For millennia, the act of running was nothing more than merely going out and gaining speed. There were no running shoes or any supportive footwear that would stave off impact shock or guide the foot through the gait cycle. The most that people got for their feet before the footwear revolution of the 1960s were thin sandals, dress shoes or very early prototypes. The natural structure and movement capacity of the human foot did most of the job; bones, muscles, and tendons worked together to deliver speed and power to the stride. The ground was felt, and the motion was deliberate; it’s an active representation of the biomechanical capacities of the body’s lower extremities.
But footwear technology eventually kept up and even reached a point where people can choose from a multitude of variants to suit their needs. Some running shoes aim to bring the foot as far from the ground as possible while others are tasked with providing a balanced between ground perception and impact attenuation. Still, some products are meant to keep the foot as close to the ground as possible and as free to move as the runner wills. Coined as ‘minimalist’ shoes, these options evoke a near-barefoot running experience while keeping an uncluttered look.
The term ‘minimalism’ wasn’t trendy until the 1950s, where artists expressed their talents through works that didn’t show a lot of style of pomp. The grace poured onto the craft came through sparing use of materials, an intentional step back from creative overlaying, and a goal of achieving an output that isn’t cluttered or filled with detail. This design philosophy was applied to running shoes as a means of keeping the anatomical structure of the foot intact and unrestrained. The biomechanical capacities of the tendons, joints, muscles, and bones were also highlighted as essential parts of a minimalist shoe’s overall blueprint.
Minimalist running is different from barefoot running because of mostly one thing: the presence of footwear on the minimalist side of things. Running with one’s bare feet is still practiced to this day, with a multitude of enthusiasts tackling roads and groomed trails with nothing but their own personal sense of equilibrium and the natural feel of the surfaces against the pads of their feet. Many people want to have a running experience that’s close to being barefoot, but they also desire a bit of support and steadiness in the form of a shoe. Therefore, the smooth and uncluttered façades of minimalist shoes came into the picture.
It could be argued that some lightweight, close-to-the-ground, and form-fitting shoes are constituents of barefoot running, but purists would most likely lean towards the traditionally apt description: solely the feet controlling movement and stability over the ground beneath. Still, the spur of innovation brought forth a variety of products that would either closely resemble the inherent curvature and form of the foot or follow the composition of an actual sock. These options may either pass as products for minimalist or barefoot running, though the distinction ultimately rests on the perception of the wearer.
The minimalist index
How will you know if a running shoe is intended to be a minimalist option? And what constitutes a minimalist shoe? Forty-two specialists were banded together to get into the process of determining the meaning of a minimalist shoe. These people brainstormed each other and made individual inputs until they came up with this description, as circulated via the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research: 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.
They also made a Minimalist Index, which guides consumers, experts, and companies in categorizing their shoes as minimalist or not. There are five cornerstones to this marker: the shoe’s weight, stack height, heel to toe drop, stability or motion control features, and flexibility. Each of these cores is entitled to 5 points. The points are meant to narrow everything down, ensuring a more precise representation of the shoe’s type. More points would mean that the shoe leans towards a minimalist construction; less would entail the opposite.
There is an in-depth explanation for such a system, but here are the fundamental elements of each category within the Index:
Flexibility - If the shoe can be folded on itself (heel part touching the toe part), then it earns half of the 5 points. The rest would go to the capacity of the shoe to be curled from side to side.
Stack height - The stack height involves the maximum peak of the platform’s heel section. If the product has a heel height of 8 millimeters or less, then all of the category’s 5 points should be awarded to it. But it won’t garner any points if the tallness of the sole unit goes beyond 31 millimeters.
Presence of stability or motion control features - The technologies that correct deviations in pronation prevent the running shoe from exhibiting natural foot movement. Moreover, these add-ons (medial posts, dual-density midsole configurations, thermoplastic midfoot foundations, palpable heel counters, etc.) add weight to the shoe, potentially affecting the sensation of not being encumbered by the profile of the shoe. Points are deducted for every stability feature that’s present in the model.
Weight - To classify footwear as minimalist, its weight must also be taken into consideration. The Index states that 5 points are given to products that don’t weigh beyond 125 grams. The points gradually lessen as the weight increases, ending in a zero-point allocation if the measurement goes above 325 grams.
The drop from heel to toe - If the shoe’s underfoot platform has a heel to toe drop of less than 1 millimeter, then 5 points are awarded to it. If the differential is 13 millimeters and above, then no points can be warranted to it.
When you add the points from your assessment of each category, the result would be a number out of 25 (the total amount of points). To get the Minimalist Index, multiply the result by four. The answer based on a 100-point range would determine if the shoe can be classified as a product that checks all the boxes of the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research’s description.
The prominent features in minimalist running shoes
Many shoes that offer barefoot-like running experiences tend to not have a lot of features. Yet the technologies that are present in these products are ultimately meant to keep the foot supported at all times, albeit in a manner that won’t let the foot in an encumbered state.
