Runners like the extremes — the hills, the highs, the long miles. In footwear, the barefoot runner is the extreme. Toe socks with Vibram soles, samurai-style split toes, and zero-drop shoes that would have the old X-C coach nodding in approval — this is the arsenal of the man who doesn’t compromise his stride. The musculoskeletal therapist says it’s all good, our running ancestors give the the nod, and calves like grapefruits can’t be wrong. So embrace footwear devolution, and welcome back to zero.
Vivo Barefoot One
Vivo’s staff sits in a dedicated room and dreams up ridiculous ways to get your feet performing better. They want stability. They want feel. They want your foot to engage with your surroundings as feet can and should, with some help from a 3mm puncture- and slip-resistant sole. It’s like your giving your feet superpowers, or at least super skin. And, the shoes are 100 percent vegan — so, really: nothing lost, everything gained.
Perfect for: short-, medium- and long-distance running; weightlifting; tennis; travel; dog jogging.
Vibram Bikila EVO
You either love or hate Five Finger shoes; but whatever side of the debate you’re on, their perks are hard to deny. They give full flexibility, a dynamic foot experience, and top-quality soles, given Vibram’s unarguable prestige as a sole maker. The Bikila EVO gives more cushion for your medium-distance runs, but the sole is still thin enough to provide the full Five Finger experience.
Perfect for: short- and medium-distance running; weightlifting; cross-training; doing yoga with your dog.
Topo Athletic ST
Topo’s ST makes friends between the cushioned world and the barefoot. It’s a minimalist shoe with zero drop, but with enough stack height (13mm) to give a touch of dampening on stride impact. The neutral platform lets you automatically correct your own gait and doesn’t force you into an unnatural running form: a gentle guide for your stride.
Perfect for: short-, medium- and long-distance running; cross-training; keeping up with your husky on the long runs.
New Balance Minimus Zero v2
Not all the big names have hopped on the barefoot bandwagon. But the clever folks at New Balance are early adopters; their Minimus line is engineered for the Good Form Running crowd and for minimal, neutral runners. The Zero goes low and streamlined, with a one-piece upper on top and a thin Vibram outsole.
Perfect for: short-, medium- and long-distance running; weightlifting; cross-training; feeling the road with paw-like accuracy.
Lending the minimalist movement a little more luxe, Skora uses premium materials to craft fancy shoes that can still handle the dirty work. Their Phase-X sports maximum reflectivity (for late night runs), an antimicrobial insole (less stink), an asymmetric tongue-less design (no chafing), and and outsole that gives you ground feel with an ample degree of protection (safety without compromise). The price is up, but so are the perks.
Perfect for: short-, medium- and long-distance running; weightlifting; cross-training; impressing the ladies at the dog park.
POINT-COUNTERPOINT: THE ALTRA ONE2
The guys at Altra are the catalyst and backbone of the maximalist movement. Typically they like shoes with orthotic-like cushioning. But they can also see the perks of neutral running. Their One2, with its 23mm stack height, is a big support shoe equipped with zero-drop, making it a neutral, cushioned platform for natural running. Altra somehow blended oil and water: the result is something that encourages a barefoot-like stride with enough cushioning to make Grandpa jealous. It’s a shoe for the indecisive runner. Have your barefoot cake and eat the maximalist one too.
Adidas Adipure Trainer 1.1
When Adidas took the plunge into the barefoot market, they dove right into the deep end. The Adipure Trainer 1.1 gives ultimate feel and minimal support, and though it’s better suited for the squat rack than the track, you can still hop on the treadmill for a quick interval. In distinctive Adidas style, they made the slick reptilian-like upper fit with a lace-less aqua bootie look. Point for amphibian shoes.
Perfect for: short runs, weightlifting, cross-training, and taking the pup through some knee-deep streams.
Merrell Vapor Glove
The barefoot trend hasn’t stopped at the track; it’s also gone to the field. Merrell’s Vapor Glove provides durability and full-toe protection, so your feet will be safe on the trail. A mesh upper offers breathability, and the Vibram sole gives all kinds of traction to keep you from slipping on the switchbacks. If trail running is your thing, this is your barefoot shoe.
Perfect for: short and medium runs, trail-running, taking Scooby off the road and into the wilderness.
Side Step: The last three shoes — Newton MV3, Saucony Virrata 2, and Inov8 F-Lite 192 — fall somewhere between barefoot and minimalist shoes. They’re like barefooters with training wheels: zero-drop, ultra-minimalist shoes that give you a pure, neutral platform, but with a thicker sole that reduces the feel of the ground. They’re helpful transition shoes, a way to get you closer to the barefoot way.
To be honest, racing flats are the true barefoot runners. The catch is, we’re not all racers, and flats don’t have the durability of an everyday trainer. Newton’s MV3 bridges the gap: a racing shoe that can be used by everyone, everyday. Anatomical support strapping, asymmetrical lacing, and an enlarged toe box give comfort and stability, and Newton’s heady scientific innovations (like the biomechanical metatarsal sensor plate and Action/Reaction technology) take the natural strengths of your feet and turn them into forward propulsion.
Perfect for: short-distance running, track workouts, catching the dog when he makes a break for it.
Inov8 F-Lite 192
Inov8 tends to to keep it real in the off-road realm, but for the best zero-drop, ultra-minimalist runner, the F-Lite tends to fit more comfortably on the track than the trail. Inov8 promises a “firm responsive ride” and support from an injected EVA midsole and Rope-Tec reinforcements. Stability is kind of a thing for trail runners, so trust that Inov8 transfers some of that tech into their lightweight road runner.
Perfect for: short, medium and long runs; cross-training; dodging stray cats and other off-leash predators.
Saucony Virrata 2
The Virrata edges more toward minimalist than any other shoe on the list. Still, it abides by the zero-drop rule, and it’s slimmer than the rest of Saucony’s minimal line. If you’re looking for a transition shoe, the Virrata’s 18mm of cushioning will do the trick for a slow taper toward barefoot.
Perfect for: short-, medium- and long-distance running; cross-training; taking the lab around the block with the kids.