The few who have been willing to speak up (and out) about the degradation inflicted by inappropriate sports shoe selection are now being vindicated by a mass invasion of the marketplace of more flexible shoes; Shoes that perhaps can best be described as “Born to Run Shoes”

I use this term because talking about “Barefoot” running causes confusion between actual barefoot / vibram five finger type running and the overall move towards a more natural running shoe.

It has been a long slow road for the isolated groups of runners and practitioners who over years have decried the use of rigid plates in the midsole of standard offerings to sort of changes that happen when the numbers of supporters reach critical mass.

It was not only the steel like plates under the arches that were both problematic and illogical (in the majority of cases), but also a fixation on cushioning in the heel with nothing in offer under the ball of the foot, which is often the first point of contact.

One of the major catalysts in this move was the excellent “Born to Run” book by Christopher McDougall. This easily read dissertation, (its far more than a good read), on the South American tribe who run barefoot turned many to review their thinking. Without under-valuing the book as a whole, those who only have a limited opportunity to see the book need only read chapter 25 to gain a real insight into what was known by leading runners before the marketing, and to some extent medical marketing scientists, got to grip with technology!

Make no mistake there is a place for ‘control’ shoes, but as with any review of a population group this is a 5-10% of people at the edges of either extreme from the norm.

Without going over the whole debate a couple of key issues are:

Clearly then once a person can made the decision to move (back) to Bare Foot Type shoes there are a number of considerations to be made both in the selection of the shoes and in how fast the transition is going to take.

This transition is a mere micro-example of the process that supports the process of evolution.

Taking this into account the remainder of this article looks at a number of shoes from a variety of manufacturers that most runners will find as a useful starting point in selecting a shoe that is more flexible than their current offering.

Do not mistake what is being said here:  I am NOT recommending that everyone goes down to running with a thin skin of rubber between their feet and the ground but I am promoting the notion that for the majority of runners the chosen shoes should follow the following principles:

For those who have already made some progress along this route the ‘pint-sized’ overviews will highlight some of the newer models on the market place.  This article or group of articles will be updated at intervals as products come into public domain and or make advances:

The listing tends to commence from shoes similar to existing structures moving down towards and into true barefoot running protection. Additional hints are given as to some experiences that I, or runners I work with, have experienced with particular models.

Asics Sky Speed:

Given that the current mass market is committed to rigid shoes, (and the south African Comrades / Two Oceans runners in particular), the Sky Speed is a good starting point for those wishing to move from the Nimbus, Cumulus or any of the rigid 2012 or similar model codes.

The Sky Speed has the look of a “normal” shoe but is significantly more flexible partially due to the cutaway under the medial arch, but still offers reasonable torsion. This makes it a useful shoe also for those who tend to turn out one or both feet when running.

The shoe is also closer to the ground and the angle / Rake between the level of the forefoot and the level of the heel is lower than virtually all of those that offer greater control.

This is a good start to a transition for those not yet fully convinced, and certainly a shoe that runners up to 90 plus kg can opt for as a first stab.

Saucony Kinvara

The saucony Kinvara has proved exceptionally successful in its short eighteen-month intro to the market. Not only is it flexbile in the londigutinal direction, but also it is also light and has a racing type feel to it.

The forefoot is sculpted to provide a roll onto the forefoot, which helps in the development of a good running style, and there is a reasonable amount of cushioning.

What makes this shoe a bit special is the width of midsole under the medial arch. This is wider than most curved last shoes an so has greater torsion resistance which is something that assist runners who continue with the turn out of feet or an inward or outward roll. Keep in mind these rolls are exacerbated in the current rigid shoes because of the height of the heel and forefoot. The closer the foot in the shoe is to the ground the more stable (less roll) there is.

One challenge with the Kinvara is the shaping of the toe box, which tends to narrow quite dramatically from the position of the small toe. The Kinvara 2 is expected out later this year and this may have been addressed in that model. Another question for ultra runners is the resilience of the cushioning. There is no doubt this is a shoe that can initially be introduced for faster work but as the transition is made it has the capacity to be a distance shoe for runners up to 80kg.

Puma Fuujin

This excellent shoe has a similar look to the Asics Sky Speed and Distance Runner models but doesn’t have the mass of supports on the uppers., and more importantly the shoe is significantly more flexible and cushioned.

The archtec band under the medial arch allows full longitudinal flex while providing some torsional restraint. The EverRide outer and KMS Lite midsole make this responsive but hard wearing shoe, and one of the best transition shoe for those moving towards a more natural running style.