Here are some of the notable features in shoes that are minimalist in design:
Low drop – The heel to toe drop of a running shoe determines the level of support given to the heel, as well as the smoothness and speed of the gait transition. A low drop would mean that the platform doesn’t have a very pronounced slant. It may also say that the heel doesn’t have a noticeable height. Those who desire some semblance of natural balance on the surfaces while also having a bit more cushioning may appreciate a shoe that has a four, five, or even six-millimeter drop.
Zero drop – If the difference in the height of the platform’s heel and forefoot is absolutely zero, then the foot won’t be able to feel a slant that deviates the idle stance. The level position of the foot evokes the feeling of being on the ground despite wearing shoes. A zero drop applies to shoes that have a foam midsole and ones that don’t have a traditional cushioning system.
Spacious toe box – The natural positional stance of the foot is vital when it comes to creating and marketing a minimalist running shoe. An element that complements an in-shoe experience that is as free as possible is a roomy forefoot design. The extra space at the front of the shoe allows the toes to splay and relax when standing idly and when gearing towards the toe-off.
Low-profile midsole – To gain the distinction of being a minimalist option, the running shoe must have a midsole that isn’t marred by a thick profile or a weighty disposition. A thin cushioning system would contribute to the overall flexibility of the platform, thereby accommodating the natural movement capability of the foot as it goes through the running gait.
Removable insole – Some minimalist shoes have insoles placed in the foot-chambers, regardless of the presence of primary cushioning foams. These thin and flexible add-ons are meant to put a bit more cushioning for the underfoot. They don’t have a lot of weight, and they don’t cause the platform to stiffen up or lose its accommodating feel. Moreover, insoles can be removed or replaced with custom inserts.
Anti-abrasion sheet or layer – Some of the best minimalist running shoes feature a protective layer between the midsole and outsole. This sturdy yet flexible piece averts any sharp objects or irregular debris from piercing the shoe and causing harm to the foot.
Traction-ready outsole – Minimalist trail running shoes and ones for the roads need outsoles that would permit the wearer to accurately control movement on the ground. Natural freedom of motion isn’t the only purpose of such footwear; safety and small adjustments to each step are also elements that can better the overall performance.
Form-fitting upper – The façades of minimalist running footwear are not bulky by design. The fabrics are usually left bare, without extra layers or gratuitous overlays to hinder the overall coverage. But if the upper unit has extra layering, it is generally for support and material reinforcement. Otherwise, the starkness of the cover system contributes to a wrap that is akin to a second skin.
Stretchy fabric – Elastic polyurethane fabric is used in shoes that are meant to expand on the so-called form-fitting hug of the upper unit. Next-to-skin comfort is the aim of such a material as it has a no-sew construction and a highly stretchable nature that welcomes the contours of the foot.
Quick-drying mesh – When it comes to providing security and support, the upper unit of a minimalist shoe can handle the job. But the convenience of a façade that is easy to dry can bring wonders to the overall experience of the wearer. Padding and extra in-shoe fluff aren’t typically used in shoes of this type; only the mesh, or the sock-like textile, is exposed. If subjected to moisture or splashes, the thin material won’t have a lot of bulk to absorb water. Wetness will still permeate the interior chamber, but it can be remedied through simply cleaning and air-drying.
Sock-like interior lining – Not all minimalist running shoes have this feature, but those that do are meant to offer a wrap that is free of irritation or hot spots. Those who appreciate a close-to-the-ground and a freeing experience on the roads and trails may not want to wear socks. So, the designers and manufacturers have created seamless inner walls that stave off any chafing. Furthermore, the fabrics of these inner sleeves are soft and breathable; they’re intentionally designed to encourage ventilation and comfort throughout the run.
Quick lacing system – While some minimalist running shoes still employ traditional lacing systems (fabric shoelaces and metal-reinforced eyelets), others have special fit-adjustment schemes that are lightweight and non-bulky-looking. The quick lacing system, for instance, involves reedy yet sturdy cables that go through discreet eyelets which are bolstered by printed overlays or mild stitching. The regulating wires are secured by a single-pull technique and a locking tab.
Printed or hot-melted synthetic overlays – Having a minimalist running shoe that is fraught by a bevy of unnecessary layers and frills fundamentally removes its subdued and uncomplicated feel. Moreover, bulky add-ons may hinder the performance of the wearer. Synthetic prints and hot-melded reinforcements don’t have constricted or unaccommodating functions; in fact, most of them are stretchy and water-resistant, and they don’t run the risk of losing structure or separating from the façade as they are fused with the upper unit.
Well-known minimalist running shoes
The rise of near-barefoot running and the advent of shoes that do not have a lot of pompous features gave people the opportunity to have more confidence when heading out. A thin shoe-profile doesn’t automatically mean that the build is flimsy or that it won’t be able to do wonders to the performance of the wearer. In fact, many products within the minimalist category are constructed to be highly protective against surface abrasion and unbalanced movement.
Some people would say that most options in the minimalist category look alike and that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other because of the relative sameness of the construction. But there are options for both the asphalt and the unpredictable terrains. You can even interchange their purposes as they have versatile assemblies.
