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When it comes to the running shoes, you’ve probably heard of pairs that provide shock absorption and stability features to help with over- or underpronation. And then there are minimalist running shoes, which many also call barefoot shoes. Minimalist shoes have become all the rage because they help strengthen the feet. But do they live up to the hype?
Read on to learn what minimalist running shoes are and if they’re the right fit for you. Plus, we asked experts to share their top picks.
What Is a Minimalist Running Shoe?
Minimalist running shoes provide little to no support, such as arch support and heel cushioning, and are designed to strengthen the intrinsic muscles in your feet, so they function more naturally. They also often have a zero drop, which means the heel and toes are the same height. Because they don’t have all the bells and whistles that come with traditional running sneakers, minimalist shoes aren’t for everyone.
“Generally, the runners who do well with minimalist shoes are those who are forefoot strikers — meaning they keep their weight in the forefoot and land on the ball of their foot — and high-arch forefoot strikers,” says Dr. Alex Kor, a podiatrist at Witham Health Services in Lebanon, Indiana, and fellow of the American Society of Podiatric Surgeons.
By keeping the weight in their forefoot, these runners put less stress on their knees and low back. A small 2013 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that forefoot strikers had lower patellofemoral stress (pain in the front of your knee or around your kneecap) and knee frontal plane movement (side-to-side movement) than rearfoot strikers.
Minimalist running shoes are also a good choice for runners with a neutral gait. However, heel strikers and those who overpronate (roll their feet inward) and underpronate (roll their feet to the outer edges) are probably better off steering clear of minimalist running shoes, Dr. Kor says.
“Those who overpronate may need extra time to transition or may benefit from some arch support inside of their minimalist shoe,” says Dr. Alissa Kuizinas, a podiatrist in Concord, Massachusetts.
“Runners with stiff, high-arch feet should be a little bit more cautious about minimalist running shoes. These runners typically benefit from a small amount of cushioning and possibly a low heel-to-toe drop, as high-arch feet can have less ability to absorb shock and have less ankle range of motion.”
Essentially, what makes minimalist running shoes great is that they allow for a more natural midfoot or forefoot strike, and they improve your body’s ability to receive sensory input from the terrain, Dr. Kuizinas says.
Ahead, you’ll find the best minimalist running shoes for every type of runner.
Top Minimalist Running Shoes for 2022
Altra Escalante Racer Women’s Shoes
Best Transitional Minimalist Shoes
- Sizes: 5.5-12
- Colors: women: Gray/purple, black/pink, and blue/yellow; men: blue/yellow, gray/blue, black/lime
- Pros: It provides cushioning and is lightweight
- Cons: Narrower fit and isn’t available in half-sizes for larger sizes
Altra is known for their minimalist running shoes and their zero-drop design. Dr. Kuizinas recommends the Escalante Racer because they have some cushioning, but are still zero drop and lightweight. Providing equal cushioning in the heel and forefoot, these transitional running shoes come in the standard footshape fit, which is somewhere in between the original (the roomiest option) and the slim fit. It also features a breathable sock-like upper and a firm, yet responsive midsole.
“After years of happily running in minimalist shoes, I wanted something a little more comfortable for longer-distance training and marathon racing, and was thrilled that Altra provides an option with low cushioning, a wide toe box, and zero drop,” a reviewer says. “These have been flawless — I’ve logged over 850 miles on my first pair, and they’re still holding up great (aside from the expected wear on the outsoles). Looking forward to breaking in my second pair for my next marathon!”
Altra Escalante Racer Men’s Shoes
Altra Torin 5 Women’s Shoes
Best Minimalist Shoes for Stability Support
Sizes: 5.5-12; available in wide width for men
Colors: women: Navy/coral, white/tan;,gray/green, and dusty teal; men: majolica blue
Pros: Offers stability support and balance cushioning
Cons: Thin shoe tongue that can cause irritation at the ankle
If you’re in need of a little more stability support, these minimalist running shoes come with a heel collar that helps secure your foot into the shoe. Just like other Altra Torin minimalist options, Dr. Kor likes the Torin 5 for its lightweight mesh upper and balanced cushioning from heel to toe. But what also sets these shoes apart is that they have a slightly more cushioned midsole for more bounce and durability.
Altra Torin 5 Men’s Shoes
Vivobarefoot Primus Lite III Women’s Shoes
Best Minimalist Shoes for Road Running
Sizes: women: 5.5-11.5; men: 7-15
Colors: women: obsidian, botanical green, bright white, zinc, and apple blossom; men: obsidian
Pros: Lightweight and flexible
Cons: Wears down easily
Founded in 2012, Vivobarefoot is all about celebrating barefoot running to promote stronger feet and more functional, natural movement. Made with a thin midsole, the Primus Lite III is designed to help your feet feel more connected to the ground. Dr. Kuizinas recommends these for road running, as they have a wide and flexible shank and a durable, grippy 4mm outsole to withstand a variety of terrain. They’re also made with sustainable materials to reduce the impact on the environment.
