Minimal running shoes allow runners to feel the trail better than any other category. But they aren’t for everyone. These are the best minimalist running shoes (and who should consider wearing them).
For the runner whose mantra is “less is more” (and owns a dog-eared copy of McDougall’s “Born to Run“), the romance of barefoot running is elevated to spiritual. Though many runners want more support and coverage, there are still plenty of barefoot enthusiasts crushing marathons, ultras, and daily workouts.
This article specifically focuses on minimalist running shoes. We also have separate articles for the best trail running shoes, the best running shoes for men, the best running shoes for women, and the best trail running shoes for women.
A word of advice: Take it slow if you’re new to the world of minimal shoes. Barefoot-curious runners should gradually introduce these shoes into their running routines through short runs. Making the switch too fast can increase your risk of injury.
The Best Minimalist Running Shoes
Best Minimalist Road Shoe: Merrell Vapor Glove 4 — Men’s & Women’s ($80)
With a spot-on toebox, our tester reported back that they “actually fit your feet like a glove … a perfect fit.” At a scant 12 ounces per pair (in a men’s size 10), the Vapors are light and truly minimal. They allow you to feel the road better than any other shoe we tested — right out of the box (but expect to feel stones if you take them off piste).
They roll up small and disappear in a travel bag, making them a great choice for travel. The Vapor Glove is a winner for anyone looking for an all-around multipurpose, minimalist sneaker.
Weight (per pair): 12 oz. (men’s size 10)
Best for: Road running and travel
Shop Men’s Vapor Glove 4Shop Women’s Vapor Glove 4
Best Minimal Trail Running Shoe: Xero Mesa Trail — Men’s & Women’s ($120)
Trails can be more forgiving on the minimal runner. But you’ll still need protection from the debris. Enter the Xero Mesa Trail. Breathable and supportive, the Mesa has a wide toebox for natural toe splay.
The firm 2mm foam rides over a 5mm outsole, taking the edge off the gravel. And the sidewall is welded with supportive bands, connecting the laces to the midsole, allowing you to dial in a fantastic feel for the ground without compromising flexibility.
Even for our barefoot purist tester (who prefers to run sans shoes), the combination struck the perfect balance of cushion, firmness, and that glove-like feel for “barefoot” days on the trail.
Weight (per pair): 16 oz. (men’s size 10)
Best for: Trail running and travel
Shop Men’s Xero Mesa TrailShop Women’s Xero Mesa Trail
Made in the USA: Softstar Adult DASH RunAmoc — Unisex ($140)
Handmade in Oregon, these certainly don’t look like your average running shoe. But they’re extremely comfortable and an excellent choice for minimalists, barefoot aficionados, and travelers (they pack up impressively small and weigh 6 ounces). Once we got over the unusual look of these shoes, we were immediately impressed with how comfortable the RunAmoc was straight out of the box.
The high-quality leather molds to the foot, and the spacious design allows toes plenty of room. Choose between a 2mm street sole or 5mm trail sole and feel good knowing you’re buying a product handmade in the USA. And if you fall in love with these unique running shoes, you can expand from there to the brand’s minimalist sandals, boots, and slippers for the whole family.
Weight (per pair): 6 oz.
Best for: Travel, longlasting trail or road shoes
Shop Softstar RunAmoc
Best Running Sandals: EarthRunner Cadence — Unisex ($99)
Running in sandals is nothing new. McDougall documented the legendary story of a group of Tarahumara runners winning an ultra on recycled tire treads. The Cadence is EarthRunner’s refined take on the tire Huaraches. It comes with a firm 9mm midsole riding over a Vibram outsole, making them great for trail runs.
The result is a very natural feel, with virtually no break-in period. Our tester brought them on a 4-mile rocky climb and liked them so much, he continued on another 6 miles. No rubber guard rails or fancy midsoles. Just a simple webbing heel and ankle strap that is secured with a third toe strap, making it the most comfortable sandal we tested this year (and we tested the big ones!).
