The trend, explained: Some running enthusiasts believe that we naturally run best when we’re barefoot, and companies have developed shoes to mimic this, since bare feet and hot asphalt don’t mix. The first, admittedly odd, models had separate spaces for each toe—think gloves for your feet. Since then “barefoot” shoes have evolved. The newer versions look more like regular running shoes but have little cushioning. Many major brands, including New Balance and Saucony, carry minimalist sneakers (prices start at about $80). Advocates like their light weight and the way they allow you to feel your feet striking the road better than heavier traditional running shoes do. Some also believe that wearing minimalist shoes can strengthen foot and ankle muscles.
Expert opinion: “Very few people have a perfect running gait. Many people overpronate [roll in], supinate [roll out], or have fallen arches,” says Nadya Swedan, M.D., a physiatrist in New York City. “Minimalist shoes don’t have the support to compensate for these problems, so using them may lead to injuries, such as plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis.”
The bottom line: Tread carefully. If you’re certain you have a neutral gait—that is, your feet don’t roll in or out with each step—give them a try. (Not sure if you have a neutral gait? Time yourself standing on one foot. If you can do so for one minute without wobbling, you’re probably OK.) For over- or underpronators who still want to try minimalist running shoes, consider hybrid models from Brooks (pictured) or Asics. They’re flatter and lighter than traditional running shoes but offer more support than typical minimalist versions do. Your best bet: Go to a specialty running store, where they can evaluate your gait and suggest the right shoe for you—minimalist or not.