This is certainly a shoe for the runner who has adopted a “Born to Run’ approach but is looking for something a bit more cushioned for Two Oceans / Comrades / ultra runner.

Adidas Adizero F51

The Adidas Adizero range has been around for years and frankly I find it frustrating that there are so many different Adizero shoesthat do not display the actual model name. This simply makes it very difficult for people to identify which shoe is being discussed or even to order shoes from a shop.

None of that takes away from the quality of many of the range, but this review relates to the F51 which again has the look of relatively normal shoe but with an upper that omits any stitching in the upper forefoot. The shape is not dissimilar to the Saucony Kinvara but with more room in the toe box.

The midsole has Adiprene throughout the forefoot area and this again proves attractive for Comrades / Two Oceans and ultradistance running, while there is longitudinal flexibility throughout the shoe to the heel area.

The heel utilizes’s Adidas Formotion system which will take getting used to for many runners.  I am not a particular fan of this as it seems to induce an inward roll.

In simple terms the heel is split into two sections with the outer slightly higher than the inner section. This means that, even when your heel only touches the ground after your initial forefoot impact, it is the outside that touches first and then the inner side. The roll / twist incurred takes getting used to and make exacerbate those already prone to pronation.

However this is another good transition and long distance shoe.

Puma Faas 500

The Puma Faas 500 is one a new range of Puma shoes that tend towards the barefoot minimalist direction.

The shoe uses a BioRide midsole, which is a great cushioning material with the flexibility to allow a good foot movement. Puma’s three-pillar approach to the Faas range is Rocker, Flex, and Groove.  The Rocker is said to assist the foot in forward movement –rolling off the forefoot. However the initial assumption that the rocker works from heel to toe makes this less logical and effective for the fore or mid-foot running believers. That said the shoe does have some decent sculpting of the midsole, which helps to  maintain momentum.

The top is relatively simple in format and comfortable with the exception of the  “error” (IMO) of the termination of stitching of the support material on the ‘bunion’ area of the foot.  As stitching always terminates in a knot this is a source for a potential blister or skin removal and actually appears unnecessary as the material is already welded down to the upper. I simply removed the stitching and had no further problems.  This does however also highlight that runners may wish to move a half size larger due the width fitting of this model.

The cushioning and the overall feel will make this attractive to the longer distances / Transition brigade.

NOTE: For the majority of runners the shoes covered below will require adaptation. This means using them on alternate days or in a limited pattern initially and for short and medium runs for the first couple of weeks. Expect to feel the extra work on the calf muscles and ankle joints and allow recovery from this before re-use. This adaptation will be relatively quick but should not be ignored

Puma Faas 300

Although in the same range the move to the Faas 300 is dramatic as it takes older runners back to shoes shapes and looks of the late 1970 and early 80’s.

The flexibility and low profile of this shoe starts to put runners into a different level.

While the amount of drop (from heel height to thickness of midsole below the forefoot) is reduced it is considerably less than that of a typical rigid shoe. The rocker effect is more evident in this shoe and you get the feel of the road. The responsiveness is good and the cushioning reasonable. I ran a 50km ultra in these shoes, which was probably a step too far given the mileage they had already done.

This is a great shoe for the runner wanting to get into the ‘born to run’ style and particularly for distances up to 21km


Enter the Puma YUGORUN. Although not in the FAAS range this shoe fits this mold quite easily and has the same no-fuss look and a very similar profile.  A big difference is in the use of Id Cell in the forefoot, which improves the cushioning compared to the Faas 300.

The heel of the midsole is slightly flared which means there is greater area on the ground but for fore and mid foot runners this will have minimal effect.

In many respects this is a shoe offering greater scope compared with the Faas 300.

Nike Zoom Streak:

This is a racing shoe offered from Nike with the cushioning that zoom air provides and a very low drop from heel to midfoot.

Although there is restraint under the medial arch it is not totally inflexible and does give good torsional restraint to a shoe that is cut on the traditional racing curved last format. (i.e. with substantial narrowing under the arch)

Although lacking some sculpting of the midsole to get a good roll off this is certainly worth looking at for the minimalist runner in search of cushioning for the longer run.

Nike Free:

Like was one of the first companies to recognize the need to return to a more flexible running shoe when they introduced the Free.  This was a shoe whose sole was cut into blocks to flex as the foot does.  Nike issued an apology at the time for the move away to shoes that were too rigid and also, correctly, issued each pair of shoes with advice that runners would have to take time to build up to using these shoes.

