Minimalism was born from the simple “less shoe, more you” premise. The idea is that less cushioning and support from your kicks means you’ll engage your feet more, and strengthen the muscle fibers that get neglected when you’re all laced up. With stronger accessory muscles in the foot, injury rates were expected to drop and running efficiency would improve. (After all, the practice seemed to work for the impressive Tarahumara tribes that covered hundreds of injury-free miles in wafer-thin sandals.) Minimalism sought to reconnect runners with that organic barefoot experience—one that would ultimately improve our form with the hope that the PRs would soon follow.
Today’s Minimalist Runners
As it spread to a wider audience, the minimalist running movement had some mixed results. While strengthening muscles in the feet can be very beneficial to runners, logging high barefoot mileage without a slow buildup proved a risky way to do it. Overzealous new minimalists jumped into the craze quickly—ditching their supportive shoes—and many actually saw their injuries (and aches and pains) increase. That said, many runners have also benefitted immensely from the barefoot approach and have found its methods revitalizing, both physically and mentally. Like many experiences we have on the run, it is highly individual.
The popularity of minimalism has decreased from its boom nearly a decade ago, but there are still runners out there who find that it works well for them. If you’re curious and think it’s something you’d want to try, a very gradual transition to a minimalist shoe is your safest bet. Alternating runs between your usual trainers—and easing in at rock-bottom mileage—will help keep you injury-free. But before you take the minimalist leap, you might want to test out something less extreme with a lightweight shoe instead.
What Is a Minimalist Shoe Anyway?
Answering this question has sparked both debate and confusion, since some shoes are “more minimal” than others. The Journal of Foot and Ankle Research helped bring some clarity to the field with this official definition of a minimalist shoe:
“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.”
Shoes are evaluated on a scale of 0 to 100 to determine a “Minimalist Index” in which a shoe garners points across five distinct categories (flexibility, drop, weight, stack height, and motion control/stability devices). In essence, these shoes operate on a continuum of support, rather than an exact cutoff—the higher the score, the more minimalist the shoe is. It’s up to you how low (or rather, how high) you want to go in selecting your next pair.
How We Chose These Shoes
Every shoe on this list has been selected by one of our editors here at Runner’s World. In making these decisions, we’ve researched the market, surveyed user reviews, consulted with product engineers, and use our own experience in these shoes to determine the best options. We’ve handpicked each pair based on value, test impressions, expert recommendations, and how the shoe performs overall. (You can check out full reviews and images for those that have undergone our strenuous testing cycle.) Here are a few of our favorite picks to consider if you’re making a move on minimalism—just be sure to ease them into your running routine gradually.
Arc’teryx Norvan SL
Leave it to rock climbers to inspire the lightest trail shoe we’ve ever tested. The Norvan SL (Arc’teryx code for “superlight”) was designed for rock climbers as a compact and lightweight shoe to quickly traverse between climbing routes. The SL fits snugly. It’s narrow underfoot, especially below the arch, while the forefoot widens to provide more ground contact and better traction when toeing off on steep inclines. With no rock plate, minimal cushion, and a paper-thin TPU mesh upper, the Norvan SL remains extremely breathable and sheds water quickly.
―MORE GROUND CONNECTION―
Merrell Bare Access XTR
The Sweeper is more about giving you immediate ground connection than loading up on cushioning. (The on-foot sensation is nearly identical to the Sweeper model; the only difference is that one tenth of its zero-drop platform is now made from sustainable algae-based foam called “BLOOM.”) If you like a light and flexible shoe that can still take the sting out of hard landings, the XTR will serve you well, as it did for one tester who wore it on runs up to 12 miles. However, if feeling a few rocks underfoot is a hard “no,” you’ll stand with our runners who delegated the shoe for racing, runs less than five miles, and stints on the treadmill.
―BEST FOR ROAD RACING―
True to its name, Altra’s Vanish-R is so light that it “gives the sensation of running barefoot,” as one of our testers said. Altra’s purpose in launching the Vanish-R was to create an honest-to-goodness racing flat that provides a “snappy” feel. With a thin upper that’s like a second skin and a zero-drop outsole that encourages your natural gait, this shoe is for the runner who desires to run as close to shoeless as possible.
*Since this shoe is unisex, add 1.5 to the listed men’s size to get the women’s size. (Ex: A men’s 7.5 is a women’s 9.)
―ROOMY TOE BOX―
Topo Athletic ST-3
If you’re confused about the difference between a minimalist shoe and a race flat, the ST-3 can make that line a little sharper for you—the shoe has a thin, lightweight midsole with more minimalist comfort and flexibility than firm, sprint-friendly snap. Some of our shoe testers likened wearing it to running barefoot, as just a thin layer of foam stands between your foot and the pavement. And all liked the security and softness of the stretchy mesh upper, as well as its wide toe box, zero-drop platform, and connected ground feel.
