August 4, 2018

10 Best Barefoot Running Shoes: Reviews, Ratings & Comparisons

best barefoot shoes

Has it ever occurred to you how recent the wearing of shoes actually is in terms of the countless millennia of human evolution? A tiny fraction, right?

Now take that thought further by considering the ever-growing list of foot and limb problems we shoe-wearing primates suffer from in the 21st century. Could there perhaps be a connection?

The increasing numbers of ‘barefoot runners’ would certainly argue that there is. Read on to find out what’s behind the barefoot running movement… 

Image 
Product Name
Type of Shoe
Colour Options
Price Guide & Amazon Rating
View Product
Saucony Men’s Kinvara 7 Running Shoe

Saucony Men’s Kinvara 7 Running Shoe

Running Shoe

10 Options

$$$

Vibram Men’s KSO EVO Cross Training Shoe

Vibram Men’s KSO EVO Cross Training Shoe

Cross Training Shoe

Black/Red, Black, Blue/Black, Gray/Black

$$

Merrell Men’s Vapor Glove 2 Trail Running Shoe

Merrell Men’s Vapor Glove 2 Trail Running Shoe

Trail Running Shoe

Racer Blue/Bright Green, Black/Castle Rock, Gray/Spicy Orange, Dark Orange, Folkstone

$$

Xero Shoes Barefoot-inspired Sport Sandals – Z-Trek – Men

Xero Shoes Barefoot-inspired Sport Sandals – Z-Trek – Men

Sport Sandal

Mocha/Coffee, Multi-blue, Charcoal/Coal Black, Charcoal/Patriot Blue 

$$

Xero Shoes Casual Canvas Barefoot-inspired shoe – Men’s Hana

Xero Shoes Casual Canvas Barefoot-inspired shoe – Men’s Hana

Canvas Shoe

Black, Brown/Black, Black/Rust, Sand/Chocolate

$$$

YALOX Women’s and Men’s Barefoot Water Shoes

YALOX Women’s and Men’s Barefoot Water Shoes

Water Shoe

25 Options

$

Vivobarefoot Gobi II Men’s Classic Desert Boot

Vivobarefoot Gobi II Men’s Classic Desert Boot

Desert Boot

Black/Hyde, Ox Blood

$$$$$

Vibram Women’s KMD LS Cross Training Shoe

Vibram Women’s KMD LS Cross Training Shoe

Cross Training Shoe

Grey/Black/Pink, Black

$$$

Merrell Women’s Glove 4 Trail Runner

Merrell Women’s Glove 4 Trail Runner

Trail Running Shoe

Black, High Rise, Aleutian, Very Grape/Astral Aura, Persian Red

$$$

New Balance Women’s WT10V4 Trail Shoe

New Balance Women’s WT10V4 Trail Shoe

Trail Running Shoe

Black, Dragonfly

$


What is barefoot running?


You may well have gazed in wonder at television footage of the legendary indigenous barefoot runners who leap effortlessly like gazelles over rocky terrain.

By contrast, our modern running shoes seem cumbersome and awkward and we may ponder wistfully on the wonderful freedom that running barefoot would offer.

Barefoot running is claimed to be an excellent way to improve your running posture, efficiency, speed and foot strength, though it’s clearly not for everyone and needs careful a transition period.

The structure of the foot is infinitely complex with your feet having 25% of all the bones and joints of your whole body.

This myriad of bones and ligaments is designed to move, to bend and to flex in a particular way and don’t cope well when that natural movement is restricted or altered.

Added to that, there are more nerve endings in the soles of your feet than anywhere else in the body except lips and fingertips, making them hypersensitive.

Followers of the barefoot running movement believe that the foot’s complexity and super-sensitivity is not assisted by the advanced technology and materials in modern running shoes but hampered by them.

They claim that ‘natural’ running helps to reduce the risk of damage caused by today’s highly technical running shoes, such as repetitive stress injuries caused by heel strike. Furthermore, they believe that the tendons, muscles and ligaments of the foot become stronger and allow the runner to develop a more natural gait.