Although they took time to take off for running the Free’s were quickly absorbed into the leisure / everyday use side of the market.  This is totally logical: if a flexible shoe is what is required for running then surely the same principles apply to your everyday / every hour wear?  Have you seen how people waddle down the road with rigid dress / off shoes? If you spend eight or 10 hours a day doing that why would you run in a direct fore-aft linear fashion when you run for an hour?

There has been a recent resurgence in the Free range of shoes with slight changes to the way the midsole supports the arch and the amount of cushioning. I  have not yet had the opportunity of testing the new models but have run up to 42kms in the previous Free’s without problems.

Innov-8  Road 233

Innov-8 are amongst the leaders in the bare-foot minimalist shoes. There has clearly been a lot of thought and direction put into their offerings.

For a start they use an “arrow” system to indicate the gradual transition from “typical’ shoes down to ‘zero’ being the drop from heel to midfoot that would indicate that standing in the shoe is akin to standing barefoot.

The concept is that the runner commences in something that has some ‘drop’ then decreases this as they adapt and run in various barefoot models.   The range commences with a couple of models above “three arrow” level and reduces to Zero with the 233 not only being the gram weight of the shoe but also a ‘2 arrow’ drop.

Innov-8 gained their reputation as top manufacturers through the UK fell and then trail running. They grew to be recognized worldwide and have only recently taken the technology into road shoes.

Although looking very basic they are packed with technology and runners should not underestimate the offerings and advantages of these shoes.

Looking more specifically at the Road 233: It’s a light shoe with an upper that seems to have the normal ‘protection’ toe box painted onto to it. In fact this protection over the mesh is not only effective in stopping the intrusion of fine grit etc but also means that the shoes drain extremely well and there is no stitching to come adrift or irritate toes.  Welded on strips provide additional structure and support to the upper and this can be tailored to personal feel by altering the lacing.

Initial views of the outsole suggest that a piece of a truck tyre has simply been stuck on the thin flexible midsole – Not so – try flexing the shoe and that lump of rubber is seen to be totally flexible thanks to a closely cut wave pattern.

Directly below this is a fingerlike system of strands known as Meta Flex that assists the energy transfer from the foot to the road aligned with the foots own metatarsal system.

The real surprise comes when you try running in the shoes. The amount of protection and ride is totally unexpected. Looks would suggest a hard ride, but this is not the case its firm but cushioned.

Another innovation in their design is the sizing that is considerably more accurate than other manufacturers. Selection of fit is not only based on size but by varying the thickness of their special inner soles which effectively changes the internal volume of the shoe and hence the fit: such a simple but clever idea.

This is a great shoe for the runner moving to a ‘born to run” style – the biggest problem is the limited number of retailers where you find this range;


F-Lite 230

Without repeating the background to Innov-8 (see Innov-8 233 above), this shoe comes from a trail and fell running heritage but has the ability to be used there and on the road.

The diversity of options comes from the outer sole that was initially designed for compact gravel road and off-road scenarios.

It is a “two arrow” shoe, which in Innov-8 terms means that it is not absolutely flat between heel and forefoot but has a medium level of lift and so a great shoe for those looking to move to the ‘born to run’ natural style.

The F Lite 230 has many of the features described in the Road 233 (above) including the Meta Flex, open mesh upper, ‘painted’ on toe protection box and welded on support straps interacting with the lacing system.

A good shoe to consider as an option to the Road 233 where you may also do some off roadwork and both models are suitable for track training.

No matter what surface you intend running on you will find purpose specific shoes that meet the natural running style requirements within the Innov-8

New Balance Minimas

One of the latest ranges to hit the market is the New Balance minimas shoe. There is an extremely flexible off-road version and an extremely impressive road model that I have road tested over quite a substantial distance.

If first impressions count it is one of a fairly wide fitting shoe with a last very similar in shape to that of the research bare-foot school shoe. There is good space in the toe box area and a welded toe box protection. The lacing yoke comes down into the main toe box area making for good fit.

The upper comprises a very breathable and lightweight material that drains and dries easily.

The shoe has an integrated inner and the drop from heel to midfoot is minimal which is where the name comes from. This combined with the flexible mid and outer sole means the shoe initiates greater use of the foot, Achilles and calf muscles. For this reason New Balance attach a warning card to every shoe sold and indicate that runners should commence by only using the shoe for about 10-% of their weekly training until such time as they get used to and their muscle adapt to the change of style.

