As recently reborn runners, the path that many of us have taken to arrive at this new (rather, it’s an old, very old) style of natural running, was probably fraught with trial and error, talking to friends, checking out running blogs and forums, becoming weary and frustrated by chronic foot and leg injuries, reading Chris McDougall, or just plain curiosity, such as seeing a barefoot or Vibram FiveFingers runner and asking yourself, “What the hell?….”
The barefoot and minimalist running shoe phenomenon has yet to crest. Runner’s World weighed in with its own minimalist minimalist-shoe review report in the November 2010 issue-- and only managed to review a handful of brands. We’re now approaching the really-to-ready-takeoff growth phase. We’re already edging past the Early Adopters phase. The running industry is now experiencing one of the largest shape-shifting designs in shoes since Nike first introduced the waffle tread. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But I don’t think so. Not when the Big Shoe Boys-- Saucony, New Balance, Merrell--are involved. Meanwhile, upstarts like Newton are literally capturing a marketing foothold with its innovative, midfoot striking technology.And there are several other newcomers, most of them small entrepreneurs with a maximalist vision of market penetration and future success.
It will become tiring hearing these terms pop up in conversation all the time -- “minimalist running shoes (M)” and "barefoot running shoes (B).” Nor are these labels an entirely accurate representation of many of the M or B brands that will be available to the public. Heel-to-toe height drop is a more accurate measuring stick anyway, with zero drop as the ultimate goal--and challenge for both shoes companies and runners.Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to find out for himself or herself, despite the media hype, whether the shoes they buy perform as advertised.
And speaking of drop, here's what Running Times smartly wrote about the subject: "Many traditional training shoes put the foot 22-24mm off the ground in the heel and 10-15mm off the ground in the forefoot, and the difference between the two -- typically 12-14mm in traditional training shoes -- creates a forward-leaning slope, designed to reduce stress on the Achilles. Minimalist shoes trend toward being much more level (a 2-10mm slope) with the assumption that the runner will land on the midfoot and use the natural cushioning of the arch, thus the built-up heel only adds weight and gets in the way of an efficient stride."
Several criteria should determine whether a M or B shoe fits this particular bill of goods of natural-style running:
1. An absence of a thick, rigid, overbuilt and unresponsive heel-crash pad that is found in a majority of conventional running shoes.
2. The use of lightweight material for the upper part of the shoe.
3. A flexible sole so your foot bends with the shoe, no matter the running surface-- dirt, asphalt, grass, rocky trails. You want the foot to feel the ground.
4. There’s not much heel-to-toe height differential, also known as the drop (going barefoot gives you “zero drop.”)
5. The shoe is so lightweight that you might want to take it to the post office where they have an electronic scale for readings in ounces.
6. The footbed is relatively flat and contains little cushioning support.
In order to further shed light on being properly shod, here is a list of 2011 shoes which belong in the barefoot/minimalist/natural running category. But who knows which shoes will become a hit and which shoes will end up becoming a total dud. In the footwear business, it truly is the survival of what fits. The market tends to votes with its feet. All shoe brands included here are linked to the company’s website.
Many of the brands listed here are available for purchase at Two Rivers Treads, which is the nation's first minimalist shoe store.
NOW THE MINIMALIST AND BAREFOOT RUNNING SHOES....
Adidas Adzero -- Four sleek-looking, ground-hugging models from the three-stripe global shoe behemoth to salivate over, each one promising responsive forefoot action. Still, that rather inelegant heel makes one pause.
Altra --The Utah-based footwear startup actually coined the term “zero drop,” with three new shoes debut -- the Adam for the minimalist-minded and possibly a real quasi-barefoot threat to the Vibrams due to its more conventional appearance; the Instinct for all-purpose running; and the Lone Peak for mountain running and madcap, goat-like trail scrambling. Ideal shoe design for those with wide feet. Or as Runblogger Pete Larson shrewdly noted of the Altras, Who would ever think that the most radical shoe design in recent years is one that actually resembles a human foot.
Asics Piranha -- Getting a good buzz on the blogs because it’s featherweight and has not much daylight drop between an earth-hugging heel and toe box. Yet with many of its models, Asics still seems stuck in the past, as in the 60s and early 70s, when it dominated the running shoe market. But change is afoot with its new "33" collection, and was named for this reason: there's 33 joints in the foot which allow it to move efficiently and naturally, and so these lightweight shoes offer greater flexibility and less rigid support. In other words, the foot isn't imprisoned inside its own shoe coffin. Five flex grooves a la Nike Frees see to that. Go here for more on the 33s.