You won’t find these at your local running shop. They’re made to order in the brand’s Sonoma County shop. Download the PDF, print it to scale, choose your size and webbing color, and submit your money. The shoes arrive in about a week. If you’re a dedicated barefoot runner who wants to venture out on the trail, they’re worth the wait.
Weight (per pair): 18.6 oz.
Best for: Trail and gravel
Shop EarthRunner Cadence
Road Runs & Workouts: Vibram Five Finger V-Run — Men’s & Women’s ($130)
The shoe that started a movement, Vibram updated the V-Run with perforated uppers for increased breathability. The liner is smooth and rides over a firm rubber outsole, providing just enough protection from the ground. Pull-tabs allow for a more customized fit. Originally made popular during the heyday of “Born to Run,” the Five Finger shoes maintain a strong fanbase and innovative design.
Take heed: It can take time to transition from regular running shoes to barefoot runners. Don’t expect these to tackle your standard loop out of the box. Take time to break them in, mold them to your foot, and ramp up mileage slowly, varying between grass and pavement.
Just don’t be surprised if someone stops you to talk about the toe-defining footwear.
Weight (per pair): 7.5 oz.
Best for: Summer road runs, CrossFit, letting feet breathe
Shop Men’s V-RunShop Women’s V-Run
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Summer Sports: Luna Oso 2.0 Running Sandals — Unisex ($120)
One tester in the GearJunkie crew has been wearing these for the past three summer seasons as her main footwear. That includes short trail runs, light hikes, and climbing approaches. The straps stay on and don’t rub, even after 10 miles! And the soles are ultra-grippy, so you don’t have to slow down much when crossing rivers or running over wet logs.
But it’s worth noting these sandals fit a little different than shoes. In shoes, you want room for your toes; in Lunas, you actually want your toes to go over the edge a tiny bit. This helps with grip and traction. Also, if you’re new to this type of footwear, give your feet time to get used to them. Don’t go out on a big run right away — take it slow and work up to trail running bit by bit.
Weight (per pair): 18 oz.
Best for: Multisport summer adventures
Shop Luna Oso Running Sandal
Minimalist Running Shoe FAQ
Minimalist running shoes aren’t for everyone. Here’s our guidance on common questions for this type of pursuit.
Are Minimalist Running Shoes Good for You?
This is a hotly debated subject among the running community. But the best research-based advice is to use minimal running shoes for only a portion of your training.
A study in the European Journal of Sport Science found that runners benefited from wearing minimal running shoes in training up to about 35% of the time. They found increased strength in the calves and some stabilizing muscles in the feet.
Any training beyond 35% in minimal running shoes did not improve performance.
Running too much, or starting to run too far too soon, in minimal shoes could lead to injury. Vibram, one of the leading producers of minimal footwear, famously settled a $3.75 million class-action lawsuit in 2014. The suit alleged that the brand made for “false and unsubstantiated claims about the health benefits of its glove-like footwear.”
Our advice? If you want to explore minimal running shoes, start with very short runs and be extremely cautious of any new pain. Build up distance very slowly with minimal shoes to allow your body to adapt to the lack of cushion and support.
If in any doubt, consult a doctor or running coach.
How Should Minimalist Running Shoes Fit?
Minimal running shoes should fit snugly but comfortably. Minimal shoes should fit like a good glove. You want them to be snug enough to wrap the foot but have enough room to stretch and move with your foot as it contacts the ground. Don’t buy them so tight as to restrict your foot’s natural movement through your running stride, but they should be tight enough to not move around your foot.
How Long Do Running Shoes Last?
The life of a shoe depends on a variety of factors, including running style, weight, and how often they’re used. But in general, 300 to 500 miles is a good rule of thumb.
So if you run 10 miles per week, your shoes could last 8 months to a year. If you’re logging 20 miles per week, plan on replacing your running shoes every 4 to 6 months.
And if you see excessive wear patterns, holes, tears, or notice a decrease in footbed comfort, it’s probably time to grab a new pair of sneakers.