CrossFitter's Guide to Barefoot or Minimalist Shoes
I’m a CrossFit instructor and gym manager in Thousand Oaks, CA at Live Train Play CrossFit and as such I am hard on my shoes. Some days I will be on my feet for a large portion of 14 to 15 hours. Throughout any given day I teach six classes, do a couple personal training sessions, and frequently do two to three of my own workouts. I’ve been wearing minimal shoes for years now, and I am still struggling to figure out what shoes work best for the life of a CrossFitter.
For those of you not in the know, CrossFit can be best described like this: Constantly varied, functional movements, performed at high intensity. This means running, lifting, throwing, climbing, swimming, biking, jumping, swinging, etc. And all of it done for some kind of score (e.g. time to complete the day's workout or reps). You would be amazed how intense a workout can get when you are chasing "points." CrossFit has become a wildly popular form of high-intensity training over the past few years and you're likely to have at least one CrossFit gym somewhere near you if you're interested in checking it out.
Today I'm going to break down each of the different minimalist shoes I’ve used for CrossFit with the hope of shedding some light on what works and what doesn't. Read on!
ACTUAL "BIRTHDAY SHOES"
(Yes, that’s right; I mean full-on barefoot)
Pros: Bare feet have the best possible ground feel with nothing encumbering them from doing their job while you move. In particular I like doing max effort strength WODs (Workout Of the Day) barefoot. You don’t get any of that squishing down into the sole when you try and hoist up that 400+ lb. deadlift.
Cons: Your feet are in constant danger from all sides. Drop a plate and you’re looking at not only broken bones, but probably a bloody mess too. And don’t even THINK about doing double-unders this way! Seriously, I’ve done it, it’s a very very very bad idea.
Pros: Depending on the model, a pair of Vibram FiveFingers can feel about as close to barefoot as you can get while still wearing shoes. They provide great ground feel and very little encumbering your foot. Heavy lifting in these also avoids the “sole squish” mentioned before. No noticeable change in my running gait either.
Cons: Still no protection from falling weights, and double-unders are still a really bad idea. Again, trust me on that one. And if we’re talking KSOs, you can forget about a 4 Cone Drill, or a Suicide sprint unless you want your butt and the ground to become better acquainted. Try sprinting and do a quick cut and redirect and you will end up slipping and sliding, no question. Komodo, TrekSport, or Bikila can handle those well enough, but you also add some weight and lose some ground feel.
NB MINIMUS TRAIL
Full Minimus Trail (MT10) review here.
Pros: Good grip for agility sprinting, decent protection for toes on double-unders, no sole squish on heavy lifting, and the New Balance Minimus Trail still weighs in at under 6 ounces in my size. Still little-to-no change in my gait that I am aware of.
Cons: You will sacrifice a significant amount of ground feel with the MT10, and there is a slight heel drop (4mm).
NB MINIMUS CROSS
Read full Minimus Cross (MX20) review here.
Pros: Decent grip on the floor for sprinting, good protection for double-unders, and dropped weight. Also a great looking shoe style-wise, if that matters to you.
Cons: Little-to-no ground feel. The sole is much stiffer than the Trail, and the toe box has very little vertical room for toes to bend and flex. My foot feels heavily inhibited in these shoes from its normal range of motion, and my gait is noticeably altered.
Read full Teva Zilch review here.
Pros: In a lot of ways these are like VFFs. I mean these feel pretty close to barefoot. And I like the open air of the sandal upper: it feels great when you’re sweating up a storm. No change that I could detect to my running gait.
Cons: Come on, you should guess by now, right? Dropped weights and double-unders are your worst nightmare in these. If it’s just a straight heavy lifting day, or something that is mostly gymnastics and sprints, these are fine, but not for much more.
Full Teva Nilch review here.
Pros: Great ground feel, and extremely light weight.
Cons: The sole is somehow thin, but kind of inflexible. And there is very little traction for agility sprints. It altered my gait. Not extremely, but enough that I didn’t workout in them again after the first time.
INOV-8 ROAD-X 155
Full Inov-8 Road-X 155 review here.
Pros: Decent ground feel though not great. Very light weight with a flexible toe box and sole. Not a neutral-drop heel, but very close (3mm) and reasonable enough protection for double-unders. No noticeable alteration to my gait that I can feel/see.
Cons: For someone with a job like mine, they don’t seem like they would last very long. The rubber of the outsole is also slightly softer, so while it’s great for general CrossFitting, I would not recommend the Road-X 155 for max effort heavy lifting—you will get a little sole squish with these. Also, since these are a road-model, there is almost no tread on the outsole, so agility sprints can get tricky, especially in wet situations or on grass.
As much as I love my VFFs, I have to be completely honest with you and tell you that as an instructor I don’t wear them very often to work. They tend to stop the newbies in their tracks, and I have to answer a bunch of questions when I have one hour to give them a good thorough workout. Their class time is something they are paying good money for, and shoe-chatting is a distraction that I’d rather not deal with.
Of course, there's another side to the toe shoes coin: here's a tip to all you trainers and fitness instructors out there: DO YOUR GROCERY SHOPPING IN VIBRAMS! I can't tell you how many times I have had someone strike up a chat with me while out and about sporting my Komodos or Speeds. When a stranger hears me speak articulately and passionately about the reasons for wearing minimal footwear, they see me as an authority figure, and immediately want my business card. Seriously, those little hundred-dollar shoes are more effective than any other marketing I have employed. Just make sure you've got your facts straight and try to avoid sounding like a sales pitch before you expect to reel them in. I can write a whole separate article all about that, if anyone is interested.
I have been searching for a while, and I don’t think there is one shoe that fits all CrossFit situations. Not yet, anyway. Reeboks new “CrossFit” shoe for the CF Games was a big disappointment in my opinion, but K-Swiss has a new minimal one in the works right now that I’m trying to get a hold of, so we’ll see on that one. Inov-8 is also sending me a sample of a new shoe model that is geared specifically towards rope-climbing, so that could be interesting.
After going through all the shoes I mentioned above, I can tell you the best strategy is to suit the shoe choice with the workout. If I know I want to do double-unders today, I will avoid my VFFs and probably wear either my Inov-8s or my New Balance Trails. If there are double-unders and agility sprints or max effort lifting on the menu, I will rule out the Inov-8 and go with the Trails. But if I know I’m going to do one of the old school staples like "Angie," "Cindy," or "Eva" or something like that, I will either go barefoot or throw on my KomodoSports.
FINAL THOUGHTS — "There can be only one"?
Having said all of that, I recognize that most of these shoes cost $100 or more, so I know it’s not realistic to expect all you CrossFitters out there will have a closet that holds thousands of dollars worth of athletic shoes. If I had to suggest the one that I would argue is (at the time of this writing) the best all-around shoe, I would go with the NB Minimus Trail. It’s the only one on the list above that does not have a single specific situation where it is poorly suited. You can lift in it, sprint in it, jump in it, climb in it, and double-unders are particularly nice, since there is that odd lip of rubber that comes up over the front of the toe box to protect your feet from rope-whip. Again, it’s not a perfect shoe, but there’s nothing under the CrossFit sun that you can’t do in them safely and effectively.
Any other CrossFitters out there have a minimalist shoe of choice? Let's hear it in the comments! And I'll be updating this guide in the future as I test more shoes out.