Best Minimalist Running Shoes

If you are new to going barefoot, having  worn traditional shoes for most of your life you may be best off finding something in the middle to help you transition. There are a number of shoes on the market that will help you get there.  Features of these type of shoe include:

  • a smaller heel toe drop,
  • less structure around the ankle
  • a more flexible sole, and
  • Compared to a barefoot shoe they will generally have a thicker sole for greater cushioning and will look more like a conventional shoe.

Here are three of the best.

Nike Free

There are three options for the Nike Free, the 3.0, 4.0 and 5.0. The lower the number the more ‘minimal’ the shoe. They are probably one of the best known minimalist shoes on the market and one of the go to shoes for people exploring minimalist footwear. Relatively speaking, the heel to toe drop is still quite large for what is classed as a minimalist shoe (7mm for the 5.0 down to 4mm for the 3.0) but they are certainly a step in the right direction. One of the main features of the Nike Free is the flexible sole. The older version had a grid structure and the latest version has a hexagon structure giving it flex and movement throughout.

It is a lightweight shoe with a flexible upper allowing good freedom of movement for the foot. Some people complain that the forefoot can be a bit constrictive, but if you are moving from traditional shoes to these there is unlikely to be a problem (assuming you don’t have hobbit feet!). The introduction of the Flyknit means that the Nike Free has an almost glovelike fit. The intention of this is to

Pros

  • They provide a good balance between traditional footwear and minimalist footwear, making them an ideal transition shoe
  • They are Nike. You know what you are getting.
  • The flexible sole is a useful introduction that will help you build up the required proprioception and lower leg strength for barefoot running.
  • They look a lot like a normal shoe, so there will be less questions and less unsolicited advice about why you do or don’t need supportive shoes.

Cons

  • The heel to toe drop is still quite big for a minimalist shoe
  • They are Nike. To some of you that might be a problem.

Altra Instinct

I wasn’t sure whether to class these shoes as transition or full blown barefoot shoes. I have gone with transition/ minimalist because, whilst they have zero drop from heel to toe, they do still have quite a lot of cushioning and structure. The reviews of these shoes are almost always positive. They have a nice wide toe box to let your feet spread out. They are marketed with a “straight last”, meaning that the big toe goes straight out rather than slightly inwards as with most adult shoes.

Pros

  • A wide toe box to let your feet spread out
  • Well cushioned and therefore protective as you adapt to a more natural running style.

Cons

  • The thick cushioning, whilst initially a positive, will ultimately prevent you from developing the lighter landing required to get the complete benefits of barefoot running.

Saucony Kinvara 8

This one is probably as close to a normal running shoe as you can get within the ‘minimal’ category, and therefore potentially a good first step for someone choosing their first pair of minimal shoes. Like a normal shoe, they have quite a lot of structure in the upper and a fairly solid sole without the flex of a barefoot shoe.

What they do have though is a small heel to toe drop of 4mm and at around 220 grams they are lighter than more traditional running shoes (for example the Saucony Omni comes in 40 grams heavier). They also have the look of a normal trainer, so if you feel a bit funny about the whole minimalist shoe deal and people making comments and passing judgement, you can easily get away with wearing these without any questions.

Pros

  • Low Heel to toe drop, low weight overall
  • Have the look of a normal trainer whilst offering some of the benefits of a transition shoe

Cons

  • Still quite structured upper and sole which prevents developing any real feel for the ground, which you develop from more minimalist shoes