adidas
adidas Adizero Rush, $100 — The foremost purpose of the Rush is speed—a lightweight shoe targeted at high school athletes for running-based conditioning and speed development purposes, adidas says. Rather than a barefoot-simulation-type midsole, the Rush has firmer tension built in for energy return, and it resembles a racing flat in both feel and performance. Adidas lists a men’s size nine at 7.5 ounces. ADAPTATION TIPS: Adapt to the Rush as you might a racing flat. A veteran runner would introduce them in any speed, interval or tempo workouts. For those new to running or speed training, adidas suggests a conservative approach. “Listen and respond to your body—for some it can take a few weeks and for others it can take up to a year to adjust,” adidas says.
ASICS
ASICS Gel Neo 33, $105 — A speed-oriented trainer is how the designers at Asics describe the 33 Series. “Our goal was to strike the perfect balance between lightweight, flexible performance and the responsive durability necessary to stand up to the real-world demands of high-mileage training,” Asics says. The geometry of the shoe includes a minimal drop but with a full midsole, making the Neo 33 a safe pick for runners accustomed to more traditional designs. Also, the Neo 33 is built on a standard last instead of the more narrow constructions you typically see in the minimalist and racing flat arena, so it can accommodate wider feet. Asics lists a men’s size nine at 10.2 ounces. ADAPTATION TIPS: Because of the modest heel-to-toe drop, the Neo 33 requires the same amount of adaptation a neutral runner would afford any new shoe—meaning very little or none. According to Asics, “Runners can feel confident taking the Gel-Neo 33 straight out of the box and begin running their usual mileage.”
Brooks
Brooks Pure Connect, $90 — The Pure Connect inserts a unique idea into the discussion on what runners may want in a minimalist shoe. The Pure doesn’t strive to be a training tool that builds foot strength, like the Nike Free is intended to do; rather, it’s meant to be a lightweight joy ride—just fun to run in. Although well cushioned, the Pure Connect retains a low drop between the heel and the forefoot—just four mm—and a men’s size nine weighs in at 7.2 ounces. ADAPTATION TIPS: Brooks says it depends on the individual, but the Pure Connect is meant to be a shoe for daily runs. If you’re coming from a stability or motion control shoe, the low-drop demands you start by using the Pure Connect in small doses, particularly so the Achilles tendon can lengthen and strengthen. But compared to most minimalist shoes, the Pure Connect offers as much cushion as shoes even twice the weight.
Inov-8
Inov-8 Bare-X 200, $110 — Inov-8 minimalist models have become popular in the Crossfit world, and despite construction that seems almost identical to a middle-distance track spike (sans the spike plate and spikes), they have been noticed at elite ultramarathon contests as demanding as the Quad Dipsea and the USATF 100-mile trail championship. Inov-8 lists a men’s size nine at 7.5 ounces. ADAPTATION TIPS: The Bare-X series of minimalist shoes are designed for the more experienced barefoot-type runner. An appropriate amount of progressive exposure and running form work is required for a strong and safe adaptation.
Merrell
Merrell Barefoot Road Glove, $100 — Based on the successful debut of the Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove, the Road Glove is a zero-drop shoe with a thin layer of protective foam that stretches from forefoot to rear foot. Merrell lists a men’s size nine at 6.5 ounces. ADAPTATION TIPS: Merrell offers a guide to the ideal form it says goes best with barefoot running shoes based on a three-step plan addressing posture, placement of the foot and a quick cadence. You can find it at www.merrell.com/us/en/barefootconnection.
Mizuno
Mizuno Wave Universe 4, $125 — Mizuno’s Eric Hills relays that Mizuno’s angle on minimalism is about doing more with less. “We are all about making shoes as light as they can be without sacrificing core attributes of the shoe. So the trick is not simply to take things away but to find ways of executing them in a lighter, more minimal way.” The Wave Universe is listed as weighing a feathery 3.8 ounces in a men’s size 9.5, but it retains a midsole that measures between a quarter-inch to a half-inch throughout the shoe. ADAPTATION TIPS: “The term ‘minimalism’ is being thrown around right now to describe products of such a wide breadth; I believe a lot of runners are confused about what it means,” Hills says. “Does it mean minimal ramp, minimal upper construction, minimal foam underneath the foot?” Hills says that runners need to first define specifically what they’re after when wading into the new category, and offers that injury prevention should be the foremost goal. “Like anything in life, when one is trying something new, moderation is always a good approach.”
New Balance
New Balance Minimus Zero Road, $110 — When developing the Minimus, the New Balance design team noticed, regardless of whether a shoe featured a zero drop, that 50 percent of runners continued to heel strike. The shoe takes into account that a deep heel bruise is in not only a painful injury, but also a debilitating one. It has a zero drop between the heel and the forefoot. New Balance lists the shoe’s weight at 6.4 ounces for a men’s size 9.5. ADAPTATION TIPS: New Balance doesn’t recommend this shoe for those new to barefoot running. Invest in a partnership with Good Form Running online (www.newbalance.com/performance/running/good-form-running/) where New Balance offers guidance on how to overhaul running mechanics through grassroots workshops.
Newton
