"Necessity is the mother of invention." This proverb has plenty of merit when looking at the innovations of today. Think about it: how difficult would life in today's world be without the innovations in transportation, technology and even fabrics.
The proverb also has examples in the fitness realm, particularly with running shoes. We're no longer running across grassy fields or rocky terrain — well, some of us still do — and as such, our footwear is designed to help protect our feet with grippy outsoles, durable uppers and well-placed cushioning. But after years of logging miles on plush midsoles and cozy footbeds, would you believe our feet have gotten weaker? Could it be these innovations have become a detriment to our natural foot function?
This is the driving notion behind the barefoot movement, that running without this underfoot cushioning adds helpful stressors to your feet to engage the muscles more and strengthen your natural stride. This running discipline saw a surge in popularity in the late 2000s and continues to have a strong following today. But since we do have to navigate across rough surfaces like concrete, asphalt and the occasional rocky path, barefoot running shoes can give your soles that much-needed protection while still promoting that next-to-ground experience.
Before we slip into our roundup of the best barefoot running shoes, it's helpful to understand just what these minimalist footwear options are, and how you should go about becoming part of the movement. After all, we've been running in cushioned sneakers for decades, and getting back to the basics can be a painful experience if not done properly.
BEST OVERALL BAREFOOT RUNNING SHOEMerrell Vapor Glove 5 Read More
BEST UPGRADE BAREFOOT RUNNING SHOEVivobarefoot Primus Lite III Read More
BEST BUDGET BAREFOOT RUNNING SHOEXero Shoes HFS Read More
BEST TOE SHOES FOR BAREFOOT RUNNINGVibram FiveFingers V-Run Read More
BEST BAREFOOT RUNNING SHOE FOR RACE DAYAltra Escalante Racer Read More
What Are Barefoot Running Shoes
In complete contrast to the cushioned running shoes you see in most running shops, barefoot running shoes are just that — shoes designed to create a barefoot running experience while still providing some sense of grip and traction through an effective outsole. You won't find any stabilizing features or arch support in barefoot running shoes, but rather a zero-drop silhouette that's flat from heel to toe.
Additionally, most barefoot running shoes will feature a thin, flexible outsole that's designed to save your skin from the rough terrain while still giving your feet the room to naturally stretch, flex, roll and bend. The thought behind this is that as your feet get back to their natural function, your foot muscles will become stronger, helping in defense against impact injuries that are common within the running discipline.
You can sort of think of barefoot running as strength training for your feet. Much like you'd train your muscles in a bench press by adding stress in the form of a weighted barbell, you're adding stress to your feet by simply running and impacting the ground. And what does stress do to muscles over time? It strengthens them.
How to Get Started in Barefoot Running
Barefoot running can be great for anyone that's interested in transitioning their foot function back to its roots, but this is one discipline where trial by fire is definitely not the recommended plan of attack. Switching from a well-cushioned running shoe to a minimalist sneaker can be a painful experience to endure, and that pain can easily transfer into your non-training life. Think about how often you're on your feet throughout a normal day, and then think about each step being riddled with soreness.
To help ease your feet into the stresses of barefoot running, it's best to rotate your running shoes between zero-drop barefoots and traditional runners that have a slightly higher heel-to-toe drop, somewhere around the 4–5mm range. Also, take things slow for the first few weeks, just walking around can be enough of a sensation to get your body accustomed to the new experience.
Slowly increase your pace and distance with each training session as you become more acquainted with barefoot running. Don't be discouraged if your strength takes time — Let your body adapt to this new running style, and your muscles slowly get stronger.
How We Tested
While I'm not a current follower of the barefoot movement, I have had experience in the discipline, so the stresses that come with the territory aren't new to me. To give each barefoot running shoe its moment to shine, I tested a majority of these minimalist kicks across various terrains and paces, from the slow walk to the quickened, albeit short, uptempo run. Features like grip and traction were analyzed, as well as how thin the outsole felt underneath each footprint — what's the point of barefoot running if you can't get that desired ground connection? I also looked at convenient perks like lacing systems, breathable uppers and other factors that made training a more bearable and, dare I say it, enjoyable endeavor.
Now, let's get back to basics and discover the best barefoot running shoes available today.
Merrell Vapor Glove 5
Featuring a 2mm Vibram EcoStep outsole, the Vapor Glove 5 is an excellent option for anyone that’s getting into barefoot running. I easily achieved that grounded feeling without fear of losing traction, even on some looser pathways, although this isn’t the Merrell silhouette I’d choose for trail running (more on that later).
