The Top 10 Barefoot Running Shoes Reviewed
Has it ever occurred to you how recent the wearing of shoes actually is in terms of the countless millennia of human evolution? A tiny fraction, right?
Now take that thought further by considering the ever-growing list of foot and limb problems we shoe-wearing primates suffer from in the 21st century. Could there perhaps be a connection?
The increasing numbers of ‘barefoot runners’ would certainly argue that there is. Read on to find out what’s behind the barefoot running movement…
Type of Shoe
Price Guide & Amazon Rating
Saucony Men’s Kinvara 7 Running Shoe
Vibram Men’s KSO EVO Cross Training Shoe
Cross Training Shoe
Black/Red, Black, Blue/Black, Gray/Black
Merrell Men’s Vapor Glove 2 Trail Running Shoe
Trail Running Shoe
Racer Blue/Bright Green, Black/Castle Rock, Gray/Spicy Orange, Dark Orange, Folkstone
Xero Shoes Barefoot-inspired Sport Sandals – Z-Trek – Men
Mocha/Coffee, Multi-blue, Charcoal/Coal Black, Charcoal/Patriot Blue
Xero Shoes Casual Canvas Barefoot-inspired shoe – Men’s Hana
Black, Brown/Black, Black/Rust, Sand/Chocolate
YALOX Women’s and Men’s Barefoot Water Shoes
Vivobarefoot Gobi II Men’s Classic Desert Boot
Black/Hyde, Ox Blood
Vibram Women’s KMD LS Cross Training Shoe
Cross Training Shoe
Merrell Women’s Glove 4 Trail Runner
Trail Running Shoe
Black, High Rise, Aleutian, Very Grape/Astral Aura, Persian Red
New Balance Women’s WT10V4 Trail Shoe
Trail Running Shoe
What is barefoot running?
You may well have gazed in wonder at television footage of the legendary indigenous barefoot runners who leap effortlessly like gazelles over rocky terrain.
By contrast, our modern running shoes seem cumbersome and awkward and we may ponder wistfully on the wonderful freedom that running barefoot would offer.
Barefoot running is claimed to be an excellent way to improve your running posture, efficiency, speed and foot strength, though it’s clearly not for everyone and needs careful a transition period.
The structure of the foot is infinitely complex with your feet having 25% of all the bones and joints of your whole body.
This myriad of bones and ligaments is designed to move, to bend and to flex in a particular way and don’t cope well when that natural movement is restricted or altered.
Added to that, there are more nerve endings in the soles of your feet than anywhere else in the body except lips and fingertips, making them hypersensitive.
Followers of the barefoot running movement believe that the foot’s complexity and super-sensitivity is not assisted by the advanced technology and materials in modern running shoes but hampered by them.
They claim that ‘natural’ running helps to reduce the risk of damage caused by today’s highly technical running shoes, such as repetitive stress injuries caused by heel strike. Furthermore, they believe that the tendons, muscles and ligaments of the foot become stronger and allow the runner to develop a more natural gait.
Better yet, barefoot runners point to evidence that the more anatomically correct way of moving lessens the onset of the typical runner’s conditions: Achilles pain and plantar fasciitis.
Barefoot runners ask the question: ‘What would be better for your foot, a shoe that elevates your heel unnaturally and is stiff and inflexible or one that lets your foot flex, bend and move naturally and actually feel the ground beneath?’
Almost every positive has a negative, of course, and the lack of protection from impacts with rocks, glass or thorns is a significant consideration.
Another factor to note is the long adaptation phase needed when you switch from wearing running shoes to barefoot running as the muscles and ligaments adapt to the change in gait.
What are barefoot running shoes?
It’s a surprising fact that running-specific shoes were unheard of until the mid-Sixties. Prior to that, generic sports shoes fit the bill.
Gradually, the burgeoning science of biomechanics started to influence the design of running shoes and these days there are shoes for every type of gait and for different types of running: track, trail, road, etc.
Devotees of barefoot running argue that, rather than assisting our gait and protecting our feet and limbs from injury, modern highly-technical running shoes actually weaken them.
Their belief is that a snugly-fitting shoe, with cushioned insole and outsole, an unnatural ‘drop’ from heel to toe and often with a rigid shank in the midsole, acts like a type of ‘plaster cast’ by preventing the foot’s natural movement.
We all know that an injured limb in such a cast becomes weaker over time, so it’s not difficult to appreciate the sense of their argument.
The fact is, when you run barefoot, the front of your foot naturally tends to lands first, lessening the impact on heels, ankles, knees and hips.
By contrast, running shoes are designed to encourage heels to hit the ground first, thereby maximizing the concussion absorbed by the foot and joints. No wonder that repetitive stress injuries are so common in runners.
In a perfect world, then, to be kind to our feet and limbs we should all run barefoot, as our physiology is designed that way.
