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These Shoes Give Me The Benefits of Barefoot Running (Without the Bare Feet)

Photo: Courtesy of Columbia

For the longest time, I was a skeptic — if not full-blown critic — of the trend of running barefoot. You could chalk a big reason up to evolution. Just like the humans who wear them, running shoes have evolved over time, with today’s offering more support, protection, resilience, and comfort than ever before. But I also had more practical doubts: namely, that my bare feet would be exposed to rocks, sharp debris … or the droppings of whatever animal may have scampered along the trail before me.

Still, I’d heard and read enough about the purported benefits of barefoot running that kept me from writing it off entirely. Running shoeless can be less intense on your heels, because the middle of the foot — which is naturally more elastic — holds more weight each time a bare foot hits the ground. And because there is no layer of shoe between feet and ground, barefoot running helps you more quickly detect slippery or uneven surfaces, helping you better determine whether to proceed at a cautious gait or wide-open stride. So when I started to notice more and more minimally designed trail-running shoes promising the sensation of barefoot running with the protection provided by actual footwear, I thought they could be just the sort of middle ground I needed.

For my first pair of minimalist runners, I turned to Merrell — a brand I’ve known and sworn by since high school, when I got my first pair of Merrell boots for long-distance hikes. Those boots lasted for years and always treated me well, which seemed reason enough to try out the brand’s minimalist Bare Access XTR trail-running shoes. (I also find that, generally, dedicated outdoor brands tend to make better trail gear than traditionally road- or sport-shoe companies that dabble in the outdoor space.) Aside from my trust in their maker, the XTRs — which also come in women’s styles — won me over with their simple design and the fact that the shoes are incredibly lightweight (just under eight ounces each). But I was still wary: Would their thinner sole with less cushioning lead to painful heel strikes, more strain on my arches, and more soreness overall?

After logging a few dozen miles in these things during multiple runs, I am happy to report that my fears were only that. The XTRs offer a running experience that’s as good — or even better than — any I’ve had wearing more heavy duty, technical styles. I don’t feel less comfortable or supported in them, but what I do feel is more of the ground beneath me. Most shoes are designed with added padding that puts your heel higher than your toes, but these have zero heel-to-toe offset, and really do allow me to hit the ground the same way I would if running barefoot — meaning centered on my feet, letting me more explosively launch into each new stride. But unlike my bare feet, these have a Vibram outsole that offers a solid grip, and just enough cushioning via a layer of shock-absorbing foam to prevent injury. (That said, while the zero rise from toe-to-heel does provide a great sense of ground connection, I wouldn’t mind a bit more material under my heel, especially when going downhill).

I genuinely liked running in the Merrells, but to get a better sense of whether I just liked that particular shoe — or minimalist runners in general — I called in a pair of Columbia’s Alpine FTG trail runners from a contact of mine at the company (Columbia also makes FTG styles for women). The FTG in their name stands for “Feel The Ground,” and just like the Merrells, I quickly learned that’s what these shoes allow you to do, too.

Their foam midsole offers decent cushioning, but as with the Merrells, there’s much less material between foot and ground. The little material that is there, though, is thoughtfully chosen. These don’t have zero heel-to-toe offset, but their flexible soles do have insanely grippy, four-millimeter deep directional lugs on the bottom, which bite into gravel, dirt, roots, rocks, and more, even as the soles bend with your foot. This combination of flexible sole and deep lugs gives the shoes a grip that’s almost like you’re grabbing onto the ground with each step, making them a terrific option for shorter runs along rougher terrain. [Editor’s note: While Amazon offers men’s FTGs for as low as $52, the majority of its stock costs closer to the shoe’s retail price of $130.]

As much as I took to these minimalist runners, though, there are times I would still suggest opting for a more traditional pair. While great for shorter runs on moderate trails, I find that the FTGs actually slow me down on routes that include paved surfaces, because the grippy lugs are too aggressive for flat land. The XTRs are better for varied terrain, including some stretches of pavement, but I only wear them on short runs no more than a few miles — they are so lightweight that the impacts start to add up on longer distances. So I haven’t retired all my sturdier styles of running shoes — just pushed them deeper into my closet, to make space at the front for my two new go-to pairs.

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These Shoes Simulate Running Barefoot—Without the Bare Feet