The stretch collar is also a convenient touch, creating a sock-like fit that slides on and off easily. Additionally, the Merrell Vapor Glove 5 is vegan-friendly, boasting a 40-percent recycled mesh lining, 30-percent recycled rubber in the outsole and a 100-percent recycled top sheet across the thin EVA foam midsole. While these runners can get hot during longer training days, they’re still an excellent pick for barefoot beginners and veterans alike.
Vivobarefoot Primus Lite III
If you want that barefoot feel with a sleek sense of style, look no further than the Primus Lite IIIs from Vivobarefoot. As one of the innovators in the barefoot shoe game, these flagship sneakers boast a wide toe box that accommodates natural splaying to help you feel more of the road as you build that pivotal foot strength with every step.
The aesthetically-pleasing upper is also built with the planet in mind, utilizing recycled materials and reused post-consumer plastic waste to create its visual appeal. Be mindful though, that you may need to double-knot these beauties before you take off for intense training. Some athletes have said the laces can come undone easily, which can throw a wrench into achieving proper lockdown.
Xero Shoes HFS
When I first donned the HFSs from Xero Shoes, my attention immediately went to the upper. While I definitely admired the breathability baked into the mesh construction, I also appreciated how these barefoot running shoes resembled the fit of my go-to traditional road shoes. This made getting back into the barefoot discipline more appealing, sort of a bridge between the two.
Once I got moving in these kicks, I also noticed how well they responded to each stride. I easily locked into that natural feedback, and the tire tread-inspired outsole was plenty grippy for road running workouts. I’m curious to see how well these perform on longer runs — the heavier build makes me think pickups may be a strain at extended mileage — but for roughly $120, I’m willing to take the chance.
Vibram FiveFingers V-Run
No toe box? No problem. With their easily recognizable, ahem, footprint, the Vibram FiveFingers V-Run is sure to come up in any conversation pertaining to barefoot running, and for good reason. The perforated upper is soft across the skin and allows for plenty of air to caress your tired feet mid-training. I found these exceptionally comfortable during warmer training days, and the reinforced outsole created a durable profile that’s ready to tackle most terrain.
Of course, I can’t disregard the fact that toe shoes aren’t for everyone. The thought of having your digits present in individual chutes rather than covered by a singular upper can be off-putting. If you’re willing to take a chance on these puppies, though, you’ll wonder why they haven’t caught on more.
Altra Escalante Racer
If you’re well-seasoned and want to take your passion to the starting line, these breathable, race-ready sneakers from Altra should be a must-have for your running kit. The race-tuned Altra EGO foam felt exceptional at long distances, providing that natural feel while still keeping things comfortable as the miles added up. I also appreciated the wider toe box that allowed for some organic splaying as I stabilized my steps across multiple tempo days.
The one feature I wish the Escalante Racers came with, though, was a gusseted tongue. When getting into these race-day runners, the tongue easily folds in on itself, which required some extra attention to prevent any unnecessary rubbing.
Merrell Trail Glove 6
I told you Merrell would make a return in this roundup. With 3mm lugs across the durable, eco-friendly Vibram EcoStep outsole, the Trail Glove 6 is a great excuse to take your barefoot running into the wild outdoors. The rear sling kept my heel securely in place when traversing over rocks and rooted trailways, and I liked how durable these barefoot runners felt thanks to the added rock plate and toe guard.
I’m almost hesitant to call this a true barefoot running shoe, however, because there’s a clear arch support that can feel aggressive at times. While I understand this feature is built into the makeup for safety when trekking over uneven terrain, it does take some getting used to, especially if you’re transitioning from a normal barefoot road running shoe.
Xero Shoes Genesis
Want to take barefoot running to the next level? Aside from ditching footwear completely, the Genesis sandals from Xero Shoes are your next best bet. The simple strap setup allows for easy entry and exit, and the paper-thin outsole provides excellent feedback as you progress your natural foot function.
When tightened properly, the Genesis generously hugs the bottom of your foot, although you may experience that all-too-common "slapping" sensation at slower or walking speeds. Be mindful of running in these minimalist sandals in wet conditions, though, especially if you live in a hilly area. Some have experienced compromised traction during ascents and descents, so to avoid any spills and thrills during your barefoot training, maybe save these for nicer days under the sun.