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10 Best Minimalist Running Shoes for a Natural Running Form
Does the type of running shoe really matter that much? It does! Especially when you’re choosing between traditional footwear and minimalist running shoes. They might look similar (they’re just shoes, right?), but the particularities of each can significantly affect your performance.
Minimalist running shoes comprise a set of features that can benefit runners by improving their athletic performance. If the idea of running in a natural way pleases you, give minimalist shoes a try.
To get the most natural running form possible, you need to find the best minimalist running shoes to help you do so. “Best” is a relative term, so these are the best minimalist running shoes for a natural running form based on our findings.
What Are Minimalist Shoes?
Minimalist shoes are light, flexible shoes with as little cushioning as possible, namely in the midsole and heel area. They have a simple design and come in neutral, monochromatic palettes. The purpose of minimalist shoes is to remove artificial barriers between the feet and the ground while ensuring their safety against ground hazards. In sports, minimalist running shoes allow runners to move their feet more naturally.
We can divide the concept of minimalist shoes into two categories: minimalist and barefoot shoes. The main difference between the two is the level of cushioning.
Barefoot shoes aren’t soleless, even though they might sound like it. They are a highly flexible type of shoe that mimics literal barefoot walking and running. Compared to traditional shoes, the layer is extremely thin (anywhere from 3 to 8 millimeters). Barefoot shoes aren’t necessarily toe shoes. They can have a traditional-like design, but designers strip them down to the essential components.
Minimal shoes, on the other hand, are a mixture of traditional and barefoot shoes. They have more cushioning than the barefoot models but still less than traditional shoes. Moreover, they usually have a low toe-to-heel drop, whereas barefoot shoes stick to the zero drop feature.
Nonetheless, regardless of their subtle differences, both minimal and barefoot shoes are minimalist.
And how can you distinguish minimalist running shoes from the traditional ones when shopping for your new shoe style? Easy: just look out for these common characteristics:
Zero or Minimal Heel-to-Toe Drop
The heel-to-toe drop is the height difference, measured in millimeters, between the forefoot and the heel. The higher the drop, the more elevated your heel is.
Minimalist shoes usually offer a few millimeters of drop, while shoes for barefoot running come with zero drop to respect the natural shape of the feet. This means the feet are flat against the ground, thus providing a raw experience of barefoot running.
Low Stack Height
The sole in minimalist shoes, mainly barefoot shoes, is very thin and highly flexible. It allows the runner to feel the ground below their feet, which provides a uniquely natural and raw experience, especially in trail running. In fact, the best minimalist trail running shoes have the thinnest soles to enable sensory feedback, a key element that helps athletes keep balance and run faster.
The stack height in barefoot footwear is usually 3mm to 8mm. Traditional shoes, in turn, aim at 9mm to 30mm.
Lightweight and Flexible
The best minimal footwear is the lightest and most flexible you’ll find. Having a flexible sole made from appropriate material also enables sensory feedback. The upper of the shoe should also be simple and flexible to promote comfort.
Additionally, minimalist shoes should be light to enhance the barefoot running feel.
Wide Toe Box
The toe box is the space for your toes. Even though it might sound somewhat irrelevant, it’s anything but. The toes help achieve strength and agility while running. Thus, pushing them together in a narrow compartment harms athletic performance.
In general, traditional running shoes offer a reduced space for the toes. In turn, barefoot running shoes respect the natural shape of the feet and give your toes the much-needed room to splay. This feature, along with the comfort, allows the toes to grip the ground and increases agility and strength.
Minimalist running shoes sound — and are — cool. They are also beneficial but keep in mind that the type of shoes you wear affects your running biomechanics. This is why you must not only choose shoes that your feet can feel happy in but also opt for a slow transition from traditional to minimalist running shoes. A sudden shift can cause discomfort and even injuries. Make a gradual transition with adequate running shoes (you can find suggestions for transition shoes down below). Only when your body gets familiar with the hard ground while running can you comfortably run in a natural way.
Consider as well that not everyone adapts to minimalist running shoes. If you don’t feel comfortable or feel more pain than usual, don’t leave out the possibility that your body might be rejecting the new shoes.
Why You Might Want to Try Them
Barefoot and minimalist running shoes can give you a unique running experience, very different from what you’re used to. Especially if you’ve been using traditional, highly-cushioned running shoes your whole life.
Feel the Ground
The capacity to feel the ground’s textures through the thin soles of your minimalist running shoes improves your body’s ability to perceive itself in space and sense movement, action, and location. This is known as “proprioception”, and it is responsible for the naturality of our movements.
