As a kid, light-up sneakers were all the rage. The more glitz, glamour, and glitter on your feet at recess, the better. As adults, though, the criteria about what makes a good running shoe has a lot more to do with function than flare. Enter: The best minimalist running shoes out there, which have all of the stuff you need and none of what you don’t.
So, uh, first and foremost, what the heck is a minimalist running shoe, other than one that doesn’t have flashing lights on the heel? The Journal of Foot and Ankle Research defines minimalist running shoes as “footwear providing minimal interference with the natural movement of the foot, due to its high flexibility, low heel-to-toe drop, weight-and-stack height, and the absence of motion control and stability devices.” So basically, they’re the shoes that make it feel like you’re running barefoot. The idea is that the less shoe you’ve got between you and the ground, the better the experience.
“Minimalist shoes provide little to no support in the arch, heel, and ankle and often are very light in weight,” Rich Velazquez, Coach and COO at Mile High Run Club explains. “‘Regular’ shoes will provide the support to these areas in varying degrees and can be designed to offset, prevent pre-existing injuries and/or imbalances the runner may have in their landing.”
The principle behind using these no-frills sneaks is sort of a less-is-more situation. “Shoes with too much cushioning or too much ankle support can create limited mobility which in turn cause different types of issues,” Velazquez says. “The body is made to adapt which means we want to make sure we are not performing in too controlled of an environment or certain muscles or connective tissue might get lazy.” However, he notes that it’s smart to chat with a podiatrist or have a gait analysis to ensure that a minimalist running shoe is the right option for you.
While there are undeniably a lot of seriously chic sneaks on the market (thanks, athleisure), choosing the best minimalist one for logging miles—whether outside, on the treadmill, or some combination of the two—should be all about performance and how well it works for you. The best way to pick the right pair? “Your shoes should be comfortable—and there shouldn’t be any areas that feel uncomfortable or need to ‘dramatically’ break in,” says Claire Wood, the Head of Performance Footwear at New Balance. “Your shoes should have room above your longest toe as well. As you build up your running mileage, too small of a shoe can cause blisters or even toenail loss.”
With all of that in mind, there’s still something else you’ll need to consider when selecting the right minimalist running shoe for your stride: Different types of runners need different types of shoes. “Depending on your biomechanics, meaning, the way you run, you will need a different shoe than another runner with very different mechanics,” says Wood. “Also, there are so many options depending on what you crave in a shoe. A lot of cushioning, a very thick midsole or a thin midsole for a lower profile shoe and perhaps sleeker underfoot ride. The upper of the shoes also vary—one could seek more support while another wants a more simple, single construction.”
And before you commit to that #minimalistlife, be sure to test out your shoes in-store and always have another non-minimalist (maximalist?) pair on deck. “We would advise that most runners, especially new runners, get advice from a running specialty shop if they want to transition into full-time use of a minimal shoe,” says Wood. “It can be very beneficial to inter-change use of shoe types during weekly mileage.”
Since running barefoot may not be the best idea (I’m actually cringing just thinking about doing that in New York City), here are six pairs of minimalist running shoes you’ll be excited to lace up.
“I generally only recommend minimalist shoes for those hiking or running on the trails, as the terrain calls for a mobile ankle and the ability to ‘feel’ the surface under you to react properly,” says Velazquez, who’s a fan of these Xero shoes for that very purpose. “I like this shoe because of the bigger toe box, important for when your feet might swell after prolonged time and distance.”
“They’re really close to the ground so great for sprinting or weight-lifting,” says Well and Good News Writer (and avid outdoor runner) Kells McPhillips of these babies, from Brooks. “Plus, they weigh zero pounds.”
“These are designed for both trails and road running,” says Velezquez, who notes that they’re a great pick if you want to “maximize your spending” for something you can use any and everywhere you run.
“I’ve spent way too much money over the years trying to find the perfect running shoe, and I highly doubt I’ll ever cheat on my APLs,” says Well and Good News Writer Tehrene Firman. “They’re incredibly comfortable, always stay nice and snug, and even though I’ve had them for well over a year, they still look and feel new.”
“This shoe is the closest to barefoot NB offers, and can be spotted on everything from the roads, gyms, and aggressive trails,” says Wood. “Other minimal product is often defined as having a lower heel to forefoot offset, in which New Balance offers several models from 0 to 4mm in offset.”
Nike Free RN Fly Knit 2018 ($69)
“These have a barefoot feel with still enough cushioning for those who require it,” says Velezquez. “The knit sock provides more ankle support than most minimalist shoes and for fans of barefoot running, eliminate the need for a sock, and it also works great as a shoe to wear while lifting weights.”
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