At first, they laughed at Vibram's weird ultra-light shoes with the five individual toe compartments. Now, with the barefoot-inspired minimalist tide sweeping the running and workout worlds, competitors big and small are rushing to copy it. Converts rave about the better balance, greater speed and reduced injuries that result from the funny-looking shoes, which enable a lower-impact forefoot landing. As companies experiment with new takes on the concept, they're adding cushioning and enclosures and trying to broaden the appeal to cross-training activities. Here's a quick look at the new minimalism.
Best gets better
Vibram KomodoSport LS: A so-called multi-sport shoe with polyester-mesh upper, a grippy 4-millimeter rubber outsole and a 2 mm removable polyurethane insole that is designed to accommodate extra wide feet.
Likes: Super comfortable for my D-width feet — even more than previous Vibram models. Has similar tactile ground feel as its siblings, with a bit more protection due to the added insole, unique in the line. No other shoe tested here comes close to the LS's ground feel; only real barefooting does it better. As expected, the flat, uncushioned bottom discourages the dreaded heel strike, forcing you to run with a ball-of-the-foot landing. The intricately patterned soles hold turns and lateral movements better than Vibram's pure-running models; I even liked playing tennis in it (although it wouldn't last long on the courts). The cinch-tight "speed" laces allow a custom fit and won't come undone. Weighs 6.5 ounces in size 9, or 5.5 ounces with inner sole removed.
Dislikes: Too minimal for hard trail running. I lasted 10 miles in these on the Himalayan 100-mile Stage Race before my feet were so beat up that I had to switch to regular shoes. The Skora (see below) would have fared better in that environment.
Price: $110. (978) 318-0000; http://www.vibramfivefingers.com
Star Trek worthy
Adidas Adipure Trainer: A "barefoot gym shoe" that combines independent toe pockets, a quarter-inch-high profile and a futuristic-looking sock-like upper with no laces.
Likes: Comfortable and fine for weights, yoga and all gym activities, including running on a treadmill. Very good ground feel in the forefoot and toe regions. The looks are quite attention getting — even more than Vibrams. I loved walking around town in them. Weighs 6 ounces in size 9.
Dislikes: I thought the Adipures were awesome until I put the Vibram Komodo on one foot and felt naked —better balanced, more tactile, more comfy. By comparison, the Adipure's thicker sole and more structured arch support seemed unnecessary and irritating. The longer toe pockets didn't fit my stubby toes as well either (although they may fit others perfectly). Adidas says a dedicated minimalist running shoe probably will be introduced soon. But it may have more padding, not less.
Price: $90. (800) 982-9337; Adidas.com
Fila Skele-toes Voltage: Cushioned toe shoes with foam soles that are 1/2-inch thick in the forefoot and 3/4-inch thick in the rear. If Vibram and the Nike Free had a love child, this would be it. The four-pocket design combines the two small toes in an "EZ-slide" compartment.
Likes: Extremely comfortable due to the wide, natural-shaped forefoot and the roomy toe compartments; no toe-chafing at all. EZ-slide makes the shoe easy to put on. Nice features include an integrated heel pull-loop and elastic, snug-fit laces that allow a custom fit and can't come undone. Weighs 6 ounces in size 9.
Dislikes: Does not encourage true barefoot running form. The relatively thick foam and elevated heel blunt ground feel and allow heel striking, which is implicated in the impact-borne injuries that barefooting tends to eliminate. This is not a second-skin shoe that will change your running form — just a lightweight, super-comfortable running shoe with funny toes.
Price: $70. (888) 777-3949; http://www.finishline.com
New kid on the block
Skora Base: Much-anticipated debut (in February) of a flat, flexible, minimally cushioned shoe with a slightly concave sole in the forefoot, a Velcro-strap upper and elastic heel strap. It is not a toe shoe.
Likes: The slightly concave sole does seem to provide improved ground feel over similar minimalist shoes without individual toes. I liked the ability to custom-fit the shoe with the upper and heel straps, which don't come undone. With more of a solid shoe feel than the Adipure or KomodoSport LS, it took on gravel and rough dirt trails better. It's packaged in a shoe box with a magnet closure, the fanciest one I've ever seen. Weighs 7 ounces in size 9, or 6 ounces without the insole
Dislikes: Although it does encourage a forefoot landing, it's not as tactile as the Adidas or Vibram offerings, nor as comfortable as any of the toe shoes or the excellent Merrell Trail Glove, which I reviewed last year. The toe box is too narrow, slightly squishing my big toe. Removing the insole helped a bit.
Price: $125. (800) 401-2231; Skorarunning.com