Better yet, barefoot runners point to evidence that the more anatomically correct way of moving lessens the onset of the typical runner’s conditions: Achilles pain and plantar fasciitis.

Barefoot runners ask the question: ‘What would be better for your foot, a shoe that elevates your heel unnaturally and is stiff and inflexible or one that lets your foot flex, bend and move naturally and actually feel the ground beneath?’

Almost every positive has a negative, of course, and the lack of protection from impacts with rocks, glass or thorns is a significant consideration.

Another factor to note is the long adaptation phase needed when you switch from wearing running shoes to barefoot running as the muscles and ligaments adapt to the change in gait. 

What are barefoot running shoes?

It’s a surprising fact that running-specific shoes were unheard of until the mid-Sixties. Prior to that, generic sports shoes fit the bill.

Gradually, the burgeoning science of biomechanics started to influence the design of running shoes and these days there are shoes for every type of gait and for different types of running: track, trail, road, etc.

Devotees of barefoot running argue that, rather than assisting our gait and protecting our feet and limbs from injury, modern highly-technical running shoes actually weaken them.

Their belief is that a snugly-fitting shoe, with cushioned insole and outsole, an unnatural ‘drop’ from heel to toe and often with a rigid shank in the midsole, acts like a type of ‘plaster cast’ by preventing the foot’s natural movement.

We all know that an injured limb in such a cast becomes weaker over time, so it’s not difficult to appreciate the sense of their argument.


Less Impact?


The fact is, when you run barefoot, the front of your foot naturally tends to lands first, lessening the impact on heels, ankles, knees and hips.


By contrast, running shoes are designed to encourage heels to hit the ground first, thereby maximizing the concussion absorbed by the foot and joints. No wonder that repetitive stress injuries are so common in runners.

In a perfect world, then, to be kind to our feet and limbs we should all run barefoot, as our physiology is designed that way.

Since running barefoot is impractical in most places in the modern, urbanized world but clearly beneficial, a few forward-thinking footwear manufacturers have created running shoes which make you feel like your feet are bare.

At the same time, these shoes minimize the chance of discomfort from running on uneven surfaces like gravel or injury from encounters with shards of glass, etc.

The best barefoot running shoes (also known as minimalist running shoes) are lightweight and designed to keep your feet snug and protected.

They also allow the foot’s complex structure to function naturally, chiefly by featuring a ‘zero drop’ from heel to toe which encourages a forefoot or midfoot strike. 


Are barefoot shoes just for running?



Absolutely not! The restriction of the natural movement of the foot and the resultant physiological problems which develop over time are not just caused by running shoes.

Modern hiking shoes and boots are just as guilty of causing damage to feet and limbs by denying the foot its natural range of movement.

Even traditional sandals, which many people might consider to be the closest thing to going ‘barefoot’ have design features which are, in truth, not foot-friendly.

It’s not only adults who might benefit from barefoot shoes. Many parents are now looking into the idea of barefoot shoes for kids as they’re becoming aware of the negative effects of traditional footwear on rapidly growing feet and limbs.

We’ve reviewed a selection of barefoot shoes for other purposes, so you can get an idea of some of the best barefoot minimalist shoes on the market. 

Barefoot Running Shoes vs Minimalist Running Shoes

It’s easy to get confused between these two. You’ll often see the same shoe described as both a barefoot shoe and a minimalist shoe which adds to the confusion.

While there are differences, which we’ve explained below, many people use the two interchangeably to mean exactly the same thing – hardly helpful when you’re trying to get to grips with a new concept!

The best barefoot running shoes will give you the closest feel to actually running barefoot while providing the bare minimum in protection from hazards on the ground.

Some styles feature an element of cushioning but many have none and only a very thin layer (perhaps only 3-4mm) under the sole of your foot.


Barefoot



Barefoot running shoes often feature individual toe pockets which, if you’ve seen The Lord of the Ring films, will make you think of Hobbits! Their purpose, though, is to separate the toes and allow them to splay naturally as you move, just as they would if you were truly barefoot.

The most significant feature is the ‘zero drop’ from heel to toe to encourage a forefoot or midfoot strike - you may be interested to know that traditional running shoes typically have a 10-12mm drop.

