Traditional athletic shoes are made with a bunch of high-tech padding and foam intended to absorb the shock of feet repeatedly pounding the ground. But it turns out that the very padding that’s intended to protect can actually hurt. For example, a study published in the January 2012 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found an increased rate of repetitive-stress injuries among heel-striking runners. Wearing a shoe with minimal padding results in a host of fitness-related improvements — and not just for runners — from enhanced agility, balance and posture to strengthened leg muscles and, of course, fewer training days missed due to injury.
1. Vibram FiveFingers KomodoSport LS
No need for bows — Vibram’s speed lacing system not only allows for wider feet and higher insoles, but it also makes getting in and out fast. As with all Vibram FiveFingers, there’s a slot for each individual toe, encouraging more natural movement in the foot.
2. Altra Zero Drop Footwear Samson
What’s a zero-drop heel, you ask? It’s a shoe in which the heel and forefoot are on the same level, and that translates into better foot alignment and posture and improved running technique. The Samson’s foot-shaped design allows ample space for toes, increasing balance and comfort.
3. Reebok CrossFit Flex Nano
Designed and developed by and for CrossFit athletes, the CrossFit Flex Nano is lightweight while still maintaining enough cushioning to absorb the most bone-jarring impacts. Plus, U-Form technology (yes, it actually molds itself to your foot) ensures you get a custom fit.
4. ZEMgear 360 Ninja
ZEM stands for “Zone of Endless Motion,” and that’s what these shoes offer. Weighing in at only 2.5 ounces per shoe, the 360 Ninja will keep you light on your feet, while the split toe maximizes agility, flexibility and traction.
5. VivoBarefoot Aqua Lite
When Lee Saxby, an expert in barefoot running and natural locomotion, gives your shoe his seal of approval, you know it has to be good. With a 3-millimeter sole, a water-resistant upper, a wide toe box (no toe-pinching here) and a zero-drop heel, the Aqua Lite packs maximum benefit into a minimal shoe.