Strengthen Your Feet
Runners in minimalist shoes rely almost entirely on their feet instead of the shoe components. Wearing these shoes, particularly barefoot shoes, can help you develop your leg and foot muscles and even work on your forefoot strike.
Being lightweight and simple, minimalist running shoes demand less from your body. You’ll find yourself less tired and more motivated to stay on the trail, pavement, or at the gym.
The Best Minimalist Running Shoes
Altra Lone Peak 6 (for Men)
The Altra Lone Peak 6 model is perfect for trail walks and hikes thanks to its two essential trail features: the grippy MaxTrac outsole and TrailClaw canted lugs that give maximum traction.
This rubber sole running shoe offers a true minimalist experience for men, as it features a few common characteristics in minimalist footwear:
- Moderate cushioning
- Zero heel-to-toe drop
- Flexible sole
- A wide toe box that allows the foot to rest naturally without feeling constricted.
The Peak 6 model also includes an updated feature that provides a better fit on the trails by encouraging a natural movement: a customizable wide-lacing system.
Inov-8 Roclite 305 (for Women)
The Roclife 305 provides a pleasant running experience for women who like to face the hazards of the trail.
This model offers a high level of protection thanks to the compact rock plate embedded between the outsole and midsole of the shoe. It keeps the feet safe from sharp stones. The waterproof upper made from synthetic webbing also reinforces the safety of the feet. In addition to protecting the feet, the Roclife 305 makes both trail and road running comfortable thanks to its highly-durable outsole that offers sticky traction to any surface.
The cushioning in this model is a little higher than what is normally found in minimalist running shoes. However, it doesn’t compromise sensitivity. The Roclife comprises some of the features you look for in a minimalist shoe
- Flexible, sticky rubber sole
- Reduced heel-to-toe drop (8mm)
- Moderate to high cushioning
The size of the toe box might cause some dissatisfaction. Because it isn’t very wide, some women might find the shoe uncomfortable or unfit for running, as a narrow toe box affects stability and performance.
Unlike the previous models, the Inov-8 Bare-XF are barefoot running shoes, meaning that the level of cushioning is very reduced. These shoes were specially made for indoor activities, but they’re also a adequate for runners who prefer close contact with the ground and natural stability. That is much due to its super sticky outsole. Be careful, though, on slippery pavements: the lugs of the Bare-XF sole aren’t as efficient outdoors as they are indoors.
However, despite its barefoot design, its thin, rubber sole isn’t as flexible as the sole of other barefoot shoes, which affects the natural feel while running. When it comes to padding, the Bare-XF is also different from other barefoot shoes because it comes with extra layers of padding. The extra padding creates a more comfortable foot wrap, allowing the runner to engage in several sporting activities without feeling hindered. At the same time, the extra padding gives the shoes a beefier look and makes them slightly heavier.
Still, the Bare-XF comprises the qualities of a barefoot shoe
- Lightweight shoe
- Zero heel-to-toe drop
- No midsole
- Thin, flexible sole
If ethics is an important factor for you when buying footwear, the Merrell Trail Glove 4 is the perfect fit for your life. This brand faces sustainability as a responsibility, so it focuses on environmentally friendly products. Merrell’s footwear, including the Trail Gloves 4, is vegan-friendly and made from recycled, organic, and renewable materials.
This barefoot model is ideal for runners who like the feel of a glove-like fit. This simple-looking shoe provides natural stability while in close contact with the ground. The feet are protected by an underfoot pad.
Some of the features you can find in these shoes are:
- Lightweight shoes
- Zero heel-to-toe drop
- Vibram sole (high-performance rubber sole with unmatched durability, stability, and slip resistance)
The Nike Free Run 2 is a successful upgrade of a previous model. Despite the changes in the design, this new model brought more room in the toe box, allowing the feet to set and spread naturally. Furthermore, the Free Run 2 has extra rubber at the forefront and heel areas to enhance traction and durability.
This minimalist running shoe is a favorite for runners to transition from traditional shoes to barefoot shoes. They provide a natural motion and give stability and support.
Some of the main features of the Nike Free Run 2 include:
- Spacious toe box
- Flexible outsole
- Reduced heel-to-toe drop (6mm)
The Primus Lite shoes have one of the most simple designs you’ll find on this list. They can also give you one of the purest barefoot running experiences thanks to its ultra-thin 4mm sole separating the underfoot from the ground. You can use them both on the trail and in the gym.
It is also the ideal model for environment-conscious runners: the shoes are vegan and recyclable.
