Since the beginning of time, running has been the marker of a man’s athletic potential. Dated way back when we were cavemen who hunted for food, it was our running prowess which allowed us to survive. Running was and is essential to our lives then and now.
Then, running became an official sport and all kinds of activities that put anyone’s running to the test were put in place: sprints, marathons, relays, etc., These were all designed to measure power in terms of speed. Then it became even more complex with the advent of a trend that was deemed as barefoot running.
I first encountered this when I was going on vacation with my family on the beach and one of my cousins were wearing these web-like shoes on his feet. They were five-toe shoes and seemed to be less cushioned than your average running wear.
We had a run at the shore and he conquered the sand like it was nothing. They were minimalist shoes which were considered a barefoot running shoe, a bit different to your traditional running shoes.
This triggered my curiosity, as I’m always interested in tips to become a better runner and when we got back, I started researching barefoot running. That’s when I discovered how this kind of running shoe was claimed to be for midfoot running and those who want more stability and lighter feel as they run. Being an avid runner myself, I did not hesitate to try and it posed some advantages and disadvantages for me.
One thing was clear though, without the right pair of shoes, barefoot running wasn’t worth it at all. So I scoured and researched for the best barefoot running shoes today, and I hope the list below would allow you to choose the right pair for you, just in case you wanted to get on the barefoot running trend.
Best Barefoot Running Shoes Compared and Reviewed
#1 - Vibram FiveFingers Men's KSO Evo
If you have been into barefoot running for a while now, and even if you’re not, you would probably have heard of the brand: Vibram. They have a lot of variety and are considered one of the pioneers of barefoot running so they’ve made some exceptional styles throughout the years. One of their iconic ones was the Vibram KSO.
This was popular for a time but after a while, their patrons were starting to look for more improvements. That’s when the FiveFingers KSO Evo came to be. Basically, they took all the good stuff from the original KSO and added more innovation and more features that would be beneficial to any barefoot runner.
What I like about the KSO Evo is that its design is for those who are just starting out with barefoot running and those who have been barefoot runners for a long time. That’s how versatile this product is. I also like how this shoe has found the middle ground between being able to feel the ground surface but provide enough protection so that you don’t end up with callouses or any foot injury.
The sole thickness of the KSO has very minimal construction and you may find this to your liking or not. I personally find this a good feature, as what is barefoot running all about but running with the thinnest, lightest pair you have?
In the midsole, you’ll find that it’s made with EVA rubber: this is Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate which is an elastomeric polymer, a plastic that has the properties of rubber. Imagine this on your midsole and you would have just enough protection flat and mid-terrain.
For the upper part of the shoe, you’ll find the same technology used for other all other popular Vibram shoes. They incorporated a polyester mesh which I like because it provides a lot of comforts while it encases your foot perfectly. There’s also a lace-up system that I find very useful to have that snug fit for the whole shoe.
It’s also one of the most breathable barefoot running shoes because of its use of the polyester mesh. This material allows air to move in and out of the shoe easily, providing a lot of coolness especially for runners in the warmer parts of the world. On the other hand, snow and rain can also easily penetrate the mesh, so it would be better to check the weather before your run.
In terms of being lightweight, the KSO Evo takes the cake. It’s about 5 oz for a size 10 shoes and that’s very light. Which for me, is the essence of barefoot running. This is easy to lug around when you’re traveling, as it can easily be folded or rolled.
On the other hand, because of its minimum construction in the outsole and midsole, you will probably feel almost everything on the surface. Now, this may be a good thing for you or a cause of discomfort. But it’s one thing you should look at, and if you’re looking to find a more cushioned pair, I wouldn’t recommend the KSO Evo for you.
#2 - Merrell Men's Bare Access XTR Sweeper
Merell’s seen how many plastic cups, wrappers, and other waste materials are left to be swept after every race and they found a way to recycle and use those materials to create the Bare Access XTR Sweeper— hence the name.
They searched for the materials in the original Bare Access XTR that could be replaced with recycled plastics, making it one of the most sustainable barefoot running shoes in the market today. The upper part of the shoe, lacing, and counter is made of repurposed, sustainable materials. Also the midsole and the underfoot.
The best thing about it? It doesn’t affect the performance of the shoe at all. I know you’re already loving this as much as I am. Who wouldn’t want to get a pair of nice shoes and still help the environment, right?
The first thing you’ll notice when you wear the Sweeper is how it’s giving you enough feel of the surface. It’s a matter of preference on this one: if you like feeling a bit of the hardness of rocks for maximum barefoot experience, this would be good for you. If you’re iffy on that, then you should only use this for flatter trails.
