Barefoot running, also known as a mid foot strike pattern, is one of the fastest-growing areas of running. Blame it on the book Born to Run or the advent of Vibram Five Fingers or Nike Free shoes, the concept of barefoot running may have seemed like a trend but it is here to stay.
Read on to explore Naboso Technology’s take on the 5 best shoes for those looking to explore the benefits of barefoot running!
What is Barefoot Running?
Barefoot running is almost as the name suggests, running sans supportive footwear. Adherents to the barefoot running philosophy embrace the idea that humans made born to run — specifically, made to run without the heavily cushioned and supportive shoes that dominate the market today.
Although most barefoot runners are actually running with shoes, some do take the term barefoot literally and run with no shoes. This is not required, and may not be appropriate for all, in order to take advantage of barefoot running. For the sake of this article we are going to focus on barefoot to mean minimal.
What are the Benefits of Barefoot Running?
Runners that use traditional cushioned shoes tend to have noticeably different running strides. The use of traditional running shoes promotes heel striking, meaning that the runner may tend to land (“strike”) the ground heel-first.
Leading with the heel is instinctive behavior when wearing a supportive, cushioned shoe but may not be the most efficient running style. The protection offered by these types of footwear trains the runner to strike with their heel.
Barefoot runners, or those who use minimalist footwear, instinctively avoid heel-striking and tend to use a mid foot or forefoot running stride.
Barefoot runners have:
Shorter contact time
A more natural mid foot or forefoot contact
What Features should you look for in Minimalist, Barefoot Running Shoes?
In terms of physical features and characteristics, barefoot running shoes tend to have the following:
• A thin but protective sole
• Wide toe box
• Flexible last that molds to the natural movement of the foot
• Minimal or completely level heel-to-toe drop
A thin, protective sole helps promote proprioception—ground feel—while keeping the foot safe from debris, rocks, and injurious materials.
A barefoot running shoe with a wide toe box ensures that the front half of the foot is free to flex and adapt to conditions on the ground. A narrow toe box forces the toes into an unnatural, fixed position that limits the effectiveness of your running.
Similar in many ways to the wide toe box, a flexible last enables your foot to flex and stretch in all directions.
A minimal (0 to 6-8mm) heel-to-toe drop is perhaps the most defining feature of a barefoot, minimalist running shoe. A minimalist running shoe aligns the ball of the foot with the heel so that the heel and ball of the foot the same distance from the ground.
This alignment is how the human foot naturally looks. The use of traditional cushioned and supportive running shoes is similar to wearing heels. With traditional shoes, the heel sits above the ball of the foot, encouraging heel-striking and increasing pressure on the knees.
Below are our top 5 picks for barefoot running shoes.
Altra's first true racing flat is here! The Vanish-R is extremely lightweight and flexible for a great fit and feel during your training and racing on the road or track. The Propel Plate push-off feature in the midsole will help you spring forward with more power than you ever thought possible. If you've been looking for a Balanced Cushioning, FootShape racing flat, look no further. The Altra Vanish-R is sure to impress.
The shoe consists of a lightweight, breathable mesh upper that will keep your feet dry and comfortable. The shoe is incredibly thin, virtually weightless, and offers a glove-like fit.
Priced for the higher-range market (around $100, depending on your retailer), the Altra Vanish R is worth the investment. This is a shoe meant for the barefoot runner looking for an extremely lightweight, flexible shoe with good traction.
Durability is where the Altra Vanish R takes a hit. The lightweight, minimalist design of the shoe does not lend itself toward long-term durability. This is not a shoe you want to use for off-road training or even daily use: keep it in the closet until the morning of the race.
Altra went above and beyond to make the Vanish R the ultimate lightweight race shoe. The outsole provides incredible traction on pavement, while the flexible midsole uses Altra’s “Propel Plate” to maximize energy return.
Weighing in at 3.9 ounces, the Vapor R is about as minimal as you can get. Despite the barefoot nature of the shoe, Altra’s unique Balanced Cushioning design still offers a reasonable amount of cushioning.
The Vanish R is flexible, lightweight, and secure around the foot. If you want comfort on race day, this is the shoe for you.
Merrell has been a major player in the shoe game since the early 1980s. They started out as a company that manufactured hiking boots, then pivoted toward trainers, walking shoes, and eventually barefoot running shoes. The Merrell Vapor Access 4 is the company’s most impressive barefoot running option and, for the price, is nigh-unbeatable.
In keeping true to their outdoor origins, Merrell knew that breathability would be one of the most important aspects of the Vapor Glove 4. The upper consists of a flexible air mesh and synthetic leather (for durability). Merrell’s patented “M-Select Fresh” technology—a fancy term for what amounts to an anti-microbial coating on the inside of the shoe—adds to the breathability of the shoe.
All in all, the Vapor Glove 4 scores highly on every breathability metric reviewers care to use.
Sitting right in the middle of the “Goldilocks pricing zone, the Vapor Glove 4 will run you a little under $80, depending on your retailer of choice. It’s tough to beat the value of the Vapor Glove 4: this is truly one of the best running shoes on the market today.
Hearkening back to their outdoor origins yet again, Merrell made a serious effort to stress the durability of the Vapor Glove 4 — and it shows. The shoe is robust, puncture-resistant, and offers plenty of traction thanks to its deep flex grooves in the outsole. The synthetic overlays used throughout the upper add to the shoe’s durability as well.
However, the outsole is the shoe’s one weak point. The wide, deep grooves in the outsole—the same grooves that help with traction and flexibility—are vulnerable to wear and damage over time.
