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 back in 2012.
Sporty didn’t realise it at the time, but it would turn out to be the year she hung up her too cool for school image for good.
Talk about disappointing her younger self.
How We Came to Wear Minimalist Shoes
For many years, a wellworn pair of Levis coupled with Converse sneakers or Harley Davidson biker boots formed the basis of her wardrobe. Then, two things happened in quick succession.
We left the workshop 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 shoe 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. That’s not the case with Vibrams. Accommodating my left foot meant the smaller right foot didn’t fit properly into the separate toe compartments and I kept tripping. Opting for a smaller size 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 shoes, Sporty still had regular footwear 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. Besides, Vibrams aren’t your only option when it comes to minimalist shoes.
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 minimalist 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 up our choice of minimalist footwear. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
The Best Minimalist Shoes (In Our Experience)
When it comes to minimalist shoes, there are plenty of options.
Coach Mag’s list features the Altra Escalante, Hoka’s One One Carbon Rocket (how awesome 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. The main reason for this is that we don’t like to spend money unecessarily.
If it ain’t broke…
1. Vibram FiveFingers
Sporty’s shoe closet has come a long way since her first pair of wildly unattractive Vibram FiveFingers.
A lot of people find Vibrams generally unappealing to look at, but I kid you not, these were seriously ugly. They looked like the 70s and 90s had an affair (at a rave, while hopped up on E).
Anyhoo, these days she runs in something decidedly more jaunty. 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, but says she’ll only buy them when she can justify a new pair of shoes. (By the time that happens they won’t be making these anymore either.)
They may not win in the looks department, but at least they’re environmentally friendly. They’re also not overly bright, which makes a nice change. Maybe the brand has employed a hippie designer?
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. My toes especially love them because not being squashed together means no more callouses.
They’re the perfect minimalist shoes for everyday use. Made from recycled material and 100% vegan-friendly, these babies are pretty much ticking all my hippie boxes.
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.
If you’re looking for a pair of minimalist hiking shoes, I can definitely recommend these. The firm ground sole is perfect for rough, rocky terrain, while still allowing you to feel connected to the ground.
The knitted upper makes for greater flexibility of movement and excellent breathability. Plus, they’re easy to clean. What more can you want?
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 their spot on my list of best minimalist shoes.
They’re light, comfortable, and given how hard I am on shoes, relatively durable, too. (My uneven gait means my shoes wear out quicker than normal.)
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.”
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.
4. Altra Superior 4.5
Remember how I said I’m not planning to swtich running shoes anytime soon? Well, my feet kinda decided for me. My left foot in particular got fed up being constrained by the Saucony A6’s narrow toe box.
Fortunately, my shoes were pretty well worn by this point, so it made switching to the more expensive Altra Superior a little more palatable. I can be frugal to a fault sometimes, so it also helped that the new shoes were on special at the time of purchase.
My main reasons for going with the Altra Superior trail shoe was the wide toe box coupled with the fact that it’s a zero drop shoe with a low-ish stack height (21mm). I’d have preferred less, but I also recognise that some cushioning is helpful for my gait.
I took my shoes out for an inaugural run on Sunday morning and am super pleased with how they performed. I specifically took them off-road and through some wet, marshy areas and they held up really well.
I’d arranged to meet Sporty for coffee at the end of my run and I was worried that sitting around with wet feet would be uncomfortable. However, the shoes are made from quick-drying material and were soon dry again.
I opted for a pair of zero drop trail shoes rather than road shoes because I’ve signed up to do a half marathon trail run at the end of October. You can’t take road shoes on the trail (not without asking for trouble), but you can make trail shoes work in the ‘burbs.
I spent a great deal of my Sunday morning run deliberately avoiding the tarmac, choosing instead to run on grassy sidewalks and muddy verges. Fun times indeed.
My verdict so far? I’m really happy and more importantly, so are my toes. It’s a super comfy shoe that would do equally well as a trail running shoe and a walking or hiking shoe.
Let’s see how I feel after running 21km off-road in them.
If you’re interested in learning more about the brand, be sure to check out the Altra story. Like all good stories, it begins with a toaster oven.
Side note: At some point I would like to invest in a pair of Altra Escalante Racers. The road counterpart to my Superiors, they’re slick, comfy and made for running fast.
Just like me. Ha!
How to Transition to Minimalist Shoes
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 nor do you have to.
Thanks to the innovative styles most brands have come up with, you can find a minimalist shoe for every occasion. There are minimalist shoes for hiking, running, walking, boating, going to the office and more.
Do some Googling and you’ll find naysayers warming you against wearing minimalist shoes on a daily basis, but in our opinon, it can only do you good to transition to minimalist footwear.
Of course, I’m no podiatrist, so if you have reservations it’s always smart to speak to a medical professional. I will say this, however. Be sure to shop around for someone to consult with the same vigilence you’d shop around for anything else.
Where Do You Buy Minimalist Shoes?
Okay, so you’re on board with the idea of going minimalist in the shoe department. Where do you find them? Depending on wear you live, most of your bigger stores will stock some ranges.
If you’re based in the US or Canada, Amazon has an extensive range of minimalist and zero drop shoes to choose from. If you live in Europe, perhaps Amazon can work for you too.
Here in South Africa, their delivery charges are prohibitively expensive. Luckily we have some local importers to choose from. Sporty buys her Vibrams from The Savage, who also stock Altra, Inov-8 and Injinji. I get my Vivobarefoot shoes from Athleisure HQ.
If you’re keen on on Vivobarefoot (you won’t be sorry!), you could also buy from them directly. They ship internationally and sometimes offer free delivery on orders above a certain amount.
They also offer a repair service because they believe wear and tear isn’t a good reason to throw away your old shoes. (Did I mention I LOVE these guys?) It gets better, you can post your shoes to them free of charge.
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?