Barefoot running has been around for as long as humans have been trying to close distances with nothing but their own two feet. It wasn’t until 2009, however, when Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run, was published that this form of running really became popular. The book profiled a tribe of Native Peoples based out Copper Canyon, Mexico that hunted down prey by running them to the point of exhaustion. And the Tarahumara didn’t have a pair of Adidas or Nikes on, just a pair of homemade leather sandals. This story called into question the wisdom of packing inexpensive technologies into our shoes. McDougall argues in the book that the more cushioned sneakers we see today promote heel striking when running and that this type of impact with the road is a leading cause of injury.
Now, coming on a decade after it was first published, the book has left a lasting mark. Athletic companies are still putting out fancy, expensive runners with wild amounts of technology, but on the same token just about every single one of them also has at least one barefoot running or ‘minimalist’ shoe. If you are interested in getting in on this type of running, or you’re an early adopter looking to re-up on a fresh pair, we’ve compiled what we think are the best barefoot running shoes for men.
Rules Of The Road
What You Need To Know
The characteristics of a minimalist shoe are as follows; they’re light, offer minimal to no heel drop, and have a thin if nonexistent mid. The idea here is that more of a direct contact with the road will promote better form, give the runner more energy throughout the training sessions, and in the long run help prevent common running injuries.
Unlike all other shoes, however, you can’t just throw these things on and go run your usual ten miles. If you did, you’d risk serious and lasting injury. Due to the fact that the shoes promote a forefoot-first stride (striking with the front of your foot as opposed to the heel) they demand a level of strength that most people don’t innately have. Running without that strength can mean things as serious as collapsing your arch or getting stress fractures in your feet.
A great way to build these muscles in your foot, ankles, quads, and core is by cycling the shoes into your regular workouts. Throw them on for only a mile or so, then work your way up gradually over time. Running on grass or softer dirt paths can also help you make the transition by avoiding the punishing pavement. While it may seem like a bit of a trivial difference – regular shoes versus barefoot or minimalist shoes – the disparity between the two couldn’t be more pronounced.
Newton Running MV3
Whether running speed workouts on the track or going for more milder runs in the middle of the week, the MV3 is a great choice. Featuring a seamless upper made from ultra light highly breathable fast drying mesh and boasting an anatomical support strapping and lacing system along the forefoot, it’ll keep your foot both secure and comfortable on runs. The shoe’s outsole features a unique high traction mid-foot pattern with 5 lugs for extra grip and a high-density rubber in both the toe and heal. The midsole on the zero drop minimalist runner consists of a second generation technology called Action/Reaction, as well as a biomechanics metatarsal sensor plate and anti-friction antibacterial sock liner. All of this comes together for a ridiculously capable and accessible barefoot runner.
Vibram V-Train Cross Trainer
It is likely you’ve seen these shoes while out on runs or just walks around the city. Yeah, we agree with you, they look really weird. But there is a reason that people throw these oddities on before heading in to train at the gym or out for a run. Weighing just 6.4 ounces they’re incredibly lightweight – offering up all the protection you would hope for with none of the bulk. This is thanks in large part to the tough 2mm EVA footbed, and upper made of just polyester, spandex, and TPU panels. These things combine to make for a flexible shoe that can, thanks to its specially engineered lugs, can tackle anything from a run to a rope climb at your local box.
Merrell Vapor Glove 2
One of the upsides of really pairing down the material you end up using in your shoe is that they get a whole lot more light and breathable. Merrell’s best-selling barefoot runner, the Vapor Glove 2, is a perfect example of that. This zero drop minimalist runner is made specifically for hot conditions. Thanks to an upper made entirely of an ultra-breathable mesh, runners can hit the road something serious while still keeping cool. The vegan outsole made by Vibram features 2.0mm lugs that are just enough to grip the road for a secure and solid stride. And for when you are back from the trail, the shoes are designed to be washable so you don’t have to bring all that stink back with you.
No drop, no problem. The Prio, Xero Shoes’ first real performance shoe, is built to be flexible, capable, and complimentary to the natural motion of your feet. Weighing in at just 7.6 ounces and boasting a super minimalist outsole that is built to flex and bend right along with you – these kicks are just as good for taking on a run as they are for hitting the gym or even slacklining. A larger toe box in the front allows for your feet to spread out, while the proprietary FeelTre sole boasts bi-directional grip and a staggering 5,000-mile warranty. To top it all off, the brand even includes an additional 2mm insert for if you want to tackle some tougher, more rugged trails.
