This post was most recently updated on February 15th, 2020
Running barefoot, or otherwise natural running, will lead you to land or strike the ground with a slightly flatter foot and this natural stride means less stress and injury on knee and hip joints, according to the experts. Barefoot running shoes mimic this natural running form.
So, what are the best barefoot running shoes? Ones that bend and flex, have a uniform height, a wide toe, and a minimal thickness so that, when they are on, they feel like they are a part of your anatomy. Here we delve into that a little bit more.
What This Covers…
- Defining Barefoot Running Shoes
- How Barefoot Running Shoes Differ From Conventional Running Shoes
- Are Barefoot Running Shoes For Everyone?
- A-List of Barefoot Running Shoes
What Are Barefoot Running Shoes?
I refer to barefoot running shoes in this article as those with a minimal layer between you and the outside. They are not entirely shoeless shoes.
My take is inline with the definition of minimalist shoes given by experts (42 from 11 countries):
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.
How Do Barefoot shoes Differ to Conventional shoes for Running?
Simple answer is that they have less padding, less cushioning, and are more flexible than traditional running shoes.
How is running barefoot or in minimalist shoes better than running in trainers? You ‘feel’ the ground underneath your feet when running barefoot or in minimalist shoes. This ‘feel’ is a mind-body connection involving the proprioceptive sense.
Christopher M. Norris PhD, in Managing Sports Injuries (4th Ed), explains:
Proprioception is the awareness of the body in space. It is the use of joint position sense and joint motion sense to respond to stresses placed upon the body by alteration of posture and movement.
In the case of barefoot running, nerves in the soles of our feet send messages back to our brains about space and touch to help us understand how our feet interact with the ground beneath us and coordinate our posture and movements.
Trail Running Shoe Risks
Because of the lack of this awareness when running in conventional shoes, there is greater risk of injury. Physiotherapist and exercise scientist, Michael Warburton in Sportscience 5(3) explains: “Running in shoes appears to increase the risk of ankle sprains, either by decreasing awareness of foot position or by increasing the twisting torque on the ankle during a stumble”.
The upside of conventional running shoes is the protection they provide. As Michael Warburtun concludes, they “play an important protective role on some courses, in extreme weather conditions, and with certain pathologies of the lower limb.”
So, how do barefoot running shoes work?
Biomechanist, Irene Davis, of Harvard Medical School (her PubMed Biography) explains that barefoot running shoes work similar to running without shoes in that it involves predominantly a forefoot strike rather than rearfoot strike seen when running in modern (padded) running shoes. This video gives a visual to help explain:
Modern running shoes have become increasingly cushioned and supportive, and have changed the way we run. In particular, they have altered our footstrike pattern from a predominantly forefoot strike (FFS) landing to a predominantly rearfoot strike (RFS) landing.Davis et al, 2017, Journal of Sport and Health Science
Are These Natural Running Shoes Suitable for Everyone?
Best to check with your physiotherapist or health advisor but flat feet and high arches are no obstacle according to the team at Xero Shoes. Some people even claim that issues such as shin splints and other foot pains subside after switching to minimalist shoes. They find their feet have “strengthened up”.
The thing is, if you are not used to going barefoot, you will need to transition into it. Otherwise you might do some harm. It can take some time. How to start transition? Michael Warburton explains :
Thirty minutes of daily barefoot locomotion is a recommended starting point to allow thickening of the sole of the foot and adaptation of muscles and ligaments (Robbins et al., 1993). Begin by walking barefoot at every reasonable opportunity then progress to jogging, gradually increasing the intensity and duration (Yessis 2000, p.124).Sportscience 5(3)
This applies to getting around bare feet as well as wearing minimalists shoes.
Also, I suggest you pick your terrains. You don’t want to run over spiky rocky country and it might be best to avoid wet and slippery areas when barefoot running unless you have the proper shoe for it.
Today’s Barefoot Running Shoes
There are new designs of minimalist style running shoes that mimic the barefoot running principles. These are mostly flat (zero heel to toe) and flexible with some built-in protection. Most well-known footwear brands market barefoot shoes or some sort of minimalist footwear for running.
MerrEll Trail Glove 5
These are so lightweight. They weigh 6 ounces (women) and 7 ounces (mens). They have a zero heel to toe drop, with 12mm heel and forefoot heights.
Like the Merrell Vapor Glove, these feature the Trailprotect™ technology of a rock plate for underfoot protection against irregular surfaces and sharp trail debris. This shield is embedded between the midsole and the outsole.
Available in a number of colors, these have synthetic uppers with a Vibram sole. They have a sock-like fit and include a lace lock feature for quick tie-up.
What’s to love? The comfort, the barrier to sharp trail debris in this trail running shoe…and the ultra lightweight design.
The downside…a generous size may mean a little too much room for a few who could do with a slim fit.
Whitin Minimalist Trail Runners
Available in multiple color options, these feature a wide toe box and a removable sock liner. Chose ones with or without a Velcro tightening strap. For the price, these can’t be beaten.
These weigh 12.3 ounces. The outsole is rubber.
What’s to love? The price! They are zero drop shoes. They are one of the best cheap barefoot running shoes going on the reviews given by wearers. Another one to look into if your budget is tight, it this cheap barefoot running shoe…the JOOMRA minimalist trail running shoe (see here).
The downside…these are not so lightweight when compared to others in this range that are available. Not for getting wet as they do not drain well.
Vivobarefoot Primus Trail SG
The SG stands for soft ground, meaning they are designed for off-road trails. These weigh 14 ounces. They have a puncture resistant sole with a gripping lug design suited to maneuvering wet muddy terrain.
They have a 3 mm performance insole that is removable (less weight) and so you can feel the ground beneath. Or, choose to leave the insole in for extra warmth.
What’s to love? If nature inspires you, you’ll appreciate that the manufacturer repurposes plastic (PET) “giving it a second life in our shoes and keeping it from entering landfill and our oceans”. What else? These are water resistant and drain easily to dry. They are also a wide fit for those with broad feet (like me). The best part is the traction they have in wet muddy conditions.
The downside… these are a little pricey and have a low volume in the toe box (though a wide toe box) that won’t suit some. The wide fit will also be a downside for some. Not as light as others on the market.
Xero Shoes Prio
The Prio here is taken from proPRIOception. The shoes weigh 6.4 ounces (women shoes) and 9.0 ounces (men shoes). They have wide toe boxes.
The have an optional 2mm insole for added protection.
They feature thin flexible soles. The 5.5mm FeelTrue® rubber sole aids traction. They have a zero heel to toe drop.
What’s to love? They are lightweight and have a spacious toe box. They come with a 5,000-mile sole warranty.
The downside…these run small in size and most need to look at a 1/2 size larger than normal shoe size for a good fit. The simple look of this shoe may not impress some.
Nike Free RN 2018
This is a flexible road running shoe designed for the neutral pronator. It has a heel to toe drop of 8mm, with a heel height of 21mm and a forefoot height of 13mm.
What’s to love? The underfoot features a responsive foam core for those who’d rather more support. It is lightweight for a road running shoe, weighing 7 ounces (womens) and 8.4 ounces (mens).
The downside…Outsoles are ethylene vinyl acetate and traction is not suited to wet surfaces. Stones getting stuck in the flex grooves can be an issue. Those with a broad foot may find it a little too narrow in fit.
What Is Your Favorite Running Shoe?
Feel free to comment below. We all have different shapes and sizes of feet, and when we find a shoe that suits us perfectly, we often love it to death. What have you found?