How to choose barefoot/minimalist running shoes

Interest in "barefoot running" has exploded in recent years. While a few hardy folks are truly running barefoot, most of us opt for minimalist footwear. This article will help you to find the right minimalist shoes.

Why go minimalist? Read the REI Expert Advice article, The Basics of Barefoot Running, for more info.

Where Do You Run?

Your first consideration: What type of surface will you usually be running on?

  • Trail-specific shoes feature soles with aggressive tread for more traction. Some models may also offer rock plates in the soles, increased torsional rigidity and leather uppers to protect your feet from abrasions.
  • Road-specific shoes tend to have razor-siped rubber soles for enhanced slip resistance on slick surfaces and a smoother ride. They are lighter but offer less protection from sharp or uneven terrain.

Other styles—defined at REI as cross-training or multisport shoes—are designed for light running, gym or Crossfit workouts, yoga or any balance activity where having more contact with the ground is preferred over a thick platform sole. 

The 2 Types of Minimalist Shoes

Next, consider shoe design. There are 2 basic types of minimalist shoes.

Barefoot Running Shoes

Vibram Fivefingers running shoe

So-called “barefoot shoes” offer the closest feel to running truly barefoot. Soles provide the bare minimum in protection from potential hazards on the ground. Many have no cushion in the heel pad and a very thin layer (as little as 3-4mm) of shoe between your skin and the ground. Others offer a bit more cushioning.

Most significantly, all feature a “zero drop” from heel to toe. This encourages a more natural midfoot or forefoot strike. Traditional running shoes, by contrast, feature a 10-12mm drop from the heel to the toe.

With any barefoot running shoe, people with high arches tend to have the shortest break-in time and fewest problems. Heavily pronating runners—those whose feet flatten during weight-bearing exercise—may struggle to adjust to the lack of arch support.

Tip: Unlike with traditional shoes, you do not want any extra space in the toes of minimalist shoes. Heel and toes should "fit like a glove."

Minimalist Running Shoes

Brooks minimalist running shoe

These are a hybrid of barefoot shoes and traditional running shoes—an excellent way for most runners to ease into barefoot running. They are Spartan enough—extremely lightweight construction, little to no arch support and a minimal heel height of 4-8mm—to encourage a natural running motion and a midfoot strike, yet offer some cushioning and flex. The toebox is generally roomy to allow toes to splay inside the shoes, enhancing grip and balance.

Several styles (e.g., Brooks PureCadence and the Saucony Mirage) offer some stability posting to help the overpronating runner transition to the barefoot-running motion.

Tip: Always ease into barefoot running slowly and gradually to reduce the potential for injury. See our article, The Basics of Barefoot Running, for details.

Other Considerations

Injinji toe socks

Socks: Minimalist shoes can be worn with or without socks. The benefits of wearing socks include extra warmth, odor deterrence and blister protection. Fivefingers styles require special toe socks such as those from Injinji.

Closures: While some Fivefingers styles feature rip-and-stick closures, others offer a quick-lace system. Typically, this offers better access to the toe pockets for easy on and off, and it does a better job accommodating high arches.

Care: Many barefoot shoes are machine washable for easy care; see specific product information pages for details.

Shop REI’s selection of minimalist footwear for men and women.

To learn more about the activity of barefoot running, see the REI Expert Advice article, The Basics of Barefoot Running.