Barefoot devotees claim that this is equivalent to running in high heels and it’s not hard to see how potentially damaging that could be.


Minimalist


Minimalist running shoes are best described as a hybrid between barefoot shoes and traditional running shoes. They can offer the best route to transition into barefoot running as a kind of ‘half-way house’.

They’re extremely lightweight, with little or no arch support and a minimal heel drop of around 4-8mm. These features encourage a forefoot or midfoot strike but they still offer optimal flexibility and some cushioning.

Minimalist running shoes generally have a roomy toe box which allows toes to splay inside the shoe so enhancing balance and grip. 


What to Look for in the Best Barefoot Running Shoes


Fit


The optimal fit for barefoot running shoes is different to minimalist shoes. With barefoot shoes, unlike with traditional running shoes, you don’t want any extra space in the toe area. Heels and toes should "fit like a glove."

Minimalist shoes, by contrast, should have a roomy toe box, allowing the toes to splay naturally as you run. 

Fastening system


Some styles feature Velcro strap closures while others offer a quick-lace system. Typically, a lace system offers better access, especially for shoes with individual toe pockets for easy on and off, and is generally better for accommodating high arches.

Drop


All true barefoot shoes feature a “zero drop” from heel to toe. (“Drop” is the difference between the height of the heel and the height of the toe.) This encourages a midfoot or forefoot strike.

Traditional running shoes, by contrast, feature a 10–12mm drop from the heel to the toe. Minimalist shoes (which are half-way between traditional and barefoot shoes) generally have a very shallow drop of just 3-4mm. 

Outsole


The best barefoot shoes will have minimal outsoles, made of natural or synthetic rubber, which makes them lightweight and super-flexible and means that you get the natural feeling of running without shoes on.

The level of grip/traction varies depending on the terrain the shoes are designed for, so barefoot trail running shoes will typically feature a more distinct tread pattern to aid grip.

When selecting the best barefoot running shoes for you, make sure you assess the outsole so you can be sure it will have sufficient traction for the type of running you do. 

Protection


Since what you’re aiming for is a feeling as close as possible to running with no shoes at all, the main benefit of barefoot or minimalist shoes is the protection that they offer from the elements and from the ground beneath your feet.

Many surfaces you might encounter when running are uneven, stony or even dangerous with shards of glass on pavements, so these shoes will give some degree of protection.

When running in urban environments, there’s also the inevitable and very unpleasant hazard of dog poop to bear in mind… Depending on the season, barefoot shoes also help to keep your feet warm and dry and allow you to wear socks if you wish for additional warmth.

Breathability


Most barefoot shoes feature uppers made of mesh and TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) materials which are breathable at the same time as being supportive.

Since feet inevitably sweat a considerable amount, especially during intense exercise, this helps keep the foot ventilated and prevents excess moisture from accumulating on the foot.

Breathable uppers also reduce the odors which are an unavoidable and mightily unpleasant consequence of sweaty feet. 

Color options


If looking stylish when you run is important to you, rest assured that you won’t be disappointed in the range of colors and styles on offer to the barefoot wannabe.


10 Best Barefoot Shoes Reviewed


Vibram Men’s KSO EVO Cross Training Shoe

Our Rating

1. Vibram Men’s KSO EVO Cross Training Shoe

The unique styling of Vibram’s FiveFingers barefoot shoes will give you a barefoot-like running experience on all types of terrain so they’re a great option if you like to mix it up and enjoy both road and trail running.

The obvious feature of these shoes is that each toe is snuggled separately into its own pocket which encourages and improves the natural dexterity of the foot. Toes can therefore splay out as they’re biomechanically designed to rather than being restricted by running shoes.

The soles are specially designed with XS TREK technology that provides traction but also durability. You’ll find that they respond well to varied and unpredictable terrain but they definitely take some getting used to. 

Will These Shoes Fit Me?

69%
 Chance of Success

Pros

  • Close contact to ground
  • Flexible and breathable upper
  • Fast-lacing system for easy on/off
  • 4 colorways

Cons

  • Toes can be a little tight
  • Sizing is variable – select half size up or down

2. Merrell Men’s Vapor Glove 2 Trail Running Shoe

Merrell are a tried and trusted footwear manufacturer and they offer a range of products for the barefoot runner. This shoe is designed to feel as close as possible to the natural feeling of running barefoot.