Vivobarefoot Primus Lite III Men’s Shoes
Topo Athletic Fly-Lyte 4 Women’s Shoes
Best Minimalist Shoes for High Arches
Sizes: women: 6-12; men: 8-15
Colors: women: black/white, lime/white, and powder blue/white; men: black/white, lime/white, and ocean blue/white
Pros: Minimal heel-to-toe drop and balanced cushioning
Cons: Provides high-arch support, so it may feel uncomfortable for other foot types
Founder Tony Post was a college track star, but it was after he graduated college and started training with top runners in Boston that he became to develop injuries. After working in the shoe industry for 30 years, Post realized the market was missing running shoes that supported the natural movement of the feet, and that’s how Topo Athletic was born.
Given the American Podiatric Medical Association seal of acceptance and approval, the Fly-Lyte 4 makes a great option for stiff, high-arch foot types because they provide some cushioning, Dr. Kuizinas says. They also offer balanced cushioning, a breathable upper, a roomy toe box, and a 23mm to 20mm heel-to-toe drop.
“The shoes have a wide toe box and are well-made. Also, the 3 mm drop (between the sole and heel) is perfect for my needs. If your feet tend to push forward and your toes are crammed against the front of your shoes, consider getting a lower-drop shoe,” one reviewer writes.
Topo Athletic Fly-Lyte 4 Men’s Shoes
Xero HFS Lightweight Road Running Women’s Shoes
Most Lightweight Minimalist Shoes
Sizes: women: 5-11; men: 6-15
Colors: women: atoll blue, porcelain blue, steel gray, coral hush, silver blush, aurora gray, and pink; men: black, glacier blue, pewter, dawn gray, yellow vibe, and crimson navy
Pros: Contours to the shape of your feet and is great for building speed
Cons: Lacks durability
“Xero makes great minimalist shoes. Minimalist shoes are usually light by design, but Xero does a great job of combining breathability, security, and solid grip into their shoes,” says Josh Honore, trainer for Row House and STRIDE on Xponential+.
The HFS in these lightweight minimalist running shoes stand for “highly flexible soles.” They also have a zero drop yet the 5mm rubber sole helps protect your feet while allowing them to stay connected to the ground. Moreover, they have a breathable mesh upper and lining that’s made with moisture-wicking material.
“I have fought plantar fasciitis for years and tried every over-supportive shoe I could try and added inserts to them all. My feet don’t really hurt much at the end of the day, and I stand on tile floors all day. I love that I can feel the ground beneath me when I walk, and it has really increased my proprioception so I’m not wobbly or tripping,” writes one reviewer.
Xero HFS Lightweight Road Running Men’s Shoes
Merrell Trail Glove 6 Women’s Shoes
Best Minimalist Shoes for Trail Running
Sizes: women: 5-11; men: 7-15
Colors: women: high rise (lavender and grey), arona (light blue), black, birch (nude), and barrelwood (dusty rose); men: black, grey/cobalt, high rise (grey and yellow), castlerock (gray and orange), and green
Pros: Cushioned midsole and rock plate for protecting your feet
Cons: Fits best for only those with high arches
Merrell’s beloved hiking boots are a testament to the quality of their barefoot running shoes. Dr. Kor says that many of his patients who trail run recommend these minimalist running shoes, and for good reason.
Designed for the natural curves of your feet, these trail running kicks have a durable grippy outsole and a slightly cushioned midsole for moderate support. Other great features include a recycled breathable mesh lining and a rock plate to help protect your feet. The Glove 6 runs half a size larger than earlier iterations, so if you wore the Glove 4, you might want to order a half size down from your usual size.
“I just got back from a running trip in Bend, Oregon, and these shoes were my primary running shoes. We ran six straight days through some awesome gnarly trails, smooth downhill trails, and the awesome Mackenzie river trail. The arch support was extremely effective and the rock plate helped a ton,” writes one reviewer.
Merrell Trail Glove 6 Men’s Shoes
New Balance Minimus TR Women’s Shoes
Best Minimalist Shoes for Cross Training
Sizes: women: 5-12 wide; men: 7-15 wide
Colors: women: outerspace (black), black and purple, and white/arctic fox (white with neon orange and green); men: outerspace (black), black/white, and green/yellow
Pros: Versatility for your workouts
Cons: They run a bit narrow.
