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.