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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ask MGBG: Winter Shoe Recommendations

It's been about a month since I wrote about my shoe recommendations for all of you barefoot/minimalist runners.  A lot of you asked my advice as to winter shoes; a topic I didn't cover in that post. 

I didn't mention winter shoes for a couple of reasons.  First, it was September and that's just depressing.  Well now it's November and Mother Nature took a big white dump on the Northeastern US.  By the way, except for those that lost power I have no sympathy for you folks.  It's nice to not be the part of the country with the shittiest weather for once.

Second, when I started writing about it, it became a monster topic all it's own and was taking forever to write.  I lose interest if a post takes me longer than an hour to crank out. 

Anyway, as I said in my last post on this topic there is no "best" minimal shoe.  There is only the shoe that is "best for you".  If you want information about how to choose the best shoe for you, please read this post I wrote on the subject.  The recommendations that I make in this post are the shoes that I use in particular situations.  They are not "the best".  They are "the best for me".

And on most days in the winter, the shoes that work for you during the other three seasons will work for you just fine.  I'm talking days when the trail has been plowed and is free of packed snow, ice, and debris.  In those instances, running in the winter isn't going to be much different from running during any other time of the year.  But for the rest of the time, your minimal shoe choice is going to depend on the trail conditions that day. 


I think there are two ways to tackle icy routes.  First, you can go the old fashioned way and try to get your shoes to grip to the ice.  If you go that route, remember this: no amount of rubber tread on a shoe will increase traction.  Rubber tread is pretty much useless on ice unless you are heavy enough (or the ice is thin or melty enough) to push through a small layer.  Otherwise you'll get the same amount of traction from your grippy trail shoes are just as useless as a pair of Vibram KSOs. 

The best weapon for grip on ice is a combination of friction and metal.  That's why ice road truckers put chains on their tires.  You need to turn your foot into a human snow tire.  But they don't make any minimal shoes with metal spikes on them.  So I suggest buying a pair of slip-on spikes such as YakTraks. 

The problem with combining YakTraks and minimal shoes is groundfeel.  If you wear spikes on something like the KSO, you'll feel like you are running on a toaster coil for your entire run.  So I suggest you go with a shoe with a thicker and possibly stiffer sole so that you don't feel the spike as much.  My current favorite shoe to combine with YakTraks is either the New Balance Minimus Trail or the New Balance MT100. 

If you don't want to give up groundfeel this winter though, you certainly don't have to.  You can be quite successful running on ice by going in the complete opposite direction, and choosing a shoe with the thninest sole possible.  In this case, good form will replace your need for grippy shoes.  Since as a minimalist you naturally take smaller steps and stay under your center of gravity, you are less likely to slip and fall.  And because you have better groundfeel, you can feel when you are running on an icy patch and react accordingly.  It's a bit more challenging than using spikes, but it can be done. 

Don't believe me?  Watch this guy:

I tend to go for the latter option on all but the most icy days.  If you use minimal shoes on really icy days, you feel like you're running on a conveyor belt.  And the shoes I will chose are the same as I prefer for road runs (i.e. thin to win!).  Generally I reach for the Soft Star Moc3 or the Altra Adam (review coming soon!).

Packed snow

I compare running on packed snow to trail running to a large extent.  Snow functions a lot like dirt.  When it's hard packed and smooth, you don't need much in the way of grip.  But some grip certainly helps propell you along.  When it's lightly packed though, it's a lot like mud, or even sand.  In those cases, you need some cleat. 