Newton MV2, $125 — At the heart of the MV2’s technology is the forefoot-located “biomechanical sensor plate,” a piece designed to increase cadence by speeding up the sensory connection and contact with the ground. The MV2 is a zero-drop shoe with a racing fit that in a men’s size nine weighs only 5.8 ounces. ADAPTATION TIPS: Newton’s website offers guidance on adapting to the MV2: “It is not unusual for runners who are transitioning to a zero-drop shoe like the MV2 to experience tightness in the calf muscles and Achilles tendons, as well as the feet. This can occur because the muscles and tendons are further elongated when running in a zero-drop shoe, compared to a conventional shoe with a lifted heel.” With the MV2, a three-mm heel lift is included in the box, providing the user a stepping-stone to zero-drop running.
Nike
Nike Free 3.0 v3, $90 — Tobie Hatfield is the renowned Nike designer that has spearheaded the evolution of the Nike Free. The shoe was engineered to flow with the natural motion of the foot instead of regulating it. Nike-sponsored marathoner Kara Goucher uses the shoe as a training tool to build the strength in her feet—but not as a primary trainer. If you’ve been running in traditional shoes for a long time, a romp in the Frees will remind you that you have toes. Nike lists the Free’s weight at 7.2 ounces for a men’s size 10. ADAPTATION TIPS: Nike recommends you first “build your muscles” well before making the Free your full or part-time training shoe. Wear the Free around the house for brief periods of time, eventually transitioning to running drills or striders on the grass. Making the Free your primary training shoe (if this is the goal) will likely require months of gradual adaptation to gain the strength and speed benefits the shoe may offer while avoiding any injury complications from the new set of stressors.
Pearl Izumi
Pearl Izumi Kissaki, $130 — Suggesting the minimalist craze has swung too far to the extreme, Pearl Izumi’s Michael Thompson, designer of the Kissaki, says he wanted to strike a balance. “I wanted to create a lightweight, minimalist-inspired neutral shoe that fell into this ‘just right’ space between the traditional, overbuilt running shoe and the minimal, barefoot footwear that is not practical for everyday use.” Indeed, the Kissaki, which Pearl says weighs in at nine ounces for a men’s size nine, exists on the heavier end of the minimalist spectrum and might easily be considered a lightweight trainer. ADAPTATION TIPS: The Kissaki requires a modest adaptation time and may be a prudent choice for cautious runners making the transition. “Retraining your body to run differently after years of heel striking takes time. This too fast, too soon approach has led to the slew of injuries that are happening to consumers everywhere,” says Thompson. The Kissaki was created with this in mind.
Reebok
Reebok Realflex, $90 — Bill McInnis is the head of Advanced Innovation for Reebok and part of the team that designed the Realflex. “I think the Realflex consumer has some natural sense of the difference between traditional heel strike biomechanics and a more natural motion forefoot-midfoot strike style,” McInnis says. “In that sense, they are looking for what feels ‘right’ when they run. Realflex encourages a forefoot-midfoot style stride without forcing it.” With this in mind, McInnis says the Realflex was not built for the barefoot crowd wanting nothing more than a strip of rubber under their feet. “Realflex has a lot more cushioning and impact protection built into it than pure barefoot shoes.” Reebok lists a men’s size nine at nine ounces. ADAPTATION TIPS: “If barefoot running is the goal,” McInnis says, “I’d recommend not going from a full-height to a no-height or barefoot running in one jump. There are lots of alternatives available among lightweight and pure barefoot shoes, including Realflex. Also, work the shoes into your existing running shoe rotation at first and start out with lower mileage.”
Skechers
Skechers GOrun, $80 — Working with ultrarunner Christian Burke and American marathon great Meb Keflezighi, Skechers set out to build a minimalist shoe that was light and flexible enough to appeal to a minimalism purist but cushioned enough to be a workable choice for those transitioning into minimalist shoes. At 6.9 ounces for a men’s size nine and with a low heel drop and slight build-up geometry under the arch, Skechers says the Gorun is intended to encourage a heel-striker to move toward a midfoot strike. ADAPTATION TIPS: Start off walking and living in the shoe for a few hours per day for several days. Then take them for a short run. Skechers says that the initial feeling of midfoot pressure might be weird at first but it is part of the technology to move runners toward a midfoot strike. Cautiously and progressively expand the amount of time you use the Goruns from a short run to the bulk of your mileage.
Vibram
Vibram Spyridon LS, $120 — Vibram’s new Spyridon LS trail shoe holds status in the running world, thanks in part to the “Born to Run” character Barefoot Ted, an ultrarunner who made the primal leap using super-minimal Vibrams as a buffer between the ground and the foot over difficult terrain. Vibram lists a men’s size 12 at 6.8 ounces. ADAPTATION TIPS: Vibram’s message is that there are myriad approaches to evolving into a barefoot runner, including its online two-week foot-strengthening program. Vibram’s P.J. Antonik suggests wearing the shoe around the house and during your everyday activities, then “start to use them in your workouts. We recommend starting at 10 percent of your normal workout load and add 10 percent each week. Listen to your body and if you start to experience tightness or pain, back off.”