The mesh and TPU upper is breathable and fits securely without restricting the foot. The upper is treated with a patented odor-control treatment to discourage the bacteria which cause those nasty niffs!

The zero-drop, lightweight and super-flexible outsole adapts to the foot and allows your foot to move naturally inside the shoe but gives great traction. Its thinness will give you the desired feeling of being in close contact with the ground beneath your feet. 

Merrell Men’s Vapor Glove 2 Trail Running Shoe

Our Rating

Will These Shoes Fit Me?

72%
 Chance of Success

Pros

  • Breathable and supportive mesh & TPU uppers
  • Odor control
  • Super-lightweight and flexible outsole
  • 6 colorways to suit range of tastes

Cons

  • Some reviewers report problems with durability of the upper
Xero Shoes Barefoot-inspired Sport Sandals – Z-Trek – Men

Our Rating

3. Xero Shoes Barefoot-inspired Sport Sandals – Z-Trek – Men

The designers of these barefoot-inspired sandals ask the question: ‘What if the best shoes you could have for running are not shoes but instead are sandals?’

They’re aiming for the most naturalistic feeling possible, where your feet are actually bare but you still get the protection of an ultra-thin but nonetheless sturdy outsole.

Clearly, this style isn’t for everyone but its versatility makes it suitable for everything from yoga to ultra marathons. To get the best fit you need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to measure your foot. 

Will These Shoes Fit Me?

76%
 Chance of Success

Pros

  • Durable (5000-mile warranty)
  • Naturalistic feel
  • Zero drop
  • Rolls up to fit in your back pocket

Cons

  • No protection for rest of foot, only the sole
  • No ankle support
  • Rather complex fitting system

4. Xero Shoes Casual Canvas Barefoot-inspired shoe – Men’s Hana

For everyday casual wear that will take you almost anywhere, these canvas sneakers are a great way to benefit from the many advantages of going ‘barefoot’ while at the same time wearing cool-looking shoes.

The zero drop from heel to toe encourages anatomically-correct posture and the low-to-the-ground profile makes them great for balance and agility. The canvas upper molds to your foot and the wide toe box means that your toes can spread naturally and relax without any restrictions.

Like all barefoot shoes, these are featherweight and super-flexible and the soles are just 5.5mm thick, allowing you to feel the ground under your feet. You’ll barely know you’re wearing shoes at all! 

Xero Shoes Casual Canvas Barefoot-inspired shoe – Men’s Hana

Our Rating

Will These Shoes Fit Me?

54%
 Chance of Success

Pros

  • 5000 ‘sole’ mile guarantee
  • 4 smart and eye-catching colorways
  • Easy lacing system
  • Lightweight
  • Vegan-friendly

Cons

  • Xero Hana runs small – order ½ size larger than normal shoe size
YALOX Women’s and Men’s Barefoot Water Shoes

Our Rating

5. YALOX Women’s and Men’s Barefoot Water Shoes

These super-flexible, featherweight water shoes are exactly what you need for any water- or beach-based activities - swimming, beach volleyball, sailing, fishing, paddling or just walking on the sand – but also for yoga as they allow feet to grip and flex naturally.

They’re designed to allow toes to articulate naturally without any restriction. The breathable polyester/Spandex uppers are stretchy yet supportive and easy to put on and take off and the rubber outsole is so flexible that you can roll them up.

At the same time, these water shoes are designed to let water drain out as quickly as possible, so they dry very fast. You’ll find that wearing them is just like going barefoot but with the added protection from hazards such as rocks.

When you see the delightful rainbow of colorways available, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose the ones that suit you best. 

Will These Shoes Fit Me?