If you’re going from the track to the weight room, consider this versatile pair from New Balance. They have some cushioning for comfort, but still allow for natural movement. They’re also designed with a lightweight mesh upper and a secure lace closure, so you can choose to exercise with or without socks.
While they’re available in both standard and wide widths, reviewers say that these shoes run small, so make sure to order a half to one size up.
“I use these shoes for lifting and light cardio, and these are a good stable shoe. I really have to loosen up the laces to get my foot in, but they feel great,” writes one reviewer.
New Balance Minimus TR Men’s Shoes
Brooks Hyperion Tempo Women’s Shoes
Best Minimalist Shoes for Speed Work
Sizes: women: 5-13; men: 7-15
Colors: women: black/iced aqua, black/pink/hot coral, black/silver/white, blue/aqua, ice flow/navy/pink, white/black/iced aqua, black/white/neon green, hot coral/flan/coral fusion, and black/red/blue; men: black/white/iced aqua, black/orange, black/iced aqua/blue, black/silver/white, blue/nightlife (neon green)/peacoat, green/dusty blue, grey/black/neon green, white/black/neon green, black/red/blue, black/green gecko
Pros: Light, responsive cushioning
Cons: Not a true minimalist true and may wear out more quickly due to more cushioning
Brooks does a super job of creating highly supportive and cushioned running shoes; it’s no wonder the brand sits atop lists for the best stability shoes as well as shoes with arch support. However, if you’re seeking a pair within the minimalist range, the Hyperion Tempo is a good choice.
Although it’s not a true minimalist shoe, it has much less cushioning so you can connect with the ground. They’re designed with Brooks’s signature nitrogen-infused DNA Flash, which is super lightweight and offers some energy return with each stride.
“I enjoy using the Hyperion Tempo on days when I want to pick it up a little bit or something faster uphill on the treadmill. There’s a bouncy feel and the lightweight allows for a little faster turnover,” says a reviewer.
Brooks Hyperion Tempo Men’s Shoes
Altra Paradigm 6 Women’s Shoes
Best Minimalist Shoes with Cushioned Soles
Sizes: women: 5.5-12; men: 7-15
Colors: women: mint, dark blue, grey/purple, navy/light blue, purple, and coral; men: dark blue, black, grey/lime, burnt orange, orange, and white/green
Pros: Provides stability and has a rigid shank
Cons: Has an unusual forefoot shape
Dr. Kor likes these minimalist running shoes from Altra for their rigid shank and supportive features. Made with guide rail technology, these shoes have a stability component that promotes natural foot placement. It also features some midsole and arch support and a wide toe box. In fact, one reviewer noted that they were able to run with them without causing bunion pain or discomfort.
“These shoes are the best walking/running shoes ever. I received them as a gift from my boss as he uses Altra, and I told him I started to walk/run more but had shin splints pain and had to be careful with my ankles from previous injuries. I’m newer to running, but these shoes completely changed my attitude toward running and, dare I say, they actually made me love running,” a reviewer writes.
Altra Paradigm 6 Men’s Shoes
Vibram V-Run Women’s Shoes
Best Barefoot-Style Minimalist Shoes
- Sizes: women: 5-11; men: 6.5/7-17
- Colors: women: blue and grey/yellow; men: blue/black, black/yellow, oyster (neon green, blue, and grey), and north sea (sea green) and navy
- Pros: Offers shock absorption for a comfortable run
- Cons: Runs big
Vibram’s five-finger minimalist running shoes offer shock absorption, while still being lightweight and connected to the ground. Made for both road and trail running, this do-it-all design is also ideal for transitioning from traditional running shoes to minimalist ones. Because they run slightly large, Vibram recommends ordering a size down. The best part is you can machine wash these shoes in a cold cycle and allow them to air dry.
“I have been running in Vibram since 2011 and will probably never run in a different type of shoe. The V-Runs that I just purchased were so soft and comfy when they arrived. It always takes a few runs to break them in a little at the heel, but after that they are just great,” a reviewer notes.
Vibram V-Run Men’s Shoes
The Different Types of Minimalist Running Shoes
There’s no industry-wide way to define the different types of minimalist running sneakers, but shoes that offer little or no support, have a zero drop, and “barefoot” style running shoes, including five-finger ones, generally fall into this minimalist category, Dr. Kor says.
- Zero-drop shoes: “Zero-drop shoes are constructed with an entirely flat sole, so there’s no difference in cushioning from heel to toe. This affects the feel of the foot strike. Less aggressive cushioning at the heel encourages shifting the strike toward the mid- and forefoot,” says Josh Honore, trainer for Row House and STRIDE on Xponential+. “Zero-drop shoes still provide some cushioning and are therefore more forgiving on the joints than some minimalist or barefoot shoes.”
