How much cushioning belongs in your running shoes is largely a matter of personal preference. Anecdotal evidence over the years has espoused the benefits of running with more, or less, or no cushioning at all—but there’s no objectively superior option. There are, however, certain advantages to every type of running shoe.
In this article, we’ll help you learn more about minimalist and “barefoot” running shoes and understand how to incorporate them into your training.
What are Minimalist Running Shoes?
Minimalist running shoes are loosely defined as shoes that, compared to “traditional” running shoes, more closely mimic the way we naturally run when barefoot—while still providing some element of protection from hazards on the ground. They’re characterized by minimal amounts of cushioning in the midsoles and, in particular, by a lack of beefy heel cushioning.
Traditional running shoes feature a 10-12mm “heel-to-toe drop” (meaning they have an extra 10-12mm cushioning underneath your heels relative to your toes). By contrast, minimalist shoes usually have less than an 8mm drop. Sometimes they have no drop at all, meaning your heel and forefoot are at the same level, as they are when you’re barefoot; these are called “zero-drop” shoes.
Note: Heel drop and the overall amount of cushioning in a shoe are independent of each other. It is possible to find ultra-cushioned (sometimes called “maximalist”) shoes that still have a zero or low heel-to-toe drop, for example.
For a perspective on shoes at the other end of the cushioning spectrum, read What you Need to Know About Maximalist Running Shoes.
Benefits of Running in Minimalist Shoes
- They encourage a low-impact gait: The lower the heel-to-toe drop, the more the shoe naturally encourages you to land on your midfoot or forefoot rather than your heel. Though no study has definitively proven that heel striking causes runners any more injuries than forefoot or midfoot striking, it is generally considered a higher-impact stride.
Minimalist shoes won’t automatically alter your gait, but they can be a good teaching tool if you want to learn how to run with a midfoot or forefoot strike. (However, do note that forefoot or midfoot striking puts more strain on the Achilles tendon; depending on which kinds of injuries you are most susceptible to, attempting to alter your running gait may not always be beneficial.)
- They help you feel the ground: Another advantage of minimalist shoes is that their thin cushioning encourages something called “proprioception”—in this case, the ability to feel your own connection to the terrain beneath your feet. Minimalist shoes are ideal for runners who value feeling highly nimble and in touch with the ground.
- They’re lighter: Finally, minimalist shoes often weigh less than traditional running shoes by several ounces. This means they require slightly less muscle power in your legs to lift your feet off the ground with each stride. Over many miles, these weight savings can add up—as long as you don’t mind the trade-off of less cushioning.
How to Choose Minimalist Running Shoes
At REI Co-op, we classify all our road-running and trail-running shoes into four broad categories of cushioning: Barefoot, Minimal, Moderate and Maximum. While anyone can try running barefoot or in minimalist running shoes, not everyone will be able to do so successfully. For instance, if you have plantar fasciitis, tendinitis, flat feet, bunions or hammertoes, it may not be for you. Check with your doctor first. If you get the OK to try it, then your first choice is barefoot vs. minimal cushioning, a choice that’s largely determined by how much cushioning you’re willing to forgo. After that, the single most important criteria is fit.
Barefoot running shoes: The notion of “barefoot” shoes is an oxymoron, of course, since true barefoot running is defined by the absence of shoes. But this term is used to describe shoes that offer the closest feel to being barefoot. They may either come with separate toe pockets to let each toe flex individually, or they may fit more like slippers.
These zero-drop shoes have a flexible, extremely thin layer (3-10mm) of shoe between your skin and the ground. They provide no arch support or stability elements. You can wear them with or without socks; toe socks are available for barefoot shoes with individual toe pockets. (The benefits of socks include added warmth, odor deterrence and blister protection.)
Fit Tip: Unlike with traditional shoes, you do not want any extra space in the toes of barefoot shoes. Heels and toes should "fit like a glove."
Minimalist (minimally cushioned) running shoes: These are a hybrid of barefoot shoes and traditional running shoes. They’re nimble, lightweight and flexible, with little-to-no arch support, but contain more cushioning than barefoot shoes. They’re an excellent way to ease into barefoot running, or to simply get a better feel for the terrain without forgoing all midsole padding.
Get a Fit Assessment
A footwear specialist can assess the size and shape of your feet and advise you about how different brands fit. Go to the store in the evening because your feet swell throughout the day—measuring your foot then helps ensure you get shoes that are big enough to fit you properly.
How to Transition to Barefoot or Minimalist Running
Many runners incorporate barefoot or minimalist running into their training—say, as a workout once or twice a week, or as a warmup drill before a run in more cushioned or supportive footwear. This can be a great way to reap some of the benefits—an opportunity to strengthen your arches and improve your running form—without giving up your traditional running shoes.
The key to the barefoot/minimalist transition is to start gradually. For example, if you’ve always run in stability or motion-control shoes, first try switching to a neutral shoe for a while before going more minimalist. Or, if you’ve already been running in neutral shoes and want to try running barefoot, let your feet adapt gradually by first transitioning to minimalist shoes.
1. First, acclimate your feet.
- Practice walking barefoot or in your new minimalist shoes before you attempt to run.
- Gently stretch your calf and arch muscles.
- If you are going truly barefoot (no shoes at all), start by just standing on gravel. You need to build up toughness on the soles of your feet.
- Try running a short distance on a soft surface such as wet sand, grass or rubberized track.
2. Practice your running mechanics.
- Practice landing on your midfoot versus your heel. Don't be afraid to let the heel contact the ground—but concentrate on striking with the midfoot first.
- Don't overstride. Use short strides and a quick cadence with your midfoot strike. Run with a metronome app and aim for 180 strides per minute; it is very difficult to heel strike at that stride rate.
- Your landings should feel gentle, relaxed and quiet. Avoid letting the soles of your feet slap against the ground.
3. Gradually increase distance.
- Start slowly and don't do too much too soon.
- Try using the 10 percent rule—don’t increase your weekly mileage (in barefoot/minimalist footwear) by more than 10 percent each week.
4. Use caution.
- The lower the heel-to-toe drop on your shoes, the harder your Achilles tendon will need to work. Be especially careful with easing into longer miles in zero-drop shoes.
- Listen to your body. If you feel any pain, stop.