Barely-there barefoot and minimalist shoes have been the big story of the last few years. Touting the idea that having less shoe leads to stronger feet and fewer injuries, these categories—which we lumped into one this year—attracted droves of runners looking for the next big thing. But mounting evidence (not to mention the collective wisdom of coaches everywhere) suggests that there’s no cure-all shoe.
The idea behind barefoot and minimalist shoes is that wearing them forces runners into a more natural, healthier gait, with shorter strides and forefoot striking rather than heelstriking. Over time, they slowly build up strength in their feet and ankles, beefing up both supporting bones and soft tissues until they’re nearly injury-proof. Also, many competitive runners train in heavier shoes, then switch to minimalist shoes for races so they can hit a quicker, more efficient stride when it really matters.
Many runners who were initially inspired by Chris McDougall's best-selling Born to Run are still out there, cruising around the parks in their Vibram FiveFingers, marked by their shorter strides and forefoot striking. So while fewer companies are throwing boatloads of resources into expanding their barefoot/minimalist offerings, there are still plenty of great options on the market, like the ones we’ve chosen here:
Brooks Pure Drift
The most minimal of Brooks’ Pure Project line, the Drift offers a barefoot feel, but still provides a bit of cushioning underfoot. Marked by a wide toebox, zero-drop, and a mesh upper, the toes can splay for stability and the feet breathe as if you weren’t wearing any shoes at all.
Best For: Runners looking for a barely-there feel with an ultra-wide toe box
Weight: 5.6 oz (M); 5.1 oz (W)
Mizuno Wave Evo Levitas
Designed on a narrower forefoot platform, the Levitas is the lightest model offered by Mizuno. Lightweight construction and a zero-drop insure a close-to-the-ground experience. Staying true to the brand, they still feature Wave Technology in the midsole to provide protection and a smooth ride.
Best For: Mizuno diehards who are looking to lighten up the Wave Technology and experiment with minimalist running.
Weight: 6.4 oz (M); 5.1 oz (W)
Vibram Spyridon LS
Vibram’s first trail running-specific model, this FiveFinger model has a 3.5mm Vibram rubber outsole that protects your feet and provides ample traction on rocky and rutted surfaces. The upper is both breathable and adjustable, thanks to the hook-and-loop closure that secures your foot in place.
Best For: FiveFinger fanatics who need a more durable shoe that will provide a bit of protection underfoot on unpredictable trails
Weight: 6.88 oz (M); 5.11 oz (W)
Merrell Trail Glove 2 (M) and Pace Glove 2 (W)
With a close-to-the ground fit and zero drop from heel to toe, the Trail Glove stays true to the natural running ethos. Meanwhile, a Vibram outsole and TrailProtect pad still offer good protection from rough patches and rocky spots on the trail. Merrell’s unique Omni-Fit Lacing System insures this shoe lives up to its name by giving your foot a truly sock-like fit.
Best For: Barefoot running on gravel or rocky trails
Weight: 7 oz (M); 5 oz (W)
Skora Phase X
Built on Skora’s Injection Blown Rubber platform, this model offers a close-to-the-ground experience, while still protecting your feet from abrasions. The lightweight flexibility and asymmetric lacing system give runners a customized fit, in addition to the removable insole that changes the stack height. Touting 360-degree reflectivity, you can wear these shoes day or night with the extra assurance of safety. Available August 2013; in the meantime, you can grab the very similar—though somewhat less reflective—Phase ($100).
Best For: A minimalist who needs 24/7 visibility
Weight: 7.2 oz (M); 5.8 oz (W)