the best one.

3. Take the adaptation period seriously. 

The bigger the transition (think going from maximalist to minimalist), the more cautious you should be. Minimalist-footwear brands usually have transition plans on their websites. 

The length of the adaptation period is a very individual thing. Vibram used to have the 10-week transition plan on their website, but the study showed that it simply wasn’t enough. At times, the transition might take up to a year. Practice caution and be aware of how your body reacts and adapts.

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Example of a minimalist trail shoe: Saucony Switchback 2

Scientifically proven effects of minimalist running shoes

How safe are minimalist shoes? 

Are they better for running than standard shoes? 

Here we’ll offer scientific background on what minimalist running shoes might have an effect on. If there’s one finding for you to remember, it’s this one: transitioning to minimalist shoes will lead to an injury if not done properly (gradually). 

Running injuries

  • No clinical study has demonstrated the superiority of running in minimalist footwear when it comes to reducing injury. [1], [2

Foot muscles 

  • Minimalist shoes improved plantar flexor strength more than conventional shoes in runners with greater weekly training distances. [3]
  • The size of intrinsic foot muscles appears to be important in safely transitioning to minimalist shoe running. Strengthening it may help with the transition. [4]
  • Changes in joint angles previously attributed to minimalist footwear alone may be similarly achieved with instruction. [5]
  • Habitually shod runners who transitioned to minimalist shoes demonstrated a significant increase in leg and foot muscle volume. [6]
  • Individuals who habitually wear minimal footwear have longitudinal arches that are stiffer both statically and dynamically than those who habitually wear conventional modern shoes. Less stiff arches lead to flat feet. 
  • Flat foot can be treated by switching to minimal footwear. [7]

Running efficiency 

  • Minimalist running shoes might lead to greater running efficiency in some experienced runners. [8
  • Gradually introducing minimalist shoes during the six-week training block might improve running economy and performance in trained runners. [8]

Long-term effects of minimalist running shoes

  • After 20 weeks and moving to 100% minimalist shoe use, runners didn’t further improve performance, running economy, or alter running biomechanics and lower limb bone mineral density. [9]

5 characteristics of minimalist shoes 

Based on a consensus, minimalist shoes are "Footwear providing minimal interference with the natural movement of the foot due to its high flexibility, low heel to toe drop, weight and stack height, and the absence of motion control and stability devices".

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Minimalist shoes are defined by Minimalist Index (MI). Characteristics included in MI are weight, flexibility, heel to toe drop, stack height, and motion control/stability devices. Each characteristic weighs 20% (or 5 points) of the final score.

Minimalist index breakdown

Features/# of points 5 4 3 2 1 0
Weight <125g From 125g to less than 175g From 175g to less than 225g From 225g to less than 275g From 275g to less than 325g 325g and more
Stack height <8mm From 8mm to less than 14mm From 14mm to less than 20mm From 20mm to less than 26mm From 26mm to less than 32mm 32mm and more
Heel-to-toe drop <1mm From 1mm to less than 4mm From 4mm to less than 7mm From 7mm to less than 10mm From 10mm to less than 13mm 13mm and more
Stability and motion control technologies None 1 device 2 devices 3 devices 4 devices 5 or 6 devices
Possible technologies: multi-density midsole, thermoplastic medial post, rigid heel counter, elevated medial insole under the arch, supportive tensioned medial upper, medial flare.
Flexibility: Longitudinal + torsional The more flexibility, the higher the score.

Minimalist vs. barefoot running shoes

While minimalist shoes might resemble barefoot running to some degree, when it comes to kinetics and kinematics, the difference is evident. Additionally, stride frequency, anterior-posterior impulse, vertical stiffness, leg stiffness, and mechanical work were significantly higher in barefoot condition compared to shod. Barefoot running simply can’t be imitated, whatever features a shoe has. 

However, there are minimalist shoes that offer the experience that’s closest to barefoot running. They are called barefoot running shoes. People usually argue that barefoot running is the most natural way of running and they tend to enjoy it as much as possible in barefoot running shoes.

Minimalist vs. barefoot running shoes

Minimalist running shoes

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Barefoot running shoes

Barefoot.png

Shoe features are defined with MI (Minimalist Index), but not all features are required to have minimal values. 

Shoe is stripped off of most features, aiming for the minimal values. They are minimalist of the minimalist.

Stack height might be high enough so it offers comfort while running on uneven terrain.

Stack height is minimal, which usually means you’ll feel the surface details, especially bigger ones (rocks, cracks).  

It’s possible to have some support if looking for comfort. 

Usually no support/cushioning is offered. 

RunRepeat database has over 200 minimalist running shoes

There are a lot less barefoot running shoes than minimalist ones. 

Minimalist footwear with lower heel heights and minimal shock absorption is more effective in replicating barefoot running.

No definitive conclusions can be drawn regarding the risks or benefits of running barefoot, shod, or in minimalist shoes, as explained in this metastudy

Popularity of minimalist running shoes 

In 2009 the book Born to run was released and it caused a boom in the running community. The book promotes minimalist running shoes and barefoot running and that’s why 2009 was a turning point. Born to run is, to this day, a must-read for a runner. 

With new shoes hitting the market like Vibram FiveFingers and Xero, the popularity of minimalist and barefoot running shoes has certainly seen some spikes. It’s difficult to imagine the hype reaching the maximum again, given the backlashes (like the Vibram lawsuit) and people gaining experience and even injuries with minimalist footwear.

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If you don’t feel ready to go full minimal, there are other options to help your transition. Consider looking at low-drop running shoes or lightweight running shoes first.

Author
Jovana Subic
Jovana Subic

Whether it's a vertical kilometre or an ultra, climbing in the Alps or exploring local mountains, Jovana uses every opportunity to trade walls and concrete for forests and trails. She logs at least 10h/week on trails, with no off-season, and 4x more on research on running and running shoes. With a background in physics and engineering management, she prefers her running spiced with data.