Brooks Green Silence-- An eco-friendly, entry-level shoe for newly transitioning runners to midfoot-strike action, but why is the model on Brooks’ home page loudly decked out in garish red and yellow colors? As for the eco-friendly tag, that has something to do with the shoe's biodegradable materials. But if you really want to save the planet, get rid of the car and run everywhere. Coming in the fall is a new line of Brooks footwear called the Pures. Deliberately eschewing the minimalist tag, these shoes still have a lot of minimalist features: lightweight; flexible soles, very little heel-to-toe drop. Read more here.
Feelmax Osma -- Never underestimate the fine Finns when it comes to footwear. Global mobile phone giant Nokia began as a rubber galoshes manufacturer before switching over to electrical and communication products. But Feeelmax has a tougher challenge. An early entry into the minimalist marketplace, it introduced the ultralight Osma to mixed reviews early last year, due a narrow toe box and super-thin rigid sole made from some non-rubberlike material. Then’s there the aesthetic issue of styling: the Osmas looks like a cross between a golf and bowling shoe.
GoLite-- Known for its lightweight, minimalist fast-packing apparel and backpacks, the less-is-faster company has branched out with footwear for the long-distance trail runner; the Amp Lite promises zero-drop. But many bloggers are less than pleased with their overall performance and construction.
Inov-8 -- A whimsical name for a pioneering shoe company. But it’s based in England, so that kinda explains its fondness for word and number play. With several models to choose from, the sturdy-looking X-Talon 212, which is designed for serious trail runners, is getting the most online attention. Running Times gushed over the X-Talon 190 for its "minimal cushioning, a snug upper that wraps the arch and midfoot, and superb traction with an array of deep rubber lugs." Yes, those lugs-- they obnoxiously protrude.
Invisible Shoe -- Unlike the real deal, the Tarahumara running sandals which are fashioned from old, discarded car tires and leather thongs, the Invisible Shoe uses new, professional-grade rubber for the soles and colorful polypropylene and nylon laces. So much for going undetected.
KEEN A86 -- Known for its toe-protection athletic sandals and hiking shoes, this relatively young but highly successful footwear company is ready to jump feet first into the minimalist mosh pit. Product literature claims that the A86 trail running shoes, with its moccasin-style design and removable molded footbed, will let “you choose just how much you want to feel the terrain beneath your feet.” It also says that the stylish, hot-looking A86 ‘fits your foot like a glove,” but c’mon KEEN, tell your copywriter that’s what Vibram FiveFingers says about their shoes. Small lugs cover the entire tread surface area for improved traction. See Zero Drop's full review here.
Kigo --With unisex slip-on styling, the Kigo is more of an active lifestyle surf-and-turf slipper than a real barefoot running shoe. Yet where else can you find a shoe that you can roll up and stash in your cargo pants pocket when you really want to go barefoot.
Li Ning -- The giant Chinese sports footwear giant is best known for its basketball sneakers sold in Asia, but when it recently decided to expand into the U.S., its marketing game plan was fairly obvious: “Just Do It To Nike!” Li Ning’s logo looks a lot like an awkward knock-off of the swoosh. Its Portland showroom and store is less than a mile from the flagship Niketown. Hoping to score big with its moderately priced minimalist sneaker, the 7-oz Fremont --named after a bridge in Portland-- has a heel-toe drop of 10 mm. In Asia, Li Ning’s running shoes are called “Flying Feather.”
Luna Sandals -- These well-crafted huarache-running sandals are made by Barefoot Ted’s company in Seattle. Now Ted is everywhere-- barefoot running web sites, YouTube, fitness magazines, etc-- extolling the stride-improving benefits of running unshod. Hence the BT moniker. ( “Sandal Ted” doesn’t quite have the same cachet.) Luna’s top-of-the line foot-friendly creation is the Equus with an 1.8-mm Vibram rubber sole, elasticized leather lacing system, and a high-quality Cordovan leather top that will conform to your feet given enough mileage. His Leadville off-road model has even a thicker bottom tread: 10-mm Vibram sole. A photo of Ted’s Leadville sandals that he wore in the Leadville 100 mountain trail race appears on his site. There are times when going barefoot isn’t advised or recommended. Not even for Barefoot Ted.
Merrell -- As a leading outdoor footwear and apparel brand, it made sense for Merrell to migrate over to minimalism in a big way by partnering with Vibram. Probably as a result of this marketing alliance, each of the three new Merrell minimalist shoes has “glove” in its name-- Trail Glove, True Glove, and Tough Glove. All have that stripped-down, less-is-cool styling and functionality. This could be a trifecta winner. Picture above is the Trail Glove. One caveat: if you have wide feet, these shoes might cramp your barefoot-like style.
Mizuno Wave Universe 3 -- More and more barefoot-inspired, non-elite runners are gravitating to this lightweight speed racer (just under four ounces) by one of the top shoe companies. Main reason --no arch, feet remain practically flat with just the slightest heel lift.
