Barely There: 4 Minimal Running Shoes Tested

Before the Nikes, before the breathable, antimicrobial running shorts, before the personal fitness coaches, heart-rate monitors, wrist-mounted GPS and subscriptions to Runner’s World, you were a runner. And, like all children, you ran barefoot.

Now, a small but growing body of research suggests that barefoot is the way adults should run, too. The most dedicated athletes have been shucking the high-tech trainers in favor of totally naked feet.

But the rest of us have settled into one of a handful barefoot-style shoes, or something in between — so-called minimal shoes that marry the feel and fit of a low-drop shoe with a little more cushioning and protection.

We've tested several kinds here. For the hard-cores, there are the new Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS, an update to the famous toe shoes that add a few new tweaks for comfort. In the minimal category, we looked at the New Balance Minimus for road runners and the Keen A86 TR for trail runners.

Finally, we tested the Merrell Barefoot shoes, which come with a companion iPhone app to help you train. By the end of the app's 40-day regimen, you'll be able to run a mile in these shoes, which are the closest things to no shoes at all.

Whether you're a barefoot devotee or new to the phenomenon, check out our picks.

Keen A86 TR Trail

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Keen A86 TR Trail

These off-road runners from Keen fit into the middle ground between heavier, more-rugged trail shoes and thin-soled, lightweight "barefoot" shoes, bringing a more-minimal profile to trail running.

They have an airy mesh upper that helps the shoe stay light (a svelte 8.5 ounces for my size 10.5 dogs) and allows excess heat and moisture to escape during warm-weather runs. The footbed is just soft enough to be comfortable without sacrificing tactile sensation. The polyurethane midsole is also noticeably soft. The cushioning feels great just walking around, riding the line between pillowy and supportive.

The 3-mm multidirectional lugs on the outsole don't look overly aggressive, but they maintain traction on loose dirt and gravel, and they even held firm when I was whipping around some muddy downhill switchbacks.

You can't have everything, though. The shoe's light weight and soft feel come with a price: There's no rock plate. If you step on an especially pointy rock, you're going to feel it. And you're going to swear. —Billy Brown

Rating: 8 out of 10

Keen A86 TR Trail Running Shoes, Starting from $66, Yahoo! Shopping


Merrell Barefoot Pace Glove

Merrell Barefoot Pace Glove

If you want to take the shoeless plunge, but you don't want to risk the injuries common to barefoot newbies, where do you start?

Give Merrell's Barefoot Pace Glove shoes a shot — they're designed to strengthen your feet, arches and calves, training you to reshape your form with the end goal of running barefoot. The shoes even come with a free companion app for the iPhone and iPod called, appropriately enough, Go Barefoot. It's designed to take you from a regular runner to a barefoot Brahmin in about 40 days.

The Go Barefoot app slowly guides you towards your goal. You start by walking in the shoe for 30 minutes a day, then move to running short distances, with the ultimate test being a 1.5-mile run.

The Pace Gloves are very comfortable to wear when walking around, but less so when running. Since that sole is only 4 mm thick, you'll feel every rock and twig on the trail. You might also experience sore or tight calves at first, as well as feeling as though your foot is landing too heavily, given the lack of cushioning. —Sara Peschel

Rating: 6 out of 10

Merrell Barefoot Pace Glove Running Shoes, $100, Yahoo! Shopping.


New Balance Minimus

New Balance Minimus

This pair of "transitional" kicks are intended to either ease you into full-on barefoot, or, at the very least, strengthen those arch muscles to avoid overpronation, potential injury or collapsed arches.

At 8.05 ounces per shoe, the New Balance Minimus is light, and they boast a relatively small heel-to-toe height drop of 4 mm. In other words, the sole's thickness is much more uniform front-to-back, which gives your foot a feel that's akin — though obviously not identical — to barefoot.

The mesh upper seemed to hug my arches when I laced them up. Wearing these in the gym during balancing exercises, I was able to feel my arches straining and struggling. And here's a total bonus: There's no need to wear socks, since the inside of the shoe is coated with a sock-liner-like material.

If you're already working towards the barefoot nirvana, it's a nice, affordable middle-ground before the zero drop. —Steven Leckart

Rating: 7 out of 10

New Balance Minimus Trail Running Shoe, $100, Yahoo! Shopping.


Vibram FiveFinger Bikila LS

Vibram FiveFinger Bikila LS

FiveFinger shoes made by Vibram, the poster children of the barefoot-running movement, are as close as you can get to running in your bare feet without having to worry about hookworms and broken glass.

One of the company's newest offerings, the Bikila LS, sports a few features added specifically for distance runners.

The outsole is beefed up with extra padding on high-impact areas like the heel and forefoot to soften the impact of running on concrete, and Vibram has added cushioning in the cuff and the shoe's topline to reduce irritation and pressure on longer runs.

A drawstring closure secures the shoe, which is a distinct departure from the Velcro closures on every other FiveFinger shoe. It makes a big difference — the shoe's cuff opens up wider for easier entry, and the lacing draws the middle of the shoe up around the midfoot. It makes the shoe fit even more snugly than previous FiveFinger shoes I've worn. It's easily the most glovelike iteration of the Five Fingers family. It's also the most comfortable — the soft interior lining and padding make it feel great for just walking around town, as long as you don't mind the occasional pointing and staring. —Billy Brown

Rating: 8 out of 10

Vibram FiveFinger Bikila LS, $100, Yahoo! Shopping.

 

 

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