What Makes a “Minimalist” Shoe?

If you’ve been following the idea of barefoot running for the past few years, you’ve probably seen A LOT of different shoes that all claim to be great for “barefoot style” running. Some of these are also referred to as “minimalist” shoes.

But as with most things related to sales and marketing, you can’t blindly take a company’s word for it. Just because they say their shoe is great for barefoot running, doesn’t mean it truly is.

So I put together a list of traits that all minimalist shoes should have, and I also provided examples of which shoes do the best job with each trait.

Characteristics of a Minimalist Shoe

For a good minimalist shoe, you want all these traits:

Thin, flexible sole.

A thin, flexible sole allows you to feel the ground and doesn’t interfere with your foot’s movement. Your foot and shoe should move together as one.

Some Vibram FiveFingers models, and the SoftStar RunAMocs, have very thin soles.

Little to no support.

You want very little, if any, support in the shoe. As in, no motion control crap or excess cushioning stuff to artificially change the feel of running. Your body provides the support, as long as the shoe doesn’t interfere.

Loose, nonrestrictive uppers.

You want wide, loose-fitting uppers that don’t restrict your foot at all. There should be a loose, light material on the upper that doesn’t force your foot to take on an unnatural shape or cramp your toes together.

Zero drop

“Zero drop” means that there is no difference in sole thickness between the heel and toe. Normal running shoes have an elevated heel, and most minimalist shoes have a slightly elevated heel (3-4mm heel-to-toe height differential,) which is alright, but you want as close to zero difference as possible.

Light weight.

Overall, the shoes should be light weight. They shouldn’t feel like they weigh you down. You should hardly notice you’re wearing anything at all.


What You Don’t Want in a Minimalist Shoe!

These traits are found in quite a few shoes that (at first glance) look like they would be good minimalist shoes, so be careful.

Stiff sole.

Some shoes have thin soles, but they are stiff. The stiff sole doesn’t let your foot move as naturally as you want it to, so watch out for this. (To check the sole, just see how well the shoes folds up on itself.)

This rules out most spikeless XC race flats. They have a thin sole, but it’s too stiff for “barefoot style” runs.

Elevated heel.

Most minimalist shoes from major brands have at least a slightly elevated heel, and that’s not too bad. But stay away from conventional running shoes (obviously!) because the heel is elevated half an inch or more! It’s very hard to run naturally with this setup, and it’s terrible for a minimal shoe!

Narrow toe box.

A lot of shoes have a narrow toe box, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s not ideal. It just doesn’t let your toes splay outwards for the best grip on the ground.

Most race flats have a narrow toe box, which is unfortunate, because they would make for great minimalist shoes with just a little bit more room in front. (But since some old school race flats sell for as little as $25, I still like them.)

Complete lack of lacing system.

While you want light shoes, you still need some sort of laces or straps to keep the shoe on your foot. Usually one small lace around the ankle will suffice.

Zinetic pocket slippers look like great barefoot style shoes, but with no laces or elastic whatsoever, they easily slip down over your heel.


Just run through this checklist whenever you are looking for minimalist shoes, and it should help you find the right one. Also check out the listings and reviews of good minimalist shoe options on this website.

About the Author:
Levi Bloom, an elite mountain bike racer and barefoot running convert, writes about cycling, running, and triathlon at CoachLevi.com. Check out his site for all your training and nutrition needs.

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