One thing I like about this shoe is it has incorporated Vibram’s technology into its sole making it a two-for-one value. Vibram’s Ecodura has been included in this design, which is again made of out 30% recycled materials, specifically, industrial rubber. If you like Vibram soles, then you’ll like this, as it delivers the same traction and durability.
Its upper part is made again, out of upcycled plastic turned into a mesh. It allows you to feel more airflow and stretchier. If you have narrower feet than usual though, you might find a bit of room inside the toe space, which I personally find very uncomfortable especially in barefoot running.
The heel counter is made of recycled thermoplastic polyurethane, but the great thing about is, you wouldn’t feel that it’s recycled at all. It has no impact on the durability and still offers that same protection that the original Bare Access XTR had.
The midsole is where it gets really interesting. It’s made out of algae biomass— algae is an organism that is plant-related which grows in water and produces a kind of energy from carbon dioxide and a bit of sunlight. For this shoe, what it does is help clean out a bit surrounding water. This doesn’t mean that your midsole will be disintegrated when you’re running wetter trails.
One of the major things I like about this shoe is how it’s basically made out of all these recycled components but the design, performance, and durability were untouched at all. It goes to show how technology can actually help build sustainable gears like the Bare Access XTR Sweeper and still give you the best performance possible.
Personally, I like how the Sweeper has a flexible sole, and it grips on the surface each time as if it was always a new rubber. You have to keep in mind though that while it has great traction, it’s not the best shoe you can use for muddy or icy terrain. But the grooves of the shoe will ensure your performance on mid terrain.
#3 - Saucony Kinvara 9
A cult classing from Saucony, the Kinvara design has been in the market for 9 years now and has continued to be one of the favorite lines of many runners. Kinvara 9 is the model they released to celebrate its 9th year of success.
This shoe is a versatile shoe, perfect for half-marathon races and even some speedwork. It provides great responsiveness but is also light, fast, and comfortable.
Let’s talk about the outsole. One of the major highlights of the Kinvara 9 is how it uses a tri-flex outsole technology which features Strategic Rubber. This is placed not only in the front and back heel area but also in the midsole which a major difference to the older Kinvaras.
I like how they strategically put in the rubber in high-contact areas: which means those parts of the outsole hit the ground consistently. This has allowed more flexibility on the foot. Strategic Rubber has also made the outsole of the Kinvara 9 one of the lightest.
Similar to the Vibram KSO EVO, the midsole of the Kinvara 9 is made out of EVA or Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate, which is one of my most favorite materials, as it makes any shoe extremely lightweight while still providing a great level of comfort. This also allows the midsole to have a lot of flexibility but at the same time still feel very firm on your feet. It finds that balance which results in greater performance.
Another favorite of mine for this shoe is the EVERUN top sole incorporated in the upper midsole area. It definitely adds more bounce and cushioning, which allows more consistent responsiveness even after miles and miles of barefoot running.
On the other hand, the Kivana 9’s rearfoot is made of Flexfilm, another one of Saucony’s technologies that will allow your feet to slide in and fit like a glove in this shoe. It provides a firmer grip and support like no other shoe and the overlays have been engineered to be thin. So while it holds your feet in place, it is still highly breathable and stable.
So, to compare the Kinvara 8 from the 9, the Kinvara 8 had a thicker and more padded tongue, which most runners found to be a nuisance as it lessened grip on the surface and stability. The Kinvara 9 was developed to have a thinner tongue and is almost sock-like in its fit.
Lastly, one of the things that drew me in for this shoe, which I am sure that you will like as well, is that they have variations for the size of the toe box— not a lot but enough to address wide shoe runners or narrow shoe runners. This goes to show how Saucony puts a lot of thought and effort into making shoes that cater to all most runners.
#4 - Topo Athletic ST-2
You may or may not agree with this, I actually don’t know how to feel about it, but Topo has managed to create a shoe that’s for barefoot minimalist running which has features of your regular running shoes.
Topo created the ST-2 to find that balance of being ultra-lightweight while still providing you the comfortability, safety and security like a regular running shoe would. Basically, you feel the surface on your soles, but you won’t be fearful that it might tear into the shoe right unto your skin.
To mimic most barefoot running shoes, the ST2 is generally very low to the ground. It has a thin outsole to give you that barefoot feel but not too thin that you’d feel small rocks under your feet. It provides ample space between the trail and your sole to make you confident in your run as you feel protected. It’s mostly made of carbon rubber material, giving you cushion and traction control.
There’s a tread pattern that allows you a better grip on the surface while still being highly flexible. On the other hand, I found the midsole to be very thin, and you wouldn’t like this if you’re a fan of extra cushioning. You may find that this has minimal support, but should be sufficient for your run. This may not be best for those who are just starting out barefoot running.
