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ZEM Review

Posted by on Oct 20, 2010 | 5 Comments

I heard of ZemGear some time ago. Quite honestly, I never considered them as an option for barefoot and minimalist shoe runners. Based on the descriptions, I assumed they were a name-brand aqua sock. I used aqua socks early in my barefoot/minimalist shoe running days, but had abandoned them in favor of better-fitting options.

A few weeks ago, I was killing time on the Barefoot Runners Society forums. I happened to notice the ZEM advertisement in the right column. They looked pretty cool! This was enough to compel me to check out their website.

After looking at a few models, I was intrigued. The shoes appeared to be much more sock-like than aqua socks. I was especially fascinated with a split-toe model that reminded me of ninja boots. As a kid, playing ninja was one of my favorite pass times. I contacted the company and they gladly agreed to send me a pair to test and review.

They arrived in a small bag slightly larger than a first-class envelope. Upon first inspection, I was surprised they were so minimal. They looked like a pair of neoprene socks with very thin (about 1mm) rubber soles. There were several shiny elastic bands running across the top of the forefoot. The split toe design sequesters the big toe from the rest. They looked exactly like low-cut ninja shoes.   Sweet!

I tried them on. The fit was exceptionally comfortable. The material fit snugly on the foot without interfering with natural foot movement. The sole was thin enough to give amazing ground feel. When walking on asphalt, I could feel every single tiny pebble.

Walking in the Zems was very similar to walking barefoot, as was running. I can’t say much other than the experience was as close to barefoot running as I’ve come while wearing any type of shoe. The only more minimal foot covering I’ve tried are thin fabric socks.

The split toe design did nothing to enhance or reduce performance. If given the choice, I think I would prefer the undivided toe design.

The major issue runners will experience is durability. The current ZEM booties are not designed for running. The neoprene upper actually curves over the sole material, which exposes the neoprene to the friction of the road. I would estimate they may last about 100 miles with good form on asphalt. On trails, sand, or other forgiving minimally-abrasive surface mileage may be significantly better.

If I were running a marathon or shorter race and interested in a PR, I would strongly consider purchasing these as a one-use shoe. They would provide just enough protection to really push hard without worry of abrasive injuries. I am strongly considering these as my footwear for an upcoming 5k on the eve of Halloween.

ZEM IS in the process of developing a running shoe. I am eager to test these as the fundamental elements of the shoes are near-perfect. Simply altering the sole so the rubber overlaps the neoprene would create an excellent light-duty running shoe.

ZEM has a bright future as a minimalist shoe manufacturer. They have distinguished themselves from the competition by producing one of the most minimal shoes manufactured today. I look forward to their future contributions.

The Zem split toe design I tested retail for $29.90.

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  1. STU
    October 26, 2010

    I thought I would love these, but after a few days around the house to break them in and a few short runs (2-4 miles), I can’t stand them. The seam where the neoprene upper meets the sole hits right at the bony part on the side of the base of my right big toe, and is unbearable. After reading the review on GoBarefooting, I thought that it would subside or soften after being broken in, but that hasn’t happened.

    I’ll give them another chance when their running shoes come out (on which you say the sole will wrap up over the neoprene insteay of the other way around).

  2. Sarah HI
    October 22, 2010

    Seriously, who doesn’t want to be a ninja while running!?! I love this sock/shoe/whatever it is and am going to buy it now! I usually wear vibrams and I like them well enough, but I’d like something a little more comfortable. Thanks for the review!

  3. Brandon Mulnix
    October 21, 2010

    Ninja toe!!! Winter is scary for me, and my goal of running a barefoot 50K in February, but I like your review. I am only a 1 full barefoot mile into my trainging, and could see the benifits of a little protection during the winter. Thanks for the great review!

  4. Barefoot Alex
    October 21, 2010

    Thanks for the review! I have seen the ZEM advertised but did not give them an appropriate appraisal. After reading your comments I feel that this may be a good option to battle the cold Ohio winters. One thing I do love is the price and the ninja toe!

  5. krazygoat
    October 20, 2010

    I use these for a lot of my running. They have held up better than I thought. I probably have 80 miles on mine and the material that wraps around the sole still has no holes.

    My issues with them is the sole material is plasticky, it works, but would like something grippier like vibram rubber. Also the seam on the inside sometimes bothers me. On my right foot as a run the TPU straps make the bootie slip forward on my foot just enough to get the inside seam right under my heel. It had not caused my any issue other than just feeling annoying. The only time I had major issues was running in the rain. They soak up water like a sponge and the wet inside seam rubbed my wet foot raw. I had to take them off and finish my run barefoot.

    If ZEM got rid of the inside seam, got a better sole, and had a way to tension up the heel to prevent the sock from moving around on the foot these would be the ultimate minimal shoe as ground feel is incredible.

    Personally I love the ninja toe, it may not do anything but who doesn’t want to be a ninja while running.