Prior to year-end I was able to try the latest trainer split toe from ZEM GEAR, the U Cross Ninja/Split Toe. I believe this shoe is fantastic for those getting into minimalist running and want to hone their form, while enjoying the benefits of a split toe design. They are very comfortable, provide a nice wide toebox, very lightweight, and feature an eye-catching design. Read on for my thoughts on the Zem U Cross Ninja/Split Toe from ZEM GEAR!

About Zem and the Zem U Cross Ninja

ZEM (Zone of Endless Motion) Gear has been around since 2010 and their design philosophy is to “allow your feet to be as natural as possible which heightens awareness and helps posture, balance and agility, while protecting your feet from the elements.” Most of their shoes feature both a round and split toe design. The first models they offered were colorful “Ninja” shoes with very bold striping and they have since updated and improved their shoes with each running season. Today I’ll be reviewing the Zem U Cross, which Zem describes as:
The U-CROSS helps focus on running and walking “forefoot-stride”. The combination of split-toe pattern and HexaTECH stability cradle minimize sliding inside the shoe. This shoe allows you to focus on developing a forefoot running style.
Here are my high-level takeaways on the Zem U Cross Ninja: Pros:
  • Very Comfortable
  • Excellent for training running form
  • Good for distance running
  • Split toe design provides many benefits over round toe shoes
  • Lightweight (5.7 oz in a size 9).
Cons:
  • Insecure heel
  • Not good for high speed running, sprinting, or aggressive terrain
Barefoot Scale — Excellent for transitioning runners and those looking to train for a barefoot lifestyle. A little thick for barefoot enthusiasts and die-hards. Testing Background — This review was written after running 50 miles in the ZEM Gear U Cross Ninja/Split Toes in a variety of conditions with road and treadmill running being the primary use. Some trail running was thrown in to assess their capabilities. Take a spin around the Zem U via these photos:

Looks and Design

The ZEM Gear U Cross Ninja/Split Toe (U Cross Ninja for the remainder of the review) features a very eye-catching, colorful design. The shoe is mostly comprised of a black upper that is very stretchy and breathable with blue painted-on geometric patterns for a little extra stability. The rear of the shoe along the heel is a very comfortable bungee material (called HexaTECH) and the sole is comprised of an EVA bottom with three separate sections of rubber for durability and flexibility. The shoe feels very comfortable in walk and run in without socks. They are one of the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn in a minimalist line of shoes. They are almost like a lounge slipper! There are zero hot spots, tension areas or the like, which is a testament to the choice of materials and the wideness of the shoe (plenty of room for my duck feet). I absolutely love the uppers that ZEM uses for the U Cross Ninja and wished that other manufacturers would use an upper as breathable and comfortable (dare I say, plush?) as these. They really make the shoes a nice place for your foot to hang out.

Ninja Toes

The split toe design helps with take off, toe splay and flexibility. Think of it as being like FiveFingers, minus three toes. While you cannot move as many digits as with Vibrams, the overall flexibility of the split toe “ninja” style shoes is still better than with a traditional round toe design. The issue with the split toe design for many shoemakers is placing the split for the big toe (as well as how big that pocket should be) in relation to the other toes. Setting it too far in the middle can cramp four of the five toes and leave too much space in the big toe and setting the split too far in the other direction will limit the use of the big toe. I am happy to say that the ZEM Gear U Cross Ninja has a great balance for where the split should be. The material of the upper is very comfortable and I don’t really notice the split when I run. However, I do wish that there was a bit more of a gap to prevent rubbing between the two toes.

The Heel

The U Cross Ninja uses ZEM Gear’s Hexatech bungees for the heel portion of the shoe. These are not meant to be super snug or secure in order to facilitate proper running technique. For this reason, it somewhat difficult to run quickly in these trainers. You really have to land below your center of gravity to prevent them from slipping. The heel is somewhat similar to the Vibram CVT, where you can essentially fold it down and use it as a slipper. Though the shoe was not intended for this purpose, it does give you an idea of how “insecure” the heel is. It is very comfortable and easy to put on and take off, but as these shoes are meant to help train a mid or forefoot strike and landing directly below your body, the heel does slip a bit. For walking around, hanging out, and slower jogs, the heel is excellent and stays in place just fine, but if you increase your speed, you may find that they slip too much for you to ignore.

Weight and Ground Feel

Overall, the sole of the U Cross Ninja is roughly 8mm or so in some sections and up to 10mm in others, which is a fair amount of sole material, but is still very lightweight and flexible (5.7 oz in a size 9)—slotted just between a comparably-sized Bikila LS and Bikila EVO, but with slightly more cushioning and thickness in the sole. Because the sole is thicker than many minimalist options, the ground feel is merely good—it could be better. I am used to running 6mm or less of sole, so 8mm feels a bit “lifted” compared to huaraches and slimmer Vibram shoes. However, despite this thicker sole, they are still very lightweight and the flexibility is very good because of layout of the sole. The main sole is comprised of EVA foam, but there are three sections of rubber that are separately integrated into the EVA foam: One piece for each toe, running from the tips of the toes to the ball of the foot; and the heel. This gives the U Cross Ninja lots of bendy fun, which is just a tad less flexible than a pair of Bikila EVO from Vibram.

Performance

Thinking of the U Cross Ninja as a “trainer” helped me appreciate them more. These are not exactly meant for speed, but to remind us of how to utilize speed with care and lightness. If I am simply cruising along between 6 to 7 MPH, these shoes were great! If I tried to go a little faster towards my usually running speed, the heel would start to sleep more than I was comfortable with. The feeling is not too unlike the insecure heel of the EL-X from Vibram. There is a general lack of confidence in moving that quickly with either shoe. However, when used as I believe they were meant to, they excelled and provided a good amount of ground feel, a very comfortable toe box, and lots of breathability. I also enjoyed the split toe design. The U Cross Ninja is definitely my favorite interpretation of the split toe that I have seen from any other manufacturer. My big toe is able to push off if I need it to, and my remaining toes can gently shrug off a bit of the landing before the rest of the foot. While they do not provide the same flexibility and dexterity as Vibram Five Fingers, they do allow for a wide range of movements beyond what a typical round-toe design would allow. Personally, I love Vibram Five Fingers (I still run in my KSO EVOs from my review in December of 2013, interspersed between huarache runs), but I can acknowledge that they may be too eye-catching (or iconic) of a look for many people. The split toe provides many of the benefits of FiveFingers, but without the frog feet. For hiking and trail use, I would caution that the heel does make a bit of a different on big inclines, but for light-to-moderate hiking and easy pacing, they are great.

Conclusion

The ZEM Gear U Cross Ninja is a solid shoe for those looking to get into minimalist running and wish to hone their running form. They are one of the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn (minimalist or otherwise) and would be excellent for lounging around, walking, light hiking, and distance training. The lightweight design and flexibility provides a good amount of feedback and the thickness of the sole should provide plenty of protection for new runners. The split toe design has many benefits over round toes, but do not stick out quite as much as five toes—a fair compromise for those looking for one. Your big toe is able to do its thing during take off and the other toes can help soften your landings. They are eye-catching, without being obnoxious, comfortable, without being flimsy, and are flexible and lightweight, without sacrificing the protection of a thicker sole. Overall, a great design for those looking for a comfortable minimalist trainer! If you’re looking to pick up a pair, head over to ZemGear.com. A huge thanks goes out to ZEM Gear for providing the U Cross Ninja for this review. Keep up the good work!