The Merrell Vapor Glove 4 weighs in at a truly remarkable 6 ounces. This is lightweight in the extreme: few, if any, shoes can match the weight of this shoe. That low weight contributes to the shoe’s impressive flexibility and overall responsiveness.
The Vapor Glove 4 is a shoe that you need to break-in. The wide toe box, zero-drop heel, and ample midsole protection make for a comfortable, flexible, lightweight running shoe.
Distinctive, stylish (well, to some), and instantly recognizable, the Vibram FiveFingers KSO is, in many ways, the shoe that started it all. That’s not to say that Vibram was the first company to sell minimalist or barefoot running shoes, but Vibram certainly made a splash when it launched the FiveFingers in 2005.
Vibram leads the pack in terms of breathability. The company uses a polyester blend in the upper that breathes fantastically well. In fact, the breathability may be toogood — inclement weather is prone to seeping into the shoe. Clear skies and dry ground is where the Vibram FiveFingers KSO truly shines.
Vibram prices the FiveFingers KSO at a pleasant $85 (men’s). The value here is tough to beat: Vibram is one of the most iconic and storied brands in the world of barefoot running. Fitted properly—you’ll want to take extra care to make sure your FiveFingers fits perfectly—the Vibram FiveFingers KSO offers incredible value for the money.
Durability is the FiveFinger’s biggest functional weakness. The polyester upper is tough: abrasion resistance and puncture resistance is part and parcel of the shoe’s design. The outsole is equally resilient.
The toe pockets, however, may give you some trouble. Depending on the overall usage, the toe pockets can suffer from premature wear and tear (particularly where the toe pocket connects to the rest of the shoe).
Like most barefoot shoes, the FiveFingers KSO has the flexibility to spare. The shoe will bend, twist, and roll with your foot as well as any other shoe on this list.
Interestingly enough, the toe pockets make it possible to dig your toes down into the ground. This feature can help you get a solid grip on the ground when running.
As a general rule, you won’t get much more flexible than a pair of Vibram FiveFingers.
An incredibly thin outsole (the shoe is 4.7mm at its thickest point) gives the FiveFingers KSO plenty of ground feel. Runners not used to the toe pocket design may find the Vibram a bit off-putting until they have a chance to adapt.
This is a minimalist shoe at its most extreme. There is a complete lack of cushioning and padding: you’ll feel pretty much everything on the ground.
A relative newcomer to the barefoot running world, Vivobarefoot is certainly making an impression - and a good one at that! The company offers a range of different barefoot running shoe options, including the Vivobarefoot Stealth II.
The Vivobarefoot Stealth II’s distinctive outer appearance is the result of the company’s use of its unique honeycomb hex-mesh fabric. This fabric breathes fantastically well, making the Vivobarefoot Stealth II a great option for anyone running in hot weather. The hex-mesh dries quickly as well, making it ideal for humid or wet climates.
Definitely one of the more expensive options on this list, the Vivobarefoot Stealth II clocks in at an aggressive $130-150, depending on your choice of retailer. That’s not cheap, especially for a minimalist, barefoot running shoe that lacks true off-road capability.
That said, if you’re in the market for a durable, comfortable running shoe for the gym or pavement, the Vivobarefoot Stealth II is nothing short of brilliant.
Vivobarefoot’s hex-mesh is both durable and long-lasting. The shoe’s 3mm barefoot sole offers plenty of tactile feedback from the ground while keeping the foot safe and secure. Toss in the puncture-resistant outsole and the Vivobarefoot Stealth II keeps getting better and better.
As you’d expect from a barefoot running shoe, the Vivobarefoot Stealth II is all about flexibility. The light (yet durable) material that comprises the upper is both supportive and stretchable — you never lack for flexibility with the Stealth II. The shoe is also light: it weighs in at an impressive 9 ounces (the women’s version clocks in at a mere 7 ounces!).
The removable footbed makes the Vivobarefoot Stealth II versatile in its comfort level. Without the insole, the shoe retains its basic shape and works fantastically well. With a wide, natural toe box and zero-drop heel, the Vivobarefoot Stealth II makes for a solid barefoot running shoe.
Xero’s Prio minimalist running shoe is the company’s newest take on the barefoot running market. Good traction, excellent durability, and distinctive, the Xero Prio is hard to pass up (especially at this price point).
In terms of breathability, Xero’s Prio is an absolute stunner. The shoe’s lightweight fabrics are highly aerated and incredibly breathable. If you plan on running in hot weather —or wet climates—the Prio is a fantastic choice.
Clocking in right under the $100 mark depending on your retailer of choice, the Xero Prio is definitely a contender in terms of value. Some may view the styling as slightly “clunky”, but the features are impressive: a zero-drop heel, breathable fabrics, 5,000-mile sole warranty, and a durable rubber outsole make for a great shoe.
Weighing in at a little under 10oz, the Xero Prio is (barely) heavier than the competition.
The Prio, like all Xero Shoes, comes with a 5,000-mile warranty on the shoe’s sole. Xero opted to use their patented 5.5mm “FeelTrue rubber” on the shoe. This thin (but strong) sole gives the runner plenty of ground feel, while simultaneously providing them with sufficient protection against rocks, debris, and other hazards.
Xero is quick to stress the flexibility of the Prio’s design. The shoe allows your foot you flex, bend, and move in every direction — exactly what you want in a minimalist, barefoot running shoe.
The Prio’s wide toe box allows your toes to spread out, relax, and move freely. Xero opted to use a true zero-drop heel in the Prio so that the heel and ball of the foot will align perfectly.