80%
 Chance of Success

Pros

  • Unisex
  • Fabulous range of colors
  • Protection from hazards underfoot
  • Good traction on solid surfaces
  • Inexpensive

Cons

  • Some reviewers complain that these shoes are not very durable
  • Not suitable for walking a long way

6. Vivobarefoot Gobi II Men’s Classic Desert Boot

Vivobarefoot is one of the top brands on the market for barefoot shoes. Once you start wearing barefoot shoes for sports, you’ll probably find that any traditionally-designed shoe will feel cumbersome and even uncomfortable.

Look no further than these barefoot casual shoes which will give you the perfect balance of function and fashion. The style is simple, with minimal lacing, and you can choose from supple leather or suede uppers, both with flexible, textured rubber outsole.

You can be sure that you’ll be looking good at the same time as treating your feet kindly and allowing them to move in the most natural way. 

Vivobarefoot Gobi II Men’s Classic Desert Boot

Our Rating

Will These Shoes Fit Me?

73%
 Chance of Success

Pros

  • Flexible synthetic outsole
  • Useful heel-pull
  • Lace-up fastening

Cons

  • Only 2 colors
  • Not vegan-friendly
  • May take time to break in
  • Not so good for wider feet
Saucony Men’s Kinvara 7 Running Shoe

Our Rating

Will These Shoes Fit Me?

85%
 Chance of Success

7. Saucony Men’s Kinvara 7 Running Shoe

These consistently well-rated barefoot or minimalist shoes are not only a great introduction to barefoot running but they also come in a very wide range of eye-popping color combos which will please anyone who has an eye on style as well as optimal functionality.

These lightweight Kinvara 7 shoes feature a flexible outsole and removable insoles that’ll support you through daily training runs and also more up-tempo runs too.

They’re suitable for both advanced ‘barefoot’ athletes but also for work well if you’re starting out on the transition from traditional running to barefoot.

The upper mesh material is overlaid with a thin flexible film which adds to the secure snug fit. The film is hot-melded onto the shoe, so there’s less stitching and less chance of any rubbing. 

Pros

  • Specially designed collar prevents moisture build-up
  • Heel inserts for added comfort
  • 7 colorways

Cons

  • Discontinued (still available on Amazon)
  • Quite heavy for a barefoot running shoe
Vibram Women’s KMD LS Cross Training Shoe

Our Rating

8. Vibram Women’s KMD LS Cross Training Shoe

These cross-trainers are ideal for road and trail running but also for general fitness uses inside the gym and out, so they’re really versatile. The polyester-mesh upper is great for keeping feet ventilated and is also lightweight so helps with that ‘barefoot’ feel.

The zero drop outsoles are really durable and offer excellent traction in varied and challenging terrain.

They’re machine washable, so easy to keep clean and odor-free, no matter how muddy the terrain you’ve been through or how sweaty your hard-working feet get!

The trademark five-finger design takes a little getting used to and it’ll definitely be a talking point but it’s worth persevering to get the benefits from these barefoot running shoes.

Will These Shoes Fit Me?

76%
 Chance of Success

Pros

  • Lightweight and flexible
  • Machine washable
  • Versatile – suitable for many different activities
  • Vegan-friendly

Cons

  • Sizes run large

9. Merrell Women’s Glove 4 Trail Runner

You can expect maximum performance from these minimalist shoes from Merrell. They fit snugly to the foot like a sock. They still manage to achieve a barefoot feel as they’re super-lightweight and the uppers are breathable mesh.

They offer protection from the harsh off-trail conditions since they feature the superior underfoot protection of Merrell’s unique Trailprotect pads under the midfoot.

The Vibram rubber soles are great for stability. The roomy toe box allows toes to splay in the way they’re designed to.

They’re a very popular choice for barefoot trail running as they perform really well in terms of protection but they’re also reasonably priced, so we reckon that they’re worth the splurge if minimalist shoes are what you’re looking for. 

Merrell Women’s Glove 4 Trail Runner

Our Rating

Will These Shoes Fit Me?

83%
 Chance of Success

Pros

  • Vibram rubber outsole
  • Trailprotect midsole pad
  • Reasonably priced

Cons

  • Some reviewers complain of the product looking and feeling ‘cheap’
New Balance Women’s WT10V4 Trail Shoe

Our Rating

10. New Balance Women’s WT10V4 Trail Shoe

These low-cut, barefoot-friendly running shoes from New Balance feature a REVlite foam midsole which is significantly lighter than the standard performance foam used in their normal running shoes.

