Defining "barefoot running" is easy: It's the act of running without shoes. But defining "barefoot running shoe" isn't so simple. Is it a sock-like second skin; a modernized moccasin; a stripped-down, minimalist version of a "normal" trainer designed to function as a bridge between shod running and barefooting; or a simply cushioned shoe that places your foot on a level plane from front to back to encourage a barefoot-like forefoot/midsole strike? Here are four that run the barefoot gamut.
Roy M. Wallack
Vibram FiveFingers KSO (Keep Stuff Out): Ultra-minimalist off-road foot glove from the world's leading maker of hiking-shoe soles. Features patented individual toe compartments; a thin, shaped, sole-hugging 3.5-millimeter rubber bottom and 2-millimeter insole; and stretchy mesh upper to keep toes free of trail debris.
Likes: As close as you can get to actual barefooting with protection. Tough, durable and comfortable enough to run and hike all day long over all surfaces. The individual toe pockets provide instant fun and function. Adjustable Velcro strap gives custom fit. Very light at 7 ounces in men's size 9. I like to wear them with Injinji toe-socks on long runs.
Dislikes: Requires an adaptation period. Immediately running your normal distances may leave your calves and Achilles tendon hurting. Also, if you're shy or cherish your anonymity, beware: Everyone will stare at you, with strangers even asking questions. But if you're outgoing, you'll feel like the popular girl in high school.
Price: $85. (800) 842-7267; www.vibramfivefingers.com
FeelMax Panka: Ultra-light, support- and cushion-free lace-up shoe with a very thin sole that is best for indoor use. A steppingstone for a barefoot runner with no support structures.
Likes: With a wide toe box, a thin, super-flexible sole, feathery (5 ounces in size 9) lightness, exceptional comfort, and handsome conventional looks, the versatile Panka is a stealth barefoot trainer that works in the gym, the street, a plane, a party. Running and walking in it conveys a genuine barefoot sensation. The sleek design with laces doesn't get the stares of the Vibram.
Dislikes: The sole isn't durable enough for hard-core outdoor running. The thin Kevlar-synthetics mix wears out quickly; asphalt and rocks will tear holes in it after a couple weeks or even more quickly with daily use. Recommendation: keep it in the gym for the treadmill and strength training. (Note: The Osma, a more durable, running-specific model with a tougher sole, will be released in January.)
Price: $69.99. (888) 972-7040; www.extremeoutfitters.us
Nike Free Everyday+ 2: The latest iteration of the first minimalist shoe aimed at the barefoot trend (back in 2005), it is designed as a transitional step to shoeless running, with a super-flexible forefoot and reduced cushioning.
Likes: A comfortable, light (10.5 ounces in size 9) shoe that was enjoyable to run in as a regular trainer. I found that removing the 1-ounce insole provided more of a barefoot connection with the ground.
Dislikes: Not minimalist enough to encourage a barefoot-like forefoot landing. In fact, the decent cushioning (including a rear-foot Air-Sole bubble) and relatively tall heel compared with the forefoot almost beg for heel strikes. It actually feels overbuilt compared with the original Frees, which had a sock-like, unreinforced upper. (A better "barefoot transition" shoe might be the flatter, minimally padded Zoot Energy, reviewed here in May.)
Price: $92; www.nike.com
Flat and cushy
New Balance 800: Unique high-mileage, cushioned trainer, level from heel to toe, that is designed specifically for midfoot strikers and adherents of barefoot-mimicking programs such as the Pose Method and Chi Running.
Likes: Mission accomplished -- with a caveat. The level design encourages a mid/forefoot landing as well or better than the Free. It's light and fast for a daily trainer at 10 ounces in size 9. Typical wide New Balance toe box lets toes spread barefoot-wide.
Dislikes: The cushioning, though extremely comfortable, is fluffy enough to make a heel landing tolerable. Again, less cushioning would push it closer to barefoot.
Price: $120; www.newbalance.com
Wallack is the author of "Run for Life" and co-author of "Bike for Life."