Barefoot running has become a hot fitness trend thanks to evidence that it can reduce injuries and strengthen feet. But ironically, many "barefooters" prefer to keep their feet covered. Fear of injuries from broken glass, rocks and other sharp objects inspired the invention of the "minimalist" running shoe, whose essential feature is a thin, tactile and flat bottom that lacks the elevated heel cushion typically found on running shoes. This category — pioneered by Vibram's popular FiveFingers individual-toed shoe-glove four years ago — now includes styles that enclose all five toes together. Hard-core barefooters will scoff at any shoe, even these stripped-down alternatives to traditional running shoes with generously padded soles. But for those who want the benefits of barefooting with some protection, the minimalists have you covered.
TOE SHOESCool looks, less feel
Vibram Bikila LS: Fancy version of Vibram's basic Sprint running toe shoe with a thicker sole and a quick lacing system.
Likes: Extremely comfy and natural feeling. No support mechanisms to detract from "barefoot" flexibility and freedom. The elasticized laces look cool and give a nice custom fit. About 6 ounces in the equivalent of a size 9 (41 in Vibram's sizing).
Dislikes: If, like me, you're used to the Vibram Sprint (the category standard), you'll notice significantly less ground feel in the Bikilas due to a thicker rubber outsole and polyurethane insole than leaves you about 7 millimeters off the ground.
Price: $100. (978) 318-0000; http://www.vibramfivefingers.com
Inov8 EvoSkin: One-piece toe shoe made entirely of silicone that's 31/2 mm thick.
Likes: The best ground feel of any minimalist shoe reviewed here — even better than my Vibram Sprints. You notice every little change in road texture, as if barefoot, yet you're protected against all but the sharpest road debris. A dimpled texture on the inside of the sole allows air flow, keeping feet surprisingly sweat-free. The adjustable strap allows good fit. Each shoe weighs 6 ounces. Comfortable, although the shorter-toed Vibrams fit my blunt foot better.
Dislikes: Durability is a big question mark. I saw no wear in three runs, but I fear the soft silicone will not hold up as well as a rubber sole.
Price: $65. (508) 480-8856; http://www.inov-8.com
Fila Skele-toes: Casual walking/running neoprene toe shoe with a tough sole and large single pocket for the pinky and fourth toe.
Likes: Quite comfy and quicker to put on than other toe shoes due to the two-toe "EZSlide" compartment. I like the styling. Great for walking — I wore them for six hours in one day while sightseeing in Washington, D.C., on sidewalks, dirt paths and other surfaces. Size 9 shoes weigh 71/2 ounces each.
Dislikes: While you can easily run in them, and there is decent ground feel, Skele-toes feel overbuilt for barefoot-style running due to a substantial arch support and a harder, relatively inflexible sole. For this reason, Fila does not consider them a running product. Also, the neoprene gets quite sweaty when worn without toe socks.
Price: $60 for adults and $55 for kids. (800) PRO-FILA; http://www.fila.com
Merrell Trail Glove: A multipurpose, on- and off-road "adventure shoe" with a mesh upper, 4-mm midsole cushioning and a thin hard-rubber sole (made by Vibram) with a forefoot plate to protect against stone bruises.
Likes: Very good for running and hiking on all surfaces. Quite comfy with a huge, roomy forefoot that lets toes spread wide and a narrow waist that hugs your midfoot. Great ground feel for a shoe — just a notch less than with the Bikila. Shoes weigh 7 ounces in size 9. While simply not as "barefoot" as the Bikila and the Evoskin, these can probably take you to far rougher places.
Price: $110. (616) 863-866-5500; http://www.merrell.com
Barely there lightweight
Somnio Nada: Stripped-down 4-ounce shoe with mesh upper and foam rubber sole.
Likes: A great "barefoot" street shoe — even better than Merrell's Trail Glove. So light it almost feels like you're wearing nothing (after all, they call it Nada). With a 6-mm midsole and no real structure, it's essentially a sock with a super-flat sole.
Dislikes: It's too delicate for off-road surfaces and won't last long on pavement either. Two small pieces of hard rubber at the ball of the foot and the heel aren't enough to prevent the foam-rubber bottom from wearing out very quickly. They should have been made with a thin Vibram sole.
Price: $80. (831) 688-7861; http://www.somniorunning.com
Not minimus enough
New Balance Minimus: A lightweight shoe designed to marry flat, barefoot positioning with a conventional feel.
Likes: It's light for a normal running shoe, at 81/2 ounces in size 91/2.
Dislikes: It's uncomfortable and has poor ground feel, due to an overpadded upper and thick, 3/4-inch sole made of soft rubber formed in odd hexagonal blocks. It made my normal barefoot-style gait clunky and unnatural. The heel is 4 mm higher than the forefoot, causing wearers to lean forward just a tad. This encourages a heel strike, which is anathema to the very idea of barefoot running. In fact, the sole has a hard-rubber impact patch on the heel, strange for a shoe designed to teach you to run with a "barefoot-style forefoot landing."
Price: $99.95. (800) 343-1395; wwwnewbalance.com
Wallack is the author of "Run for Life" and "Bike for Life."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times