With these shoes, you can expect:
- Zero heel-to-toe drop
- Flexible structure
- Roomy toe box for a natural splay
Keep in mind that the Primus Lite are simple shoes that provide what some might consider a rough experience. Bring a barefoot shoe, the level of protection is reduced, and it might be uncomfortable in the beginning. Try not to transition directly from maximalist or traditional shoes to the Primus Lite!
The Kinvara running shoes are perfect for speed workouts and races. In fact, this model was literally built for speed. It pushes you forward thanks to its beveled midsole and new midfoot contouring,
These running shoes comprise only the strictly necessary components. They are thus super light and faster.
The upper of the Kinvara is well appreciated by runners. It wraps around the foot comfortably while letting it breathe correctly. On the other hand, the sole comes with a few complaints, particularly concerning the fact that it hasn’t the necessary traction.
- Ultra lightweight
- Low heel-to-toe drop (4mm)
- Reduced cushioning
This elegant model has a minimal design and comes mostly in neutral colors. They are versatile shoes that you can wear whether you’re planning on running outside, trailing, or hitting the gym.
Vegans can get a pair of Xero Prio without worrying about the presence of animal products — there aren’t any. Especially vegans who enjoy the earthly feeling on their feet, as the Prio are barefoot shoes designed to ensure the natural motion of the feet. These durable shoes also promote balance and agility thanks to their low stack height.
What should you expect from one of the best minimalist road running shoes? Only the best.
- Zero heel-to-toe drop
- Large toe box
- Optimal grip and traction
On top of these qualities, the Prio shoes also feature adjustable straps that hold down the midfoot, thus guaranteeing more comfort.
These are the running shoes a minimalist should take to gym workouts, including weightlifting. The outsole is made from graphene, proven to be stronger and more flexible.
The heel-to-toe drop is low (3mm), providing a low-to-ground minimalist feel. Still, the Inov-8 F-Lite shoes are cushioned on the footbed area. This reduces shock impact and shows the excellent performance of underfoot cushioning.
The F-Lite are another adequate choice to transition from traditional shoes to minimalist footwear.
This model features:
- Low heel-to-drop
- Sole grip
- Moderate cushioning
This trail runner model has everything you need for the best minimalist trail running experience. It gives you plenty of room for your toes, and it comprises a Zero Drop platform that features a zero heel-to-toe, reduced impact, enhanced propulsion, weight balance, and natural alignment of feet, back, and body posture.
What can you expect from this barefoot WHITIN model?
- Zero heel-to-toe difference
These men’s minimalist running shoes also come with a removable sock liner in case you«’re looking for a barefoot feel.
The benefits of running in a natural form
Improved running economy
A study from 2016 shows that barefoot and minimalist shoes improve running economy and running performance. The reduced shoe mass is a key factor contributing to this enhancement.
The trained runners that took part in the study showed a decreased stride length and an increased stride rate. Another study from 2017 also concludes that transitioning to minimalist or barefoot running shoes improves running economy and time-trial performance.
Reduced impact forces
It all boils down to cadence. Cadence is the number of steps you take in a certain amount of time while running, and it plays a crucial role in the discussion about traditional shoes versus barefoot shoes.
A quicker cadence (more steps) is beneficial because it requires less energy. When you slow down your cadence, you’re demanding more effort from your muscles, which will make you more tired in less time.
The best minimalist running shoes, as well as the best barefoot running shoes, can increase your cadence mostly because they are lighter. The lack of weight at the end of your leg – even if just a few grams – allows you to lift your feet more easily.
The gradual transition to a forefoot strike can also play a part in increasing the cadence, but keep in mind that changing from a heel strike to a forefoot strike isn’t quick, much less automatic when wearing minimalist shoes. Some minimalist runners actually keep their heel strike.
Now we’re starting to get into murky waters. Whether wearing minimalist and barefoot running shoes plays a part in reducing injuries is a controversial topic.
The fact is that there isn’t clear evidence to prove this. There isn’t sufficient evidence that impact can increase the risk of injury. So it becomes impossible to tell if decreasing the levels of cushioning makes any difference.
In 2016, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published the first prospective comparison of injury rates in shod versus barefoot running. It concluded that the difference in injury rates was irrelevant. The difference actually lies in the type and place of the injury. For example, barefoot runners showed fewer hip and knee injuries, but more calf injuries. Another study published in the European Journal of Sports Science states that barefoot running shoes can help reduce injury risk by increasing ankle dorsiflexion.
If you’re a runner who finds value in a more simple and natural running experience, go ahead and give these minimalist shoes a try.
Minimal footwear is almost always more durable and comfortable, which is why they’re a good investment even if you’re a casual runner.
Pick the right shoes for your body and improve your performance. Which shoes would you choose to start with?