This is a very comfortable shoe and the midsole provides one of the best cushioning of any of the born to run style shoes.

The broad base created by the last makes this particularly useful for the heavier runner or the runner who requires a slight increase in torque-resistance.

One challenge however is finding retailers who are stocking this range.

Vibram Five Finger

The Vibram five-finger shoes are instantly associated with barefoot running and certainly there is virtually no structure to these gloves-for feet foot covering.

They are effectively a lycra foot-glove with rubber tread protection on the underside and a Velcro closing on the upper.

They are highly flexible and yet offer a reasonable amount of protection against the gravel, nail, piece of glass or hot cigarette but that one may find even on a street pavement. This is about protection of the skin as opposed to control of the foot.

It takes a bit of time to get used to how best to put them on and certainly has some structural changes for those whose toes tend to cross or are swashed together.

Running in vibram shoes does require adaptation over a longer timespan using a less intense training programme than many other shoes in this list. However these shoes are barefoot running. They can be used on track for intervals and equally for off road trail shoes and some runners have even completed a Comrades in them

The biggest difference between models is either outer sole where the style is related to the running surface of the upper material where the activity has had an impact on looks and method of closure.

There is no question about the release and freedom of running that one gets when using the Vibram five Fingers and the longer you use them the more ambitious one gets in both distance and running surface.  Oh but don’t expect to get down any street without a few quizzical looks?!

Newton Shoes:

It would be remiss to look at ‘Born to Run” and forefoot running without discussing the Newton range of shoes.

A bit of background on running style:  One of the reasons that the typical shoe forces runners to land further back is that the heel is thicker than the forefoot. This means that with normal or restricted flex at the ankle the runners heel hits the ground first and this forces the runner to land heel toe.  This in turn, and particularly with the rigidity under the medial arch, results in a rotation of the hips which prevents the runner from achieving the ‘power’ position that allows the most efficient transfer of force to the road.

Keep in mind it is NOT the forward movement of the leg that takes a runner forward – It is the backward drive of the rear foot from the point of contact to the point of take off that moves us forward.

The way Newton shoes change this is not by removing the heel of the shoe (which in simplified terms is what happens with the minimalist shoes) but rather by adding four raised lugs onto the forefoot of the shoe.

This makes the runner land on the ground further forward and the shape, position of the lugs and styling of the shoe then forces the runner into a forward motion.

By running in this way the runner lands the foot just ahead and below the centre of gravity,  which then allows the hips to be put into a ‘power’ position. Although it frequently means that overall stride length is being cut, runners soon learn that speed is only a combination of stride length and cadence. The increase in cadence not only increases speed, but in this new style the runner is soon aware of amore efficient running.

That is the layman explanation of the basics behind the Newton shoes and the company has produced a number of models for road, and more recently trail running.  By moving the lugs forward or backward on different models they change the aggressiveness of the forefoot strike and so the difference between a racing and training model.

Moving into these shoes, as with the move to minimalist shoes, results in substantially more calf work and so this has to be done gradually.  The real focus of the effort with Newtons is on the calf muscle whereas with the minimalist shoes the changes result in an increase in the overall range of movement from strike to toe off which affects the ankle joint and the calf.

As noted the use of Newtons must be done gradually and this is where their real benefit in my opinion can be obtained. They are great shoes for teaching runners how to run in a better fore or midfoot style.  If you want they are Running Style Trainers.

Because they have the normal depth of cushioning of a typical running shoe they can be used for longer distances.

These are shoes to be used initially in interval training around 10km and 5km pace sessions so adapt the running style and of course you still get the recovery between efforts, which is a kind way of making the adaptation.

The shoes in all other respects are well made, lightweight and attractive to use, but personally my focus with them is towards the use of style improvement / correction.  This is an area where they have no competition in the marketplace

One Response

  1. Having used Nimbus 10/11(1200km) I tried Skyspeeds(328km)
    Half way through Long tom I literally pulled the heel off the shoe. I then went back to Nimbus 12(359km), which I did Two Oceans and Comrades. On Comrades I got severe Arch pain, I did manage to finish but my stride was short.
    Asics then got me into GT2160( 800km and still using) and Kayano 17(335km and still using). I have had a sore right hip since then. If I use any NB shoe my plantar gets sore, this could be from lower heel ie NB828.
    I really do not know what shoe to buy next…..
    I like the idea of Faas as I hate wearing shoes, and mostly walk barefoot, I did a 32k walk in the beach last year barefoot.

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