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(The Gear Loop) - Just because the roads and your local park are packed to the gunwales with runners wearing high-stacked, carbon plate-packing shoes doesn't mean living that cushioned life is always necessarily the best running life. That's where barefoot shoes or minimalist training shoes come into the equation. These clever slithers of footwear deliberately keep things low profile on the cushioning front, aiming to keep your feet in closer contact with the ground to deliver a closer connection with the surface beneath you.

There have been plenty of scientific studies and research conducted to suggest that running barefoot promotes a more "natural" running gait and can reduce the impact on the skeletal system compared to running in typical, heavily-cushioned running shoes. The idea here - and one pointed out by Harvard scientist Daniel Lieberman in his study - is that those running without the safety net of heavily cushioned running shoes tended to change their running style to avoid injury-inducing heel strike. 

VivobarefootBarefoot Trail Running Shoes photo 6

We admit that it's not the solution for everyone, and there are plenty of runners who refute this idea, but if you like the notion of feeling more connected to your terrain and you're willing to take the time to gently ease your way into learning to run barefoot, there are some very strong options out there to help you with that quest ... particularly if you’re planning to take your runs to more adventurous locations. 

We've tested and selected some of the best barefoot running shoes available now including our top pick, which we think will give you one of the best minimal running experiences around. These have been picked for promoting a "barefoot feel", meaning the soles are much thinner than regular running shoes but still protect the bottoms of the feet from puncture injuries. On top of this, the shoe's upper needs to be wide and flat, allowing the feet to hit the ground as they would if completely au naturel.  

The best barefoot trail running shoes

Inov-8Barefoot Trail Running Shoes photo 2

Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V3

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For

  • Sticky, grippy outsole
  • Strong protection from punctures

Against

  • Not the cheapest option
  • Toe box may be narrow for some

Inov-8 is probably best known for its rugged, durable trail shoes and versatile gym-friendly footwear. The Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V3 is a minimal option in the collection that can be used for everything, from pounding trails to hitting PBs in the gym.

There are three colourways to choose from and women's options, all offering the same mesh upper that keeps things nice and breathable. It's one of the most protective barefoot running shoes around, with a TPU toe protector and a lacing system to make sure you get a strong, locked down fit and can hold up on more rocky terrain.

Inov-8's sticky rubber outsoles are also some of the best at delivering top traction and thankfully that's in place here to help make this one of the best barefoot running options at your disposal.

MerrellBarefoot Trail Running Shoes photo 3

Merrell Trail Glove 5

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For

  • Comfortable, locked down fit
  • Offers good protection against trails

Against

  • Best suited for off-road running
  • Be warned: sizes come up large

The Merrell Trail Glove 5 is up there as one of our faves, because it's a shoe you can feel nimble in, yet it offers a solid level of protection against the sort of debris and hazards that running off-road often throws up.

The mesh and TPU upper with traditional-style laces offer a good locked-down fit, while the heel counter and rock plate means you still get a good level of stability and guard against rocks and stones on your trails. Although this makes it less of a purists' barefoot shoe than others on the list.

Merrell adds in antimicrobial agents, which are useful for fighting off the odours, while a Vibram outsole means you get a pleasingly strong level of traction and something that's fit to last as the miles clock up.

Vivo BarefootBarefoot Trail Running Shoes photo 8

Vivo Barefoot Geo Racer Knit

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For

  • Streamlined, light design
  • Grippy outsole for hard surfaces

Against

  • Low on protection for off-road running

Yarp, there are two entries from Vivo Barefoot on this list, but then these guys specialise in that natural naked foot feel. The Geo Racer Knit is perfectly suited to lighter trail running but it's also just as happy eating up the miles on the way into work. That said, we found you can still pick up some speed in them on a mixture of terrain once mastered.

Here, you're getting a spacious, wide upper and traditional laces to offer an accommodating fit, though a very streamlined design and knit upper means it's not offering huge amounts of protection for technical off-road terrain.

Vivobarefoot is big on making its shoes the more sustainable option too, so it's using recycled materials like plastic waste and steers clear from animal products too.

