So you’re on the hunt for the best minimalist shoes money can buy.
Or, that you can afford.
The range of minimal footwear has grown significantly in recent years. It’s heartening to see.
We first came across barefoot shoes in 2012. Sporty didn’t realise it at the time, but it turned out to be the year she hung up her too cool for school image for good.
For many years, a wellworn pair of Levis coupled with Converse sneakers or Harley Davidson biker boots formed part of her standard wardrobe. (Sporty loved looking good.)
She did a great job of it, too.
Then, two things happened in quick succession. First, we read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. Shortly thereafter, we attended a workshop on the benefits of barefoot running hosted by Benita Kropman, founder of the Lyno Method.
We left wearing a pair of garishly bright Vibram FiveFingers and never looked back. That is, Sporty never looked back. My story is slightly more complicated because I have a club foot.
In addition to a three-centimetre length deficit in my right leg, my right foot is also a full size smaller. After trying the Vibrams for a while, I decided they weren’t working for me.
With regular shoes a discrepancy in size isn’t that big of a deal. This isn’t the case with Vibrams however, as they fit more like gloves.
Accommodating my left foot meant that the smaller right foot didn’t fit properly into the separate toes and I kept tripping. Opting for a snugger fit on my right foot had my left toes bunching up.
At the time I wasn’t too bummed about the turn of events since it meant I had a legitimate reason to buy regular footwear again. (Back then I was a sucker for good looking shoes.)
Fickle, I know.
Sporty, on the other hand, was hooked from the get go. She loved how her new barefoot shoes felt when walking, running and even hiking.
Six months into the transition the hip and back pain she’d struggled with for years disappeared. A longtime migraine sufferer, Sporty found that these too had become a thing of the past.
When she first made the shift to minimalist footwear Sporty still had regular shoes for meetings and special occasions. Her feet didn’t appreciate being forced into them though, so she eventually ditched them.
She figured she could be cool from the ankles up.
If you’re at all hung up on your image, Vibram FiveFingers are definitely not the shoes for you. On the other hand, if your focus is health and well-being, you can’t go wrong.
Since you’re reading a roundup of the best minimalist shoes, my guess is you’re more interested in feeling good than looking the part. Awesome.
What Exactly Is a Minimalist Shoe?
A study published in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research set out to standardise the term ‘minimalist’ as it relates to running shoes. In addition, the researchers wanted to “develop and validate a rating scale that could be used to determine the degree of minimalism of running shoes, the Minimalist Index (MI).”
They eventually arrived at the following definition of minimalist shoes:
Footwear providing minimal interference with the natural movement of the foot due to its high flexibility, low heel to toe drop, weight and stack height, and the absence of motion control and stability devices.
This article in Runner’s World unpacks the study’s findings in layman’s terms. Suffice it to say there are plenty of variables, so the best thing to do is give some thought to what you’d like to do (run, walk, hike, etc.) and then try some on.
Wearing thick-soled shoes is like trying to type in oven mitts. A slight exaggeration maybe, but once you’ve spent some time in a pair of minimalist shoes, you’ll agree with the analogy.
Sensory feedback is vital. Our feet send information to the brain, which helps us better understand the terrain we’re walking on. The cushioned barrier in conventional shoes hinders this. With more than 200,000 nerve endings in them, our feet are designed to act as earthward antennae.
Unfortunately, regular shoes have us walking all wrong. The way around this? Movement and yoga therapist Amy Matthews says we should let our feet do the walking rather than have the shoes do the walking.
Which, when you think about it, makes perfect sense. Yet, that’s not the case for most humans. At least, not those of us ensconced in the Western world anyway. Minimalist shoes are not even on the radar for most of us.
[Watch] A Case for Barefoot Running
Using a combination of wit, humour and great storytelling, Chris McDougall —author of the aforementioned Born to Run— shares his conviction that the secret to happiness is right at your feet.
The barefoot running debate is ongoing. One point Chris is emphatic about is that running shoes don’t do us any good. After a deep dive into the research, he came up with nothing.
He does however point out that ultimately the debate is less about barefoot versus shoes than it is about mastering the art of running gently.
Side note: Chi Running by Danny Dreyer is an excellent resource for honing this skill.
Do that, Chris says, and you can wear — or not wear — anything you please. Which is why Sporty runs in her Vibrams and I run in a pair of Saucony racing shoes.