My favorite shoes in the snow are the same shoes I prefer for the trail.  Except that where I generally prefer light weight over protection and grip on the trail, I'm the other way in the snow.  For one, running in the winter can straight up suck sometimes.  No need to make it harder and more miserable on yourself.  Slipping around like an idiot is pretty demoralizing.  Also, debris like ice chunks are harder to see and avoid.  So I tend to step on a lot more crap and bang up my feet.  For that reason, my go to shoe this winter on packed snow will be the VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Trail


I know a lot of you are worried about freezing your feet in your minimal shoes this winter.  You're especially worried about what will happen when your feet get wet.  It's true; your feet get colder when they are wet.  They will also dry slower because it's colder.  But you still don't really need to worry about them getting dangerously cold when wet unless you are running really far, or it's really, really cold.  The shoes you are wearing, plus some good moisture-wicking socks will treat you just fine.  Don't buy another shoe just for wet conditions.

If you are worried about wetness this winter, please don't be the reason that the Vibram Flow still exists.  I'm watching you.  My swag ninjas are everywhere.  There are a ton of better options out there right now.  I will again be using my Neo Trails for wet conditions.  Another good option would be the Sonic Glove or Embark Glove if you prefer Merrell products, both of which are waterproof.

Extreme Cold

My definition of extreme cold is probably different than yours.  Mine starts at around -20 F.  Regardless, in any weather I'm fine with my usual minimal shoes and a pair of good socks.

The issue that a lot of people have with minimal shoes in the winter is that they are extremely breathable.  So people figure that in the winter they will become the equivalent of wearing a t-shirt in a blizzard.  People also worry about seperated toes.  Of course, mittens are warmer than gloves...so toe shoes are colder than closed-toed shoes. 

While all of that might be true, it's like splitting hairs.  Yes...minimal shoes are more breathable...slightly.  Yes, toe shoes are going to be colder...slightly.  It's nothing that can't be cured by getting a good pair of wool socks.  Or two.  Or three (I've done it).  Or...novel concept...don't go outside!

Please folks, whatever you do, don't go out and buy a special pair of shoes for cold weather runs this winter.  You didn't need neoprene uppers, or furry inserts, or any of that other crap on your shoes before you became a minimal runner.  You don't now.  Spend $30 on some good socks instead of $100+ on a pair of shoes you'll wear for one month out of the year.  For serious.


A lot of folks love their huaraches, and can't imagine running in closed-toe shoes ever again.  Well the good news is...you don't have to!  I run in huaraches down to around single digit temperatures.  When the temps get below 30 degrees F, I usually pair them with some Injinji toe socks.  Buy them in black if you're worried about committing a major fashion felony.  I usually don't care because it's fricking freezing outside.

I hope these shoe choices will help you get through this winter running season happily and safely!  Cheers Citizens!


  1. Man, I love a post about shoes that tells me not to buy shoes.

  2. Ha ha! Totally! I just get a kick out of folks who buy a minimal shoe for every occasion.

  3. love it! all points well said! (especially the part dissing the Flows haha!)

    My current plan is smartwool toe socks with my bedrocks for most occasions and i have a pair of trail gloves standing by if things are really snowy out.

  4. Hey MGBG,
    Do you have any recs for "good moisture-wicking socks"? Thanks.

  5. My favorite socks for winter are the Injinji Outdoor series. They are Smartwool, which will keep you warm in most any weather

  6. Thanks for the tip on the socks.. love my huaraches, so will look for those. Today I ran in my running shoes with Yaktrax because of the steep uphill and downhill.. fresh snow and compacted snow/ice.. First time using yaktrax, and they performed awesomely.. since that kind of condition is pretty common, I want to find a good shoe. I'll go check out the minimus trail.. thanks for the great info.

  7. I will be trying the technique recommended by the Ken Bob, the socks with Plasti-Dip coated on the bottom. I'm using SmartWool socks for it. Wool is nice because it insulates even when wet, unlike all other materials know to existence. I will find out this winter if it works.

  8. I would like to chime in and say, FU to Vivobarefoot. Thay make a winter shoe and they use a narrow last!!! I am very upset about this. First Keen went narrow and now Vivo?!!! FU Vivo

  9. I am facing some problem at winter season. When I am going out for running I am getting clipped. So suggest me a best shoes for crossfit in winter.



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