Gear Guy

Q:

What Are the Most Minimal Minimalist Running Shoes I Can Buy?

I like barefoot and minimalist running shoes, but the ones I’ve tried feel too constrictive. What’s the very least I can get away with?

What Are the Most Minimal Minimalist Running Shoes I Can Buy?
A:

We just tried out a new—and seriously minimal—minimalist shoe, aggressively touted as "the only barefoot shoe that deserves the name." And we liked them.

At first, it isn't really clear how they fit on your feet. They don’t even seem to adhere to the definition of “shoe.” The $120 Freeheel Runningpads are trail running footwear that you strap to your forefoot. There is no heel at all. Except for that, they resemble the running sandals of the famous Tarahumara tribe of northwestern Mexico: open on top with a leather strap that holds them in place between your toes.

The Runningpads weigh less than three ounces each, compared with the lightest FiveFinger models from Vibram (Seeya FiveFingers are 4.8 ounces), making these by far the most minimal on the market. Available for the first time in the summer of 2012, their German manufacturer Starringer says they “encourage and support the forefoot running technique.” Landing on the ball and toes of your feet is a big concept in barefoot running circles, so the Runningpads’ manufacturer is certainly hoping these find a niche.

After the jump, we’ll get down to the special ordering procedure, whether you'll feel comfortable wearing them in public, and the good stuff—the running.

Freeheel Runningpads: Ordering

The Freeheel Runningpads are “running reduced to the most necessary,” according to the Germenglish in the small leather goods manufacturer's brochure. It goes on to say, "This idea of naturalness, reduction, and sustainability is fully committed to the continued choice of materials and fabrication routes."

It sounded good to us. To order the shoes, you have to put a piece of a paper on the floor, then trace around your foot, as I did above. Old-school.

Freeheel Runningpads: Getting Them On

When the Runningpads arrived in the mail, I was a little confused as to how to put them on. There’s no heel, just a strap that keeps them snug on your foot. When I finally got them strapped in, my wife said I looked like Mr. Tumnus from The Chronicles of Narnia. Most of the product is made from amazingly soft deerskin, a common material for the German maker. Apparently, the deerskin on the bottom is dyed with some kind of natural wood dye as well. There are elastic nylon straps, and a grippy stripe across the bottom to hold your foot in. A thin layer of padding around 1/8-inch thick could be felt in the sole.

Freeheel Runningpads: The Run

For me, the Runningpads were minimalist running the way I’d always imagined it. In three runs around four miles each, these weird deerskin half-shoes gave me that feeling of connection to the ground and an appreciation for smooth running mechanics. They let your toes splay out and grip the ground. The sound they make was “pad, pad, pad”—probably a result of the layers of deerskin compressing against each other. The natural outsole held onto wet, mossy rocks surprisingly well. I thought I’d get a lot of small pebbles lodged in between my foot and the shoe, but I didn’t. I can’t wait to try them in frozen slush.

The only problem I experienced was some pain from the strap between my toes. After a few runs, however, that little notch of skin toughened up and the problem went away. As to wear, I have a good many more miles to put in before I can say how well they hold up.

Every runner has a different style. I am more of a mid-foot striker: I touch my heel with every footstrike, but with little force. For me, the “pads” worked well. I need protection in the forefoot where the brunt of each footfall arrives.

There’s no way I would run completely barefoot on most New England trails, what with the untidy layers of pokey sticks, roots, and pebbles lurking behind tufts of grass. A forefoot strike on anything like this typically elicits long strings of expletives echoing into the hills. But on a few glorious late summer runs last week, the Runningpads protected both my feet and the sensitive ears of woodland creatures.

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