It's important to define what a minimalist shoe is; with so many contradicting opinions out there it can be hard to know but there’s a big difference between Vibram FiveFingers and a pair of Nike Frees.
Simply put both barefoot and minimalist running shoes are constructed to allow your foot to work naturally to help you run as efficiently as possible. They do not try to change your foot strike or gait through cushioning or stability, instead offer a small level of protection against debris on the ground.
Where minimalist shoes differ to barefoot however, is in their low profile, offering a smaller heel-to-toe drop than traditional running shoes but more than completely barefoot. Acting as more of a hybrid between the two these running shoes are designed to help runners ease into barefoot running.
There are many factors to look out for, all of which are designed so the runner is able to better feel the ground below:
- Heel-to-toe drop: This is the difference in a shoe's height between the forefoot and the heel. In minimalist shoes look for a heel drop between 4mm and 7mm. Brefoot shoes can be anywhere from 0mm to 3mm. A traditional running shoe can have a heel drop of anywhere between 8mm and 14mm.
- Stack height: This is the total height of the shoe’s sole. The smaller the number, the less cushioning in the shoe and the closer to the ground you are. This can be as little as 3-4mm.
- Toe box: The toe box in minimalist shoes are generally wider to allow room for your toes and forefoot to splay.
- Pronation: Minimal shoes will have no cushioning or protection against over or under pronation. Instead they are completely neutral to encourage a natural movement.
- Lightweight: Low-profile shoes tend to be the lightest running shoes out there.
- Flexible outsole: Barefoot shoes, and some minimalist shoes, can be rolled into a ball without any difficulty; designed to allow your foot to contour to the terrain for extra grip and power.
Barefoot running was reintroduced by the publication of Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run in 2009. He discusses research that found more injuries had been recording since cushioning and support had been added to the shoes citing the Rararumari, the Mexican running people, as an example for wearing a simpler shoe.