We’ve each found the shoe that allows us to run as gently as possible and in the process avoid injury. That being said, we have yet to run more than a half marathon.
When (if) we set our eyes on a longer distance, there’s a chance we may have to switch shoes. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
These Are the Best Minimalist Shoes (In Our Experience)
There are more minimal footwear options than you can shake a stick at.
Coach Mag’s list features the Altra Escalante, Hoka’s One One Carbon Rocket (how cool is that name) and a pair of Nike Frees, which look a little lumpy if you ask me.
Sporty and I have narrowed our list of best minimalist shoes down to just three. (Because we’re minimalists and don’t like to ocomplicate matters.)
1. Vibram FiveFingers
Sporty’s shoe closet has come a long way since her first pair of wildly unattractive Vibram FiveFingers. These days she runs in something decidedly more jauntier.
I unfortunately cannot link to them as they no longer make this particular style. Contrary to me, Sporty is so light on her shoes it literally takes her years to wear them out.
She does have her eye on a pair of these CTV Hemp barefoot shoes. They may not win in the looks department, but at least they’re environmentally friendly. Thy’re also not overly bright, which makes a nice change.
I got my first pair of Vivobarefoot shoes at the end of July and I’ve been wearing them solidly ever since. The Primus Lite is super flat, which means I’m in touch with the ground. While the wide toe box makes for happy, healthy feet.
Perhaps best of all, they’re made from recycled material and are 100% vegan-friendly. They’re pretty much ticking all my hippie boxes. Winning.
I’ve since added a more durable pair of Primus Trail runners to my arsenal as we recently relocated to a farm a couple of hours outside Cape Town. Here, dirt roads are the norm, which didn’t bode well for my white city shoes.
3. Saucony Type A6
I’ve been running in the Saucony Type A6 since 2013 and I absolutely love them. Purists would argue that the 4mm drop makes it a low drop as opposed to a zero drop shoe.
It’s damn close though, and for me that’s enough. When you consider that there are running shoes with 8mm+ of drop, I think we can agree that my Saucony’s deserve a spot on my list of best minimalist shoes.
They’re light, comfortable and relatively durable given how hard I am on shoes. (My uneven gait means my shoes wear out quicker than normal.)
Unless Saucony stops making them, I’m not planning to switch anytime soon. My feet are happy. And because I don’t mind wearing older models, my budget is also happy.
Running Shoes Guru gives the Type A6 a thumbs up, calling it “a well-rounded racing flat for runners that want a fast, minimalist shoe for 5Ks to half-marathons.”
How to Transition to Minimalist Shoes
Coach Nate from The Run Experience put together a two-part series (one and two) on how to safely transition to a zero drop shoe without dropping mileage. This is key if you’re a seasoned runner. The last thing you want to is to lose distance.
Natural Footgear does an even deeper dive into transitioning to a minimalist shoe. Their overarching advice? The keys to a successful transition are patience, diligence and perseverance.
Sporty and I can both attest to this. Moving from a regular running shoe to a more minimalist style takes time. Rush it and you’ll get injured. Take it slow and steady and you’ll reap the benefits.
Can You Wear Minimalist Shoes Everyday?
Can you wear minimalist shoes everyday? Hell yes! Once you’ve made the transition you won’t want to wear anything else. And neither will you have to.
Thanks to the innovative styles most brands have come up with, you can find a minimalist shoe for every occasion.
Some Final Thoughts on Minimal Footwear
Your image may have to take a backseat when you make the move to minimal footwear, but it’s a small price to pay for not just healthy feet, but overall wellbeing, too.
One of the biggest problems most older folks face is being unsteady on their feet, which often results in nasty falls.
Walking well is one way to mitigate this and that’s where minimalist shoes come in. Unlike conventional footwear, they offer ample room for your feet and toes to spread out naturally.
More than that, they allow your feet to feel the surface. Remember the 200,000 nerve endings I mentioned at the beginning? Well, minimalist shoes provide ample opportunity for them to do their work.
The question is, why wouldn’t you want to wear minimalist shoes everyday?
Using healthy minimalist shoes—shoes that are widest at the ends of your toes, have a flexible sole, are lightweight, and possess a completely flat support platform—offers the possibility of profound and enduring foot health benefits. —Dr. Robyn Hughes, Naturopathic Physician
Over to you. Would you consider wearing any of the shoes highlighted in this post? And if you’ve already made the transition, what would you add to our list of best minimalist shoes?