New Balance 20v6 Cross Trainer
It is hard to find anything wrong with this shoe. Featuring only a 4mm drop, it is just about the most natural fit you’ll get out of a pair of runners from New Balance. The upper is made from a combination of synthetic materials, mesh, and a TPU reinforcement for a long lasting running life. The Asymmetrical foam collar along with the burrito tongue makes for a seamless and comfortable fit with or without socks. For protection from the pavement and more unforgiving trails, the Minimus uses a specially redesigned sole from Vibram that is built to increase your traction without putting you out of position or in an unnatural stance. And to add that last bit of responsiveness and protection, New Balance also threw in their REVlite midsole to help ease those transitions.
UA Threadborne Slingflex
Among the most paired down in Under Armour’s line of running shoes, these kicks straddle the line between a straight minimalist shoe and your traditional runner. With just a small 10mm offset, they don’t meet the specifications of being your traditional minimalist shoe, but they do offer a much more pared back approach when it comes to approach and styling. The upper is made from Dyneema, one of the strongest and most flexible fibers in the world, making it both incredibly responsive to every foot strike and breathable while out on the hot road. The outsole on the shoe is only made to cover higher impact areas on the shoe so as to save on weight and keep you running for longer.
Brooks Pureflow 6
Here’s another pair of shoes from a larger athletic brand that doesn’t quite land fully in the category of a barefoot or minimalist shoe but has all of the right components to it. Weighing just 8.9 ounces and featuring an upper designed to give the runner a smooth and sock-like feel, the shoe is designed to all but disappear when you start out on your run. A rounded heel on the back of the shoe provides for better alignment while running – effectively taking a lot of stress off the joints, while the DNA LT cushioning midsole takes some of the stress of impact away from your feet. For a more natural feel, the outsole is designed to flex and bend four different ways – so you can get the right feel with all the protection.
It is hard to find a minimalist running shoe more technically capable than the Phase from Skora. Thanks to a seamless no sew upper with 360-degree reflectivity, runners can stay seen and avoid hot spots even when on long runs that go into the evening or start out in the early morning. And at just 7.2 ounces? The shoes feel like they are barely there. The outsole on the shoe is made from a special injected blown rubber that provides real protection while also promoting better running posture and allowing for a natural ride. Because why stop there, the Phase also boasts a smart lacing system that puts the laces and tongue along the outside of the foot as opposed to right along the top.
Saucony Marl Kinvara
While this runner may have a 4mm drop to it along with a substantial mid, this shoe’s incredible lightweight and stripped down approach makes it more than worthy for consideration for those who are flirting with the idea of purchasing a pair of minimalist running shoes. Weighing in at just 7.9 ounces, boasting a special Everun cushioning that makes for smoother foot strikes and takeoffs, runners will get the best of both worlds. The upper along the shoe uses a super lightweight FLEXFILM which provides for more support along the midfoot without adding too much heft to the actual shoe. For more of a natural ride, the outsole of the shoe is made to be flexible and forgiving while also providing protection from even the toughest roads.
Asics Gel Fuji-Lyte
This is just about the closest that you’ll get from Asics when it comes to a zero drop shoe. This low profile minimalist runner has all it takes to conquer trails while promoting a more natural stride. The mesh upper on the shoe is built to be incredibly breathable and responsive to your movements, as is the midsole – fitted with a special Rearfoot Gel cushioning system built to dampen shock on foot strikes and smooth out transitions. And thanks to the reversed lugs on this outsole, runners can rip both up and down steep trails towards the finish line. One thing to keep in mind when getting these shoes is that they are built for racing. That means that it will not be too forgiving if you get a half size or so off when ordering. Measure twice, order once.
Nike Free RN Motion Flyknit
McDougal’s book threw a lot of shade at Nike. The Free silhouette was their response. The shoe is built to be as natural as they can get. With the famous Flyknit upper paired with Flywire cables along the midfoot for a solid and even fit, they are snug from the starting gun to the finish line. The form fitting nature of this shoe doesn’t stop there. The Auexetic tri-star partnered outsole is designed to expand and contract in every direction as you step and move throughout your run. For cushioning on foot strikes, the brand threw in a special dual density foam that is lighter under the forefoot and more firm along the heel. All things said it is a stand out shoe well worth your attention.
Like most other runners you’ll see on this list – the Altra Escalante boasts a lightweight minimalist construction that makes use of a seamless and breathable upper. What makes this shoe different, however, is that it combines its special Altra Ego midsole with a zero drop design – bringing runners both comfort and a more natural fit. Weighing just 8.2 ounces and featuring a minimal application of an outsole along the bottom of the shoe, it only brings the necessary parts of the equation so you can worry less about weight and more about setting that new PR you’ve been working towards all year.
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