Montrail -- The Montrail Masai running shoe, worn by Western States 100 champion and ultrarunning demigod Scott Jurek, turned out to be a bust and was discontinued; Montrail has two new lightweight yet rugged models--Mountain Masochist and Fairhaven -- for serious trail runners, but both sport a 20-mm heel and 10-mm forefoot, not exactly treading on minimalist territory. Montrail is included here, so as to show readers what the real Masai running shoe from Kenya looks like: a hunk of tire tread and two leather straps. Toe ring is optional.
New Balance Minimus-- One of the most talked-about newcomers on the barefoot and minimalist blogs,NB is serving up three flexible, featherweight Minimus models-- everyday, road, and trail--- and all will have a 4-mm drop. Gear Junkie gave the Minimus a “Best of Show Award” at the 2010 Outdoor Retail Show. This might be the shoe that kicks serious barefoot-style butt.
Newton -- Sir Isaac was known for scribbling down math formulas indoors, or sitting under a tree. What the several models of Newtons encourage you to do is move about by using natural running as your body's guiding principle. The shoe's uniquely designed rocking-action tread design forces you to land on the midfoot or forefoot. Despite its steep price tag in the upper $100s and maximalist look (but with a minimalist 3 and 4mm drop), the Newtons are becoming increasingly popular for M runners, especially among “well-heeled” triathletes who spend up to $20,000 a year on multisport gear.
Nike Free Run+ -- Janis Joplin said it best, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” and with the Frees what was lost were attributes of the traditional running shoe with their built-up, elevated heels. First introduced in 2004, the Frees helped promote a more natural running stride with a super flexible, deep-channeled foam-like sole that conformed to where the foot landed. Nike had tried going with three separate Free versions with varying heel-to-toe drop, but is now banking on just one model, the Nike Free Run+, to appeal to runners who are wisely transitioning to midfoot striking. See Zero Drop's review of the Frees.
Roman Caligae Sandals -- Why not go really pre-modern, like nearly 2,000 years back in time. Roman legionaries often fast-marched 20 miles a day in their flat sandals while carrying heavy battle gear. An old-time British leather-maker by the name of Brian Woodward makes these distinctive sandals. Take special note of these sandals, all you toga-wearing Bay-to-Breakers runners.
Saucony ProGrid Kinvara -- The progressive-minded folks at Saucony already have a winner with the light, low-to-the ground minimalist Kinvara that allows you to run more naturally. The foamlike sole is bare-bones, with triangles of sturdy carbon rubber for better traction. Saucony is even go more sleeker and slimmer with its zero-drop Hattori that is like eye-candy for the feet.
Soft Star’s RunAmoc -- This Oregon-based company has been around for 25 years, but its forte was selling custom, handmade modern-looking moccasins. It’s now come out with the RunAmoc that is designed specifically for runners, with a wide toe box, ventilated leather uppers, and thin durable rubber sole. Definitely a barefoot running shoe, but you might look and feel like Robin Hood or Peter Pan wearing them. Carry a flute or bow and arrow when you run.
Terra Plana/ Vivo Barefoot -- Very pricey and so glam-stylish that you’d expect to see them on the feet of “Dancing with the Stars” contestants. The company has already been selling several models with its “Vivo Barefoot Technology,” but the new EVO -- probably short for evolution though the name sounds like a hair product-- is ingeniously constructed from a forgiving, soft plastic cage interlaced with a thin mesh fabric and a minimal footbed. For those looking for a more sedate styling --and somewhat cheaper price tag-- the new Neos with cloth uppers will give you that zero-drop feeling. It also makes for a terrific walking and everyday shoe. See Zero Drop's full review of the Neo here.
Vibram FiveFingers -- They are now so popular now that you can a write an entire book about them. There’s even popular sites like BirthdayShoes dedicated to the VFF. And let’s not forget all those VFF's BFFs--over 100,000 fans on its Facebook page. It was a radical concept when first introduced in 2006-- separate sleeves for each toe, so that the barefoot-like shoe fit like a glove. But aren’t mittens also socks for the hands? With several models to choose from, runners are busy hopping over to the Bikilas whose 4-mm Vibram outsole give your feet plenty of protection. For trail junkies, the 4-mm sole TrekSport sports low-profile cleats for traction. (True barefoot purists would rely on their splayed toes for ground-gripping).
Zem-- A beach and volleyball shoe hoping to score big with runners. There are full and split toe versions, but it's basically an aquatic sock with earth-like aspirations.
For the most comprehensive compilation of detailed shoe reviews of the brands listed here (plus many more), please go to the Natural Running Center.
To purchase many of these shoe brands, including Altra, Inov-8, New Balance Minimus, Merrell, Newton and VivoBarefoot, please visit Two Rivers Treads, which is the nation's first minimalist shoe store as well as the flagship store of the Natural Running Center. Two Rivers Treads offers free shipping and 30-day return policy.