VibramBarefoot Trail Running Shoes photo 7

Vibram V-Run

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For

  • Traction across variety of terrain
  • Stretchy upper
  • Good for running and gym work

Against

  • Erm, look at them

Vibram and its webbed foot-style design approach to barefoot running shoes is arguably the most iconic - and off-putting, in some cases. But with the V-Run, you're getting something that maintains an unmistakable visuals, while being deliberately designed for running in harsh environments.

Some argue that the splayed toes goes against the barefoot mantra of allowing the feet to behave as they would if shod in nothing at all, while others find that having the toes locked in place is slightly more comfrotable and lends itself well to scrambling and climbing situations.

Whatever your stance, buyers reap the benefits of Vibram's latest outsole technology here, which keeps things light but also offers plenty in the way of durability. The V-Run has also been designed to hold up well on smooth and more unpredictable surfaces, while a stretchy mesh upper means you get a secure, snug fit.

The sockliner features an antimicrobial coating to help keep things fresh and you can throw these in the wash (a cold wash, mind) when you've put in some serious miles.

Vivo BarefootBarefoot Trail Running Shoes photo 9

Vivo Barefoot Primus Trail II FG

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For

  • Comfortable insole
  • Nice and light shoe
  • Recycled materials

Against

  • Limited colours available

The latest Primus Trail II FG is constructed from recycled and animal free materials to make it another great eco-friendly barefoot running shoe option from the brand.

It's a pleasingly light, and thin barefoot shoe to help you stay nimble on your feet, with a Ortholite performance insole used to make things nice and comfortable as you pick up or slow down the pace.

A chunky lugged sole means grip isn't a problem and this trail-ready version has more protection from debris than some of the other Vivo models we've focussed on.

These are also part of Vivobarefoot's Revivo program, which means when you think they've seen enough running, you can get them revived and reconditioned so you don't have to spend on another pair.

The Gear LoopBarefoot Trail Running Shoes photo 10

The best barefoot running shoes

Just because the roads and your local park are packed to the gunwales with runners wearing high-stacked, carbon plate-packing shoes doesn't mean living that cushioned life is always necessarily the best running life. That's where barefoot shoes or minimalist training shoes come into the equation. These clever slithers of footwear deliberately keep things low profile on the cushioning front, aiming to keep your feet in closer contact with the ground to deliver a closer connection with the surface beneath you. 

There have been plenty of scientific studies and research conducted to suggest that running barefoot promotes a more "natural" running gait and can reduce the impact on the skeletal system compared to running in typical, heavily-cushioned running shoes. The idea here - and one pointed out by Harvard scientist Daniel Lieberman in his study - is that those running without the safety net of heavily cushioned running shoes tended to change their running style to avoid injury-inducing heel strike. 

We admit that it's not the solution for everyone, and there are plenty of runners who refute this idea, but if you like the notion of feeling more connected to your terrain and you're willing to take the time to gently ease your way into learning to run barefoot, there are some very strong options out there to help you with that quest ... particularly if you’re planning to take your runs to more adventurous locations. 

We've tested and selected some of the best barefoot running shoes available now including our top pick, which we think will give you one of the best minimal running experiences around. These have been picked for promoting a "barefoot feel", meaning the soles are much thinner than regular running shoes but still protect the bottoms of the feet from puncture injuries. On top of this, the shoe's upper needs to be wide and flat, allowing the feet to hit the ground as they would if completely au naturel.  

What to look for in a barefoot running shoe

Ben Le Vesconte, education and run coach at Vivo Barefoot, gives his top tips on going barefoot:

Is it actually a barefoot shoe?

Many minimalist shoes' soles are still thick and inflexible, plus they have toe spring and a bit of arch support. If your goal is to improve your foot health and maximise sensory feedback, go for a wide, thin, flexible and safe (puncture resistant) style if possible.

How important is running terrain?

Very important. If you are sticking to road/grass where it's not too slippery go for the thinnest sole. For trails and off road go for additional grip. 

Socks or no socks?

I find socks are good for moisture management, and tend to choose Merino over synthetic materials. I find wearing socks is cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter however many people love going sockless. I'd say wear the shoes in first before going down this route, though. 

Writing by Michael Sawh.