In terms of weight, there are variations for men and women: men’s shoes weigh at around 6.8 ounces while women’s shoes are at 5.6 ounces. With its design that keeps features of regular running shoes in mind, these are very light. It’s one of the first things I noticed on this shoe and initially thought that this is perfect for some speed-work.
Another thing I like about this is that you can wear them with or without socks. That’s how comfortable it is. It provides just enough airflow to keep your feet cool. Though it’s not the most stylish of shoes out there, it lives up to its minimal design which is good enough for some.
#5 - Xero Shoes Prio
Xero is a fairly new brand that started designing sandals for running and hiking in 2009. The founders were inspired by “Born To Run”, a book about Tarahumara runners. These are a group of indigenous people from Chihuahua in Mexico and are known for their long-distance running ability.
When that book was released, the owners were inspired to create minimalist running shoes which will provide motion and foot flexibility for distance running.
For the outsoles of the Xero Prio, the first thing that you’ll notice is how the treading was designed with biggers gaps and waves. You’ll find two flex grooves on it as well.
This will tell you immediately how this shoe is built for durability and greater grip on the trail. Both treads and flex grooves are made of FeelTrue rubber which will essentially encourage foot movement and adapt to rougher terrain.
On the midsole, there isn’t much cushioning but enough to provide protection and sufficient to carry your foot. This feature gives a natural feel to the whole shoe. The outsole and midsole both work hand-in-hand to provide a great surface feel and response.
Its upper part is very similar to other minimalist shoes which mostly mesh. However, Xero shoes are made with minimal use of synthetic material in the overlays. I like how the overlays are somewhat wrapped from the base of the shoe up to the toe box area, which is an added layer of protection. It also has one of the most naturally-shaped structures to mimic natural foot movement.
It’s a highly versatile minimalist shoe and I recommend Xero to runners who want that natural feel on their foot. I find this is good for anyone who needs to propel themselves while using most of their own foot strength.
My Number One Pick
What Should You Look For in Barefoot Running Shoes
Durability is one of the most important components of a great barefoot running shoe. Imagine that these kinds of shoes are really thin, so it has to be made of topnotch materials in order to be stronger. The Kinvara 9’s are the most durable of this list above.
Weight is also another important factor to look at. An ounce or two doesn’t really make that much of a difference. But to get the full experience of barefoot running, you have to put on shoes that are lightweight.
Vibram takes the cake on this one as well as the Kinvara 9. If you’re a beginner, I would suggest to start off with a slightly heavier barefoot running shoe just to slowly transition you to it.
Drop refers to the height difference between the heel and the toe of the shoe. This is usually measured in millimeters. Drop is to ensure that you are running as comfortably as you can. The shoe’s drop allows more cushion in your heels and reduces stress on your sole and calves.
Frequently Asked Questions About Barefoot Running Shoes
Q: Will barefoot running hurt my feet?
A: Yes and no. And this all boils down the shoes that you’re wearing, as well as your level as a barefoot runner. The major difference of barefoot running to traditional running is that in barefoot running, you learn to run while landing on your forefoot or toes, while traditional running lands you on your heels.
Of course, the transition from these two types of running will cause discomfort and some pain not only to your foot but to your knees and legs as well. As an intermediate barefoot runner, the one thing that could cause you pain would be your shoes.
Q: Will my feet be calloused from barefoot running?
A: Adjustments, as I’ve mentioned, will be part of your transition from traditional running. You’ll be getting a few blisters here and there, but these are considered birth pains and are most likely due to improper form.
You’ll actually find that most barefoot runners have exceptionally healthy soles: no blisters, calluses, nada.
Like with any other pair of shoes, it’s very difficult to find the pair that’s right for you which will last you longer and ensure your runs are stronger. The selection out there is endless. If you’re looking for the natural foot movement, you may opt for a Xero pair. If you’re someone who’s looking for a sustainable pair, Merell can offer that for you.
It’s a matter of knowing what you value in your run. Trial and error might be a bit expensive for some, that’s why reading reviews online and asking your running community about features that you are looking for will really help you take that first step. I hope this gave you a bit of an idea about the strengths and features lacking for these shoes.
Let me know in the comments section what you like about barefoot running and which shoes fit well for you. And hey, if barefoot running isn’t for you, check out my post on the best running shoes for beginners so you can do it the “normal” way instead. While you’re here, check out our 17 tips on becoming a better runner, and get started on it today.
Marko Rakic is a trail runner and fitness enthusiast from Sydney, Australia. He is the lead writer for The Ultimate Primate and believes the best way to live a happy life is to take a holistic approach to fitness and health.