Best minimalist road running shoes
The Merrell brand is one of the premier producers of shoes for the trails. Many of the options from this company are constructed to be bulky and highly resilient against the elements of the great outdoors. So, it is a welcome change that road shoes were released to the masses.
The Vapor Glove series is quite the departure from the bevy of aggressively made options within the Merrell roster. In fact, the variants within this family don’t have the burly looks of their trail-optimized cousins. People have claimed that the toned-down design blended well with the vibrant color schemes while the thin yet sturdy outsole layout offered long-lasting protection. The brand soon churned out new iterations of the Vapor Glove, with the aim of evolving the design to suit the needs of consumers. The second and third are two of the most famous editions.
Saucony has offered quality running shoes for many years. This brand’s roster of products is diverse and considered to be of consistently high quality. It started out with a focus on running shoes, though it has expanded to lifestyle options. But branching out doesn’t creative defeat; alas, minimalist running had also been given attention. The Saucony Endorphin Racer 2 is one such example of an original expansion. You can describe this aptly named racer as an adaptable and colorful vision for long running sessions. It received mixed reviews, but those who liked it were happy with its capacity to evoke a barefoot running experience.
The Vanish-R is a product in Altra’s table that is definitely meant to evoke natural performance and freedom of motion. It is also one of the minimalist running shoes for men exclusively. The brand is known for producing shoes that accommodate the natural shape and positional stance of the foot, with one of their technologies even taking the moniker, Foot Shape. The consistent part of the shoe-designs is the Zero Drop platform, which means that the sole unit intends to be like a flat plane, permitting anatomical balance that suits neutral pronators.
Best minimalist trail running shoes
The FiveFingers division of the Vibram banner churns out some of the best minimalist trail running shoes on the market. If you can imagine an aggressively protective and traction-ensuring footwear that isn’t too fraught with heavy layers and fluff, then you get an offering from the creative minds of this company.
The Vibram FiveFingers V-Trail is touted to offer an equilibrium of safety from unpredictable trail elements and capacity to feel the ground beneath the foot. Claw-like protrusions on the foot-shaped outsole help in gripping the ground while a stretchy yet secure upper averts debris infiltration.
Another minimalist trail running shoe from Vibram FiveFingers is the Trek Ascent. This model is one of the most liked by the community as it’s observed to be cool-looking, breathable, and very easy to clean. Some were even keen on advertising it as a solid choice for the roads.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why should I opt for a minimalist running shoe instead of a traditionally cushioned one?
Many experts say that a minimalist shoe can help with the unleashing of the natural biomechanical capabilities of the foot, as well as the optimization of the running style. While heel striking is best for walking, the forefoot or midfoot variant of landing the foot on the ground is speedier and more loaded with bouncy energy. An insubstantial sole unit thickness may help you when it comes to transitioning to this style of performing as it doesn’t let the heel of the foot to feel any weight bringing it down the ground first. Moreover, the minimalist option tends to free up more space inside the shoe to welcome the natural splaying of the toes, an aspect that isn’t readily available in traditionally bullet-shaped toe-boxes of running shoes.
Does the lack of substantial cushioning cause my feet to be unattractively callused?
Having an active lifestyle may mean some changes to the areas that are most exposed to effort or productive strain. A thin shoe-platform may thicken the underside of the foot as it adapts to the ground forces and the striking force, but the outsole and insole (and/or whatever midsole is featured in the product) help in mitigating the direct impact and skin thickening. Calluses aren’t 100% averted, but they’ll inevitably be reduced. It is also worth noting that the more efficient running style, forefoot striking, merely concentrates the skin thicken on the front portion of the foot-pad.
Do those who enjoy minimalist footwear have a reduced chance of getting injured?
While there isn’t any significant proof that the feet and legs of neutral runners get injured less when using minimalist running shoes, the inherent capacity of the person to feel the ground and gauge the personal comfort level can do wonders to the performance. Proprioception or the natural feeling of touching the ground and estimating the intensity of the step helps in easing any discomfort, especially when opting for a close-to-the-ground experience. But one can never stave off any major injury or unfortunate circumstances like contact with jagged debris, foot twisting, or gait irregularities such as overpronation. It is wise to know the anatomical needs of your feet. Try and consult with a shoe expert or a podiatrist to know more about the pair of shoes that you need.
11 best minimalist running shoes
Vibram FiveFingers V-Trail
Merrell Vapor Glove 3
Merrell Vapor Glove 4
Xero Shoes Speed Force
Merrell Vapor Glove 4 3D
Merrell Vapor Glove 2
Vibram FiveFingers KSO EVO
Merrell Bare Access Flex 2
Merrell Trail Glove 5
Vibram FiveFingers V-Trail 2.0
Jens Jakob Andersen
Jens Jakob is a fan of short distances with a 5K PR at 15:58 minutes. Based on 35 million race results, he's among the fastest 0.2% runners. Jens Jakob previously owned a running store, when he was also a competitive runner. His work is regularly featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, BBC and the likes as well as peer-reviewed journals. Finally, he has been a guest on +30 podcasts on running.
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