They also have a super-flexible synthetic rubber outsole designed by Vibram so they won’t let you down when the going gets tough out there on the trails. The mesh uppers will keep your feet ventilated and cool and the no-sew construction lessens the chance of rubbing and therefore blisters.

They’re true to barefoot principals with a minimal drop from heel to toe. These are minimalist-style running shoes which may help you to transition from traditional running shoes to barefoot running. 

Will These Shoes Fit Me?

75%
 Chance of Success

Tips for Adapting to Barefoot Running

Let’s keep this simple and therefore, hopefully, memorable!

  • 1
    Build up slowly
  • 2
    Keep your strides short
  • 3
    Listen to your body
  • 4
    Go quietly
  • 5
    Enjoy!
question

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you run faster barefoot than with shoes?


In theory, yes, but we’re not going to make any claims here that you’ll suddenly find yourself up there with Usain Bolt!

The fact is, though, that faster runners tend to land toward the front of their foot instead of on their heel simply because it’s most efficient movement pattern for faster running.

Landing on the ball of the foot or midfoot position prepares you for immediate propulsion forwards as your center of gravity moves ahead of your foot.

If speed is of the essence as far as you’re concerned and if your athletic ability makes running faster than a 10-minute mile a realistic goal, then it’s definitely worth working on a change of technique to become more of a forefoot or midfoot runner.

Barefoot running is a great way to get the feel for this faster style of running because you will naturally favor landing on the front of your foot.

Barefoot running will help you fine-tune your running form and reach a higher level of efficiency. That, in turn, should translate into faster running.

Is it a good idea to wear barefoot shoes for trail running?


There are barefoot trail running shoes out there on the market but it’s a good idea to pay attention to the true roughness of the terrain.

These shoes by their nature are designed to have little mass and minimal soles and there is always the possibility of injury. If you’re used to running with a protective pair of trail shoes, barefoot running shoes will take some time to get used to.

Should you wear socks with barefoot shoes?


That’s really a matter of personal choice and may depend on the season as you can wear barefoot shoes with socks or without socks. You could opt to go barefoot in summer, to wear regular socks in the spring and fall and then go all out for thermal warmth in winter.

Extra warmth, odor deterrence, moisture wicking and blister protection are all benefits of wearing socks.

Is it difficult to adapt to barefoot running shoes?


Most people don’t find the transition difficult but it can take quite a time and it’s not something that can be hurried if it’s to be successful.

Problems can occur if the change is too rapid and it’s very important to make this a gradual process rather than an overnight sensation. The latter will always end in tears.

Remember that you’re not just changing your style of footwear; you’re going to be adapting your limbs to a whole new way of moving which will put entirely different stresses on muscles and joints.

The trick is to be patient and not to think you can go prancing off into the sunset in barefoot shoes without giving your feet and limbs time to adjust.

Are barefoot shoes good for kids?


Since walking barefoot develops the muscles and ligaments of the foot, increases the strength of the foot’s arch and contributes to good posture, then it’s a no-brainer that barefoot shoes for toddlers and kids could be beneficial.

Barefoot devotees would claim that it will protect them from myriad physical problems in later life.

How do you wash barefoot running shoes?


Many barefoot shoes are machine-washable for easy care; always follow manufacturers’ guidelines for precise details of the best way to care for your barefoot shoes.


Conclusion


Perhaps you’re new to the concept of barefoot running. Or perhaps you ditched traditional running shoes long ago and already understand the many physical benefits and sense of well-being it brings. Either way, there’s a wide choice of barefoot and minimalist shoes out there. 

If you’re a newbie, you’ll need to consider the type of running you do and select the best barefoot running shoes to suit you. That might mean starting with minimalist shoes and then gradually transitioning to barefoot running shoes.

Remember that it will take time to adapt physically (and to some extent mentally) to the different way of running. If you’re successful with the transition, though, the chances are that you’ll feel the benefits.

Our advice is: enjoy the freedom, enjoy the fun and enjoy the earth beneath your feet!

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