 

Scroll through the carousel at the left for a glimpse into the exploding number of minimalist choices.

Let’s get something straight—minimalist shoes have been around for a long time. Racing flats, cross-country racers and track spikes have long been major players in the super-light shoe domain. And almost any runner who has made the jump to a track spike can tell you that common sense is required during the transition. Track spikes, which enable you to run at a speed so fun it produces giddiness, can also leave your calf muscles feeling like exploded grenades.

VIDEO: Shoe Talk on Competitor.com

But racing flats and spikes are meant for two things—speed work and racing. And along with the running booms that have transpired since the 1970s, the mainstream category of shoes meant for logging daily miles on the roads, sidewalks and trails have evolved into a many-layered beast of categories and sub-categories. Terms such as “neutral,” “motion control,” “stability,” “lightweight trainer,” “cushioned” and “trail”—mixed in with podiatry vernacular such as “overpronation” and “oversupination”—have made for an increasingly confusing decision making process for consumers.

With Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” best seller giving thrust to the backlash against the belief that the overstuffed, overbuilt running shoe is the “best” shoe, and the emotionally charged barefoot running movement drawing in all-comers, the running shoe companies (and the $2.5 billion in sales they generate annually, according to the National Sporting Goods Association) have responded. This year’s shoe collections are robust with minimalist models that promise a barefoot running experience—better form, less injury, more fun—that is realistic only for some. There are deeper ranks of runners who want the benefits but need at least some protection from the asphalt.

This user-friendly guide is intended to shed some light on the design and thought behind the new models populating today’s minimalist shoe category. These shoes vary in purpose, materials and construction of lasts, but the key components that gauge the severity of the shoe are the light weights, amount of “drop” from the heel to the forefoot, and thin (or non-existent) midsoles. Traditional running shoes typically measure a 12mm to 16mm difference in heel-to-forefoot height. Some minimalist shoes have moved down to the “zero drop” level with little or no midsole, meant to offer a simulation of running through the jungle without the fear of cutting your feet.

We have also sought advice on the mechanics of making the transition to a minimalist running shoe. There is one key point here uttered many times over, and that is in regard to patience and gradual adaptation. This especially applies to individuals who have been running in heavy-duty shoes and have tender feet and weak tendons and ligaments. Just as it takes someone new to running to adapt to the stress of pounding the pavement, going to a minimalist shoe almost always requires a cautious approach of progressive exposure. Otherwise, the very injury you may be hoping to avoid could strike with alarming speed.