Merrell Trail Glove 5
With just a 3mm midsole and Vibram outsole separating your foot from the ground, this versatile shoe gives you that “one-with-the-trail,” connected sensation minimalist runners chase after. Merrell’s fourth Trail Glove was released in 2017; since that time, the brand has overhauled the shoe to better mimic a foot’s natural motion. As a result, the zero-drop Trail Glove 5 has a more anatomical fit with an arch-cradling support zone through the midfoot. But despite that layer of protection underfoot, the shoe still flexes freely and adapts quickly to changing terrain—both on twisty, rutted singletrack and paved, uneven sidewalks.
Altra Solstice XT
Designed less for high-mileage running and more for gym workouts—or for cross-training at home during these gym-less times—the Solstice XT has a firm midsole with support for more than just forward motion. The shoe was built with squats, jumps, and HIIT workouts in mind, so in addition to that firmness and snap you’ll also get the flexibility needed for lateral agility drills over an outsole with just enough grip to stick to a gym floor. But our test team found them plenty capable on the roads as well, particularly for speed workouts and shorter runs. “I just couldn’t pass up the lightness, wide toe box, and comfy fit,” said one tester of choosing the shoe.
Other Options to Consider
—BAREFOOT WITH GRIP—
Softstar Primal RunAmoc
Efficient runners who are light on their feet and not prone to injury will appreciate these barefoot leather trainers. Ideal for shorter runs and soft trails, the shoes have a 5mm grippy Vibram Omniflex rubber outsole, an extra roomy toe box with a light protective cap, and just enough padding around the tongue and ankle to stay comfy with or without socks. They’re handcrafted in Oregon and use only responsibly sourced materials, but anyone not seeking a true minimalist shoe will find them a bit too Spartan to provide enough support for more than sprint distances.
―A MINIMALIST CLASSIC―
New Balance Minimus Trail 10v1
The original Minimus Trail 10 was an early entry into the minimalist running world and gave runners the flexibility and grip of a Vibram sole in a more conventional-looking upper (as compared to Vibram’s also popular FiveFinger shoes). New Balance discontinued the revamped second version of the shoe and has now returned to form, re-adopting the original Minimus’s outsole with round rubber nodes for grip and grooves for flexibility. The lightweight, breathable upper gets positive reviews from testers: A midfoot band capably holds your foot in place, while two layers of mesh supporting a thin layer of foam gives you a barely there, sock-like fit.
―VERSATILE CROSS TRAINER―
Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 v2
Inov-8’s supremely stripped-back Bare-XF may be minimal in design, but it hits the maximum in versatility. These kicks work for running, agility training, weight lifting, and more with an outsole that even features a specialized rubber for rope climbs. While still fairly light at 7.5 ounces for the men’s version—or 210 grams, in reference to the shoe’s name—the Bare-XF puts 3mm of sticky rubber between your foot and the ground and offers a bit more protection at the toe with an Italian blown rubber bumper. Plus, the shoe provides ultimate flexibility throughout the entire footbed for a truly natural feel.
Xero Shoes Prio
With its name straight from a physiology textbook, the Prio (from the term “proprioception”) is just the shoe you’ll want for better “awareness of body movement.” The shoe uses the same 5mm rubber sole as the brand’s super minimal sandals, so there’s not much to cloud a truly barefoot experience. A wide toe box, zero-drop offset, and fully adjustable instep strap give freedom to fine-tune your fit, so you can focus on your stride and let nature do the rest. Feel free to don the Prio sans socks—they’re barefoot-friendly.
―THE ORIGINAL “TOE SHOE”―
Vibram V-Trail 2.0
The V-Trail 2.0 delivers once again in true five-finger style—outfitting each toe in its own flexible, water-repellant sleeve. The updated 2019 version brings a sturdier 3D-printed mesh for protection against rocks when you’re carving out gnarly singletrack, but still maintains the agility you expect from the beloved “toe shoes.” The same quick-cinch closure system means you won’t waste time fiddling with soggy, muddy laces.
―CLOSEST TO THE REAL THING―
Luna Sandals Mono 2.0
Last (and certainly least) is the most minimalist option out there—the running sandal. The Mono 2.0 from Luna Sandals, like the Altra Vanish-R above, is about as close to barefoot as you can get without hitting the road in your socks. Needless to say, these guys are lightweight and flexible, and have just enough thickness so your feet don’t get chewed up on rocks and gravel. If you really want to know what it feels to run like the Raramuri, just strap on the Mono.
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