Barefoot vs Maximal Cushioning

Date Posted: 17 April 2023

The debate on whether it's better to run in a minimally or maximally cushioned running shoe has been a hot topic for years now. What's the deal, and which is best for you?

Cushioning Spectrum

These days, a shoe's cushioning level (technical term: stack height) can run all the way from zero cushioning to a thick slab of foam. We like to categorise a shoe's cushioning level as one of four options:


Cushioning Level Description Example Brands (generalisation only)
Barefoot No cushioning at all Vivobarefoot, Vibram
Light Significantly less padding than 'normal' Inov-8, Xero, most racing shoes
Moderate The cushioning level found in most traditional runners ASICS, Brooks, Saucony, Salomon, Newton
Maximum Loads of cushioning through the midsole Altra, HOKA

Often, these four categories are split into two mindsets: MINIMAL (barefoot and light) or MAXIMAL (moderate and maximum).

Pay attention to a shoe's stack height to understand just how cushioned it is. A stack height of zero will of course be the most minimal of all. A stack height above 30mm is a massive amount of cushioning. Stack height isn't everything, as some foams are more dense than others, but it's a good guide. TIP: You can find a shoe's stack height in the Specifications tab on any of our shoes!

You may have seen your favourite brand/s in a certain category. If that's the case, read on to find out why you might prefer that style. If you aren't a diehard fan of any one brand, below you'll discover which cushioning system you may like best. 

Minimal Cushioning

Barefoot and miminal shoes put less cushioning (and typically less everything!) between your feet and the ground. This allows you to "feel" the ground and heighten your own body awareness. As a result, minimal cushioning is said to:

  • Provide a more natural running experience
  • Allow your body to adjust to minimise ground impact, rather than relying on your shoes to absorb impact
  • Strengthen your feet and legs
  • Prevent you from heel striking (which can hurt and injure you more quickly)
  • Promote a wider toe splay.

The drawback: Barefoot and minimalist running requires learning to run in a specific way. If you rush the transition from maximal to minimal shoes, you can be sidelined with injuries.


Maximum Cushioning

Maximal shoes have thick midsoles: you can often see the foam cushioning straight away when you look at the shoe side-on. This high stack height provides a plush, cushioned ride with lots of impact protection. This is said to:

  • Be easier on joints
  • Protect your body from impact shock, thus reducing injuries or pain from present injuries
  • Reduce fatigue on high mileage runs - the majority of ultramarathon runners would wear a maximal shoe to a race
  • Be overall more comfortable to wear, with a "floating" feeling.

Don't get confused. Just because a shoe has moderate to maximum cushioning does not mean they're not lightweight or minimalist in design. Most brands will always use very lightweight materials, avoid any excess, and offer a range of heel-to-toe drops or offsets.

The drawback: Some runners find that maximal shoes sometimes feel 'mushy' (less efficient) during toe-off. And regardless of an otherwise minimalist design, the added foam cushioning will always make a maximum cushion shoe heavier than a minimal cushion shoe.


Which is Better?

That's up to you. Neither minimal nor maximal cushioning has defensible long-term studies to back up their claims and both have many devoted followers. It's simply a preference: do you want to FEEL the ground or FLOAT over it?

If in doubt, take a look at your current running shoes. How much cushioning do they have? Do they feel good, without causing pain? Feel free to choose shoes with a similar stack height and cushioning level!

If you're still not sure, go for a moderately cushioned shoe for a nice, versatile trainer that will serve you well on many types of runs. This is also the best choice for new runners.

Whichever you choose, give your new shoes a couple of runs to break in and mould to your feet. Happy running!