Since running barefoot is impractical in most places in the modern, urbanized world but clearly beneficial, a few forward-thinking footwear manufacturers have created running shoes which make you feel like your feet are bare.
At the same time, these shoes minimize the chance of discomfort from running on uneven surfaces like gravel or injury from encounters with shards of glass, etc.
The best barefoot running shoes (also known as minimalist running shoes) are lightweight and designed to keep your feet snug and protected.
They also allow the foot’s complex structure to function naturally, chiefly by featuring a ‘zero drop’ from heel to toe which encourages a forefoot or midfoot strike.
Are barefoot shoes just for running?
Absolutely not! The restriction of the natural movement of the foot and the resultant physiological problems which develop over time are not just caused by running shoes.
Modern hiking shoes and boots are just as guilty of causing damage to feet and limbs by denying the foot its natural range of movement.
Even traditional sandals, which many people might consider to be the closest thing to going ‘barefoot’ have design features which are, in truth, not foot-friendly.
It’s not only adults who might benefit from barefoot shoes. Many parents are now looking into the idea of barefoot shoes for kids as they’re becoming aware of the negative effects of traditional footwear on rapidly growing feet and limbs.
We’ve reviewed a selection of barefoot shoes for other purposes, so you can get an idea of some of the best barefoot minimalist shoes on the market.
Barefoot Running Shoes vs Minimalist Running Shoes
It’s easy to get confused between these two. You’ll often see the same shoe described as both a barefoot shoe and a minimalist shoe which adds to the confusion.
While there are differences, which we’ve explained below, many people use the two interchangeably to mean exactly the same thing – hardly helpful when you’re trying to get to grips with a new concept!
The best barefoot running shoes will give you the closest feel to actually running barefoot while providing the bare minimum in protection from hazards on the ground.
Some styles feature an element of cushioning but many have none and only a very thin layer (perhaps only 3-4mm) under the sole of your foot.
Barefoot running shoes often feature individual toe pockets which, if you’ve seen The Lord of the Ring films, will make you think of Hobbits! Their purpose, though, is to separate the toes and allow them to splay naturally as you move, just as they would if you were truly barefoot.
The most significant feature is the ‘zero drop’ from heel to toe to encourage a forefoot or midfoot strike - you may be interested to know that traditional running shoes typically have a 10-12mm drop.
Barefoot devotees claim that this is equivalent to running in high heels and it’s not hard to see how potentially damaging that could be.
Minimalist running shoes are best described as a hybrid between barefoot shoes and traditional running shoes. They can offer the best route to transition into barefoot running as a kind of ‘half-way house’.
They’re extremely lightweight, with little or no arch support and a minimal heel drop of around 4-8mm. These features encourage a forefoot or midfoot strike but they still offer optimal flexibility and some cushioning.
Minimalist running shoes generally have a roomy toe box which allows toes to splay inside the shoe so enhancing balance and grip.
What to Look for in the Best Barefoot Running Shoes
The optimal fit for barefoot running shoes is different to minimalist shoes. With barefoot shoes, unlike with traditional running shoes, you don’t want any extra space in the toe area. Heels and toes should "fit like a glove."
Minimalist shoes, by contrast, should have a roomy toe box, allowing the toes to splay naturally as you run.
Some styles feature Velcro strap closures while others offer a quick-lace system. Typically, a lace system offers better access, especially for shoes with individual toe pockets for easy on and off, and is generally better for accommodating high arches.
All true barefoot shoes feature a “zero drop” from heel to toe. (“Drop” is the difference between the height of the heel and the height of the toe.) This encourages a midfoot or forefoot strike.
Traditional running shoes, by contrast, feature a 10–12mm drop from the heel to the toe. Minimalist shoes (which are half-way between traditional and barefoot shoes) generally have a very shallow drop of just 3-4mm.
The best barefoot shoes will have minimal outsoles, made of natural or synthetic rubber, which makes them lightweight and super-flexible and means that you get the natural feeling of running without shoes on.
The level of grip/traction varies depending on the terrain the shoes are designed for, so barefoot trail running shoes will typically feature a more distinct tread pattern to aid grip.
When selecting the best barefoot running shoes for you, make sure you assess the outsole so you can be sure it will have sufficient traction for the type of running you do.
Since what you’re aiming for is a feeling as close as possible to running with no shoes at all, the main benefit of barefoot or minimalist shoes is the protection that they offer from the elements and from the ground beneath your feet.
Many surfaces you might encounter when running are uneven, stony or even dangerous with shards of glass on pavements, so these shoes will give some degree of protection.
When running in urban environments, there’s also the inevitable and very unpleasant hazard of dog poop to bear in mind… Depending on the season, barefoot shoes also help to keep your feet warm and dry and allow you to wear socks if you wish for additional warmth.