I've now been running barefoot for over 3 1/2 months. But I'm not always barefoot. Often I'm in minimalist shoes--shoes that have thin soles, minimal-to-zero cushioning, and no built-up heel. These shoes encourage me to keep my barefoot running form. I've gotten questions about the various minimalist shoes I've tried, so I'm going to write reviews of them here.
1. Homemade huarache sandals (Made by me for under $15 in materials plus the cost of a reusable leather punch.)
(Click the photo for DIY instructions.)
I wear these a lot as casual shoes and even get compliments on them! If you like going barefoot but don't want to be barefoot at, say, restaurants and grocery stores, these are a great option.
However, I've only run in them for a few miles and really didn't love how they felt. Because I used thin leather for the soles, they are a little "floppy." Also it feels a little odd to me, running in sandals. They were secure, but my brain told me they weren't. I may later make them with different soles and try running in them again because sandals are great for summer if you don't like hot feet.
Many people have great experiences using Vibram rubber soles for their huaraches. You can buy Vibram Cherry material on ebay. Or you can buy whole huarache-making kits or pre-made shoes (all with Vibram soles) from Invisible Shoes or Barefoot Ted.
2. Zem Booties (Original Round Toe Low) (Retail about $30)
These Zem booties (which I got free from a giveaway, but was not required to review) are made for beach use, but a growing number of barefoot/minimalist runners are using them. I did walk with them at the beach once and got sand in them; I'd prefer the high-top ones if I were using them often on the beach. (I have skinny ankles, and Zems are unisex, so they didn't fit tight enough to keep sand out.)
I loved running in my Zems!! But I'm not the most gentle runner. I'm working on running with less friction, but I have a lot of room for growth. Because the soles of these are so thin, they started to wear out very quickly. But boy did they feel great to run in--so flexible, plenty of room for my toes, super-thin soles. I particularly liked wearing them with socks, as my feet sweat a lot in them without socks!
Jimmy Hart, a barefoot/minimalist blogger, has suggested using PlastiDip (a paintable coating in Home Depot's paint department) on the bottoms of the shoes. I did get some and used it once, after they had started to wear out, and if I were to get brand new Zems again, I'd use it from the beginning, "repainting" them as needed, to strengthen the soles.
I got a sore spot on my foot that required a little more cushioning for a couple of runs, so I added old sneaker insoles to my Zems. Unfortunately, the insoles were big, and put a lot of stress on the heel seam. The upper separated from the heel on both shoes. Oops. I was going to get more use out of them with PlastiDip, but they're pretty much shot now.
I think Zems are great for runners who only use minimalist shoes occasionally--and even then, I'd suggest painting them with PlastiDip. Or, Jason Robillard suggests on his blog that he might like to get Zems just to use at a race. I think that's a great idea. Many barefoot runners like something on their feet at races so they don't have to be distracted by watching the ground so closely for hazards. At $30 a pair, that might be worth it for a serious racer.
Jimmy (the blogger mentioned above) is working with Zem on a running shoe that will address the sturdiness concerns. The experience of running in Zems is fantastic. They're the most comfortable "running shoe" I've used. that I'm really looking forward to seeing what they come up with when they release a shoe designed with runners in mind!
3. Vibram Five Fingers KSOs (Retail about $85)
Yep, I got the weird "glove shoes" that you may have seen others wearing...Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs)! These are probably the most popular shoe with minimalist runners, even though, as someone at the Barefoot Runners Society pointed out, the black ones look like "teeny tiny gorilla feet." I paid full price for them at REI. (Don't expect to find them on sale; REI is having trouble even keeping them in stock because they're so popular.)
So...why the weird separated toes? Well, our toes aren't really meant to be all squished together inside tight shoes. Your toes can splay and move naturally when they're in VFFs. I'm still trying to decide how much I like the separated toes (as opposed to a single toe box that is roomy, like on the Zems.) I didn't think I'd like the toes, but when I tried them on I found that they're a lot more comfortable than I expected. My toes actually feel, well, cozy in their little separate compartments.
I'm surprised how well these fit my toes, which are pretty short and square. A friend commented that she tried some on, and her toes (which are more rounded) didn't fit well. So VFFs won't work for all foot types, and I definitely suggest going somewhere to try them on instead of purchasing them online, sight unseen.
I've run in my VFFs twice and really like them. Unfortunately, we're having an abnormally warm October, and these feel too warm on my feet. But I think they'll be great once it really cools off. The uppers are made of a very breathable fabric.
There are some seams inside, and one of them chafed me the first time I wore these. I put some medical tape over the area for my next run, and that worked well. I'm hoping as I wear them more the seam will soften and my skin will toughen. (I didn't start feeling the chafing until several miles into a long run.) Overall, though, these are quite comfortable for running, though not as minimalist/flexible as the Zems. And I've ordered some Ininji toesocks for use when it's cold and if I'm dealing with chafing/blistering on longer runs.
Aren't they cute?! I did order plain black ones too, for when I'm feeling less sassy.
Overall, I think the VFFs are a great combination of comfort, minimalism, and sturdiness. The Vibram rubber soles are flexible but very strong I've heard of runners getting 1,000 miles out of one pair! These aren't the cheapest minimalist shoes, but even if I get 600 miles out of them, they're a better deal than many traditional running shoes. And I know they look weird, but I'm wearing them out in public for non-running activities too, because they really are comfy.
Please comment here or email me if you have questions or comments! (If you comment with a question, be sure I have a way to contact you with the answer.) And if you want more info on other minimalist shoes, the Barefoot Runners Society Gear and Footwear forum is a fantastic resource.