- Barefoot shoes: On the other hand, barefoot shoes don’t have much material, so there’s even less covering between your feet and the ground. This means they’re much more flexible and don’t compromise foot motion, but there are drawbacks. “These shoes don’t really protect your feet, so if you step on hard rocks or glass, for instance, there’s a big risk for injury there,” Dr. Kor says. That said, barefoot shoes, like Vibram’s five-finger shoes, allow for more freedom of movement in your toes, Dr. Kuizinas says.
Traditional minimalist running shoes do have some cushioning, just much less than you’d see in standard running shoes. “Minimalist shoes offer more structural support and cushioning from the ground compared to barefoot shoes and often are designed with a minimal drop if any at all,” Honore says.
What to Look for in the Best Minimalist Running Shoes
When shopping for minimalist running shoes, you want to choose a pair with the following features:
- Light Cushioning: If you’re transitioning from regular running shoes or pairs that are highly cushioned, you need to give your feet time to adjust to minimalist shoes, Dr. Kuizinas says. That means you want to go for pairs that have some cushioning that will allow your foot muscles to strengthen over time. “It’s essential to transition to minimalist running shoes slowly to prevent injury. It’s also important to work on increasing foot strength and mobility as you transition,” she says.
- Rigid Shank and Midsole: According to Dr. Kor, you can fold most minimalist running shoes in half with little resistance, but you want a more rigid shank (the material between the insole and outsole) to provide some support and prevent overuse injuries.
- Breathable Mesh Upper: This aspect is especially important for running because you want to maintain air flow, says Dr. Kor.
- Large Toe Box: Most traditional running shoes taper in the forefoot and toe box area, but pairs with a wide toe box can provide more comfort, especially for those who have bunions. “I always recommend buying shoes with a toe box that allows you to spread and wiggle your toes a bit, and if you plan to wear inserts, be sure your shoe can accommodate them,” says Honore.
- Heel-to-Toe Drop: Most minimalist shoes will have a small or no heel-to-toe-drop. “Based on work we’ve done in our biomechanics lab and with research partners, our philosophy is to not go lower than 4mm offset,” says Jon Teipen, Brooks Running senior manager, footwear PLM. “The reasoning behind this is when heel striking, the midsole will compress. In a shoe that is offset lower than 4mm, this can create a dynamic offset that puts the heel in a negative offset position and can put excessive stress on the achilles and calf. While it’s not a problem for mid- and forefoot strikers initially, when they start to have runner fatigue, they will begin to heel strike.”
If you’re considering transitioning to minimalist running shoes, see a podiatrist to get a proper gait analysis and advice on what type of shoes would be best for you. Generally, you want to gradually incorporate them into your running routine.
“I would start by wearing them for walking and casual activity to allow your feet to adjust,” says Dr. Kuizinas, while Dr. Kor also suggests wearing them for weightlifting and other cross-training activities.
“It’s great to start spending time barefoot at home as well, which will help strengthen your feet and just to not having a heel,” she says.
Then, Dr. Kuizinas recommends wearing them during one to two short runs during the week. Alternatively, you can choose to race in minimalist running shoes because they’re lighter, but keep wearing your regular running shoes throughout training to prevent an overuse injury, suggests Dr. Kor.
“Lighter shoes may help your feet function more efficiently, but you don’t want to train in them because you’re going to be racking up a lot of miles during the week and that’s going to put you at a greater risk of an overuse injury,” he explains.
If you wear minimalist too much early on, you risk developing plantar fasciitis, achilles tendinitis, stress fracture of the heel bones and metatarsal heads, as well as metatarsalgia (pain in the ball of the foot).
“Once you feel very comfortable with short runs, you can increase your mileage in the minimalist shoes. To speed up the process, start doing foot exercises, such as short foot and calf raises, which can help,” says Dr. Kuizinas.
How Often Should I Buy Minimalist Running Shoes?
Swap out your minimalist running shoes as soon as you see wear and tear in the soles or when the tread pattern begins to soften, Dr. Kuizinas says. Because they don’t have as much cushioning as traditional running shoes, they can wear down quickly.
“Even with more cushioned brands, such as Altra or Topo Athletic, I would replace them every 300-400 miles because your foot structure and gait pattern will cause wear in certain areas of the cushioning,” she says.
Meet the Experts
- Dr. Alex Kor is a podiatrist at Witham Health Services in Lebanon, Indiana, and fellow of the American Society of Podiatric Surgeons
- Dr. Alissa Kuizinas is a podiatrist in Concord, Massachusetts.
- Josh Honore is a trainer for Row House and STRIDE on Xponential+.
- Jon Teipen is a senior manager at Brooks Running.