Reebok‘s RealFlex running shoe marks Reebok’s initial foray into barefoot / minimalist footwear.

Evolving out of an earlier concept for “collapsible shoes“, the RealFlex isn’t a pure barefoot shoe.

Reebok RealFlex Running Shoe

Designed for the mainstream market, the RealFlex is being promoted as being a better than barefoot shoe. Their Head of Advanced Innovation says that RealFlex combines the best aspects of barefoot/minimalist footwear with the protection of a modern running shoe.

They claim that you get all of that healthy foot movement & proprioception without all of those nasty impact forces caused by running on concrete sidewalks.

Sounds pretty convincing to me. Which is not surprising when you consider that they’re trying to sell you a pair.

How about an unbiased review?

Review Criteria

  • Protection – If you’re not going to develop thick natural calluses by actually running barefoot, you need to wear a shoe that will protect you from the occasional sharp stone or chunk of glass.

Compared to all of the other barefoot / minimalist shoes I have been beta-testing, these shoes offered the best protection against the stones, glass and small woodland creatures I encounter while trail running. This is thanks to the RealFlex’s thicker sole & foam padding.

  • Proprioception – A bare foot provides immediate feedback to the surface it rests upon. A thick spongy sole…not so much. This can be crucial when it comes to avoiding ankle sprains and wiping out while trail running.

Compared to every pair of Nike Frees that I ever owned, the RealFlex offers much improved proprioception. Compared to the average running shoe, there’s no comparison. The RealFlex lets you feel the ground better than any other big name athletic shoe that I have ever worn.

However, when we compare to every other barefoot / minimalist shoe that I have been testing, the RealFlex is like walking in Moon Boots. The relatively thick layer of foam padding creates a noticeable barrier between your feet & the ground.

And that’s the big trade-off – Protection for Proprioception

  • Natural Foot Movement – Does the shoe allow or  prevent your foot from flexing & spreading in order to distribute the load uniformly over the entire foot. This analysis will address shoe width (especially the toe box), arch support, shock absorption, etc…

The RealFlex offers no motion control technology. The minimalist upper lets the foot spread out against the fabric with minimal resistance. However, since it is shaped like a standard running shoe, us wide footed runners tend to spread our feet out and over the edge of the sole.

Not exactly like bare feet.

The toe box is average width. You don’t notice your toes being pinched, but compared to some barefoot shoes, there is less room to wiggle.

Regarding shock absorption, the RealFlex’s foam padding is designed to protect the runner from impact on man-made surfaces.

This is most noticeable with the RealFlex’s built up heel design. This is a major design difference between the RealFlex and other barefoot / minimalist shoe makers.

Instead of letting the runner alter their body position and center of gravity  to continue running on his mid-foot while going downhill, the RealFlex provides foam protection and a high-heel stance in order to promote a heel-toe gait. Big difference.

  • Weight of the Shoe – Who wants a heavy, clunky shoe?

The RealFlex is very light. Lighter than some barefoot / minimalist shoes…heavier than others. But, definitely, definitely lighter than just about every athletic shoe you will find on the wall of your neighborhood sporting goods store.

  • The Drop – Most conventional running shoes raise the heel 22-24mm off the ground while lifting the front of the shoe only 10-15mm off the ground. This difference creates a forward leaning slope which changes your posture and leads to a heel-toe gait which leads a bunch of problems. Long story short, a flat shoe is more natural.

As I mentioned above, the raised heel of the RealFlex is a significant difference between it and the other barefoot/minimalist shoes on the market. Barefoot runners adapt to running downhill by shifting their center of gravity and perhaps slowing down. The Reebok RealFlex wants you to shift your gait from a midfoot strike to a heel-toe running gait when you are bombing down hills.

Major difference in philosophy.

  • Shape of the Sole – As your foot spreads, does the protective sole continue to protect your foot from physical damage?

The RealFlex is shaped like a traditional running shoe. As such, runners with wide feet will find their feet spreading out and over the width of the sole

  • Comfort – Do they feel good on your feet?

They are super comfortable. My “normal” running shoes felt like big, clunky shoe-boxes on my feet after wearing the RealFlexes.

  • Ease of Use – Are they easy to put on?

The reduced material in the uppers means that you can’t just shove your feet in a pair of RealFlexes without untying them or using a shoe horn. Deal with it.

  • Appearance – Do you look like a freak wearing them? Do you care?

The RealFlex looks like an ordinary runner. Unlike almost all of the other test shoes, you won’t look weird wearing these shoes.

Major selling point if you want to market to the mainstream.

  • Ventilation – Vibrams are notoriously stinky shoes…what about the RealFLex?

So far so good. But then again, I don’t have stinky feet. My wife is a lucky woman.

  • Durability – Will they stand up to some pounding?

So far, so good. It’s only been a couple of months, but there is little to no wear.

  • Price – Due to my Scottish background, cost is always a factor.

At $90, the RealFlex is cheaper than some barefoot shoes, and more expensive than others. They’re also way cheaper than most pairs of high end “normal” running shoes.

  • Application – Is the shoe applicable for everyday use, running, sports, yoga, weight lifting, water sports, beach sports, etc?

The RealFlex is the most unique barefoot / minimalist shoe that I will be testing.

  • It doesn’t look like other barefoot shoes
  • It looks like a “normal” running shoe
  • It doesn’t work like other barefoot shoes….
  • But, it doesn’t work like a “normal” running shoe either

So, what is it?

What the Heck Is the Reebok RealFlex?

IMHO, the Reebok RealFlex is either:

  1. A transition shoe for runner who want to transition from heel-toe running to barefoot running.
  2. A hybrid shoe that provides the best aspects of barefoot / minimalist shoes with the best aspects of heel-toe running shoes.
  3. An attempt by Reebok to capture the buzz of barefoot / minimalist shoes without scaring away the mainstream buyer who would never buy a pair of shoes with toes.

Conclusion

I highly recommend the Reebok RealFlex to my clients.

I believe that a switch from heel-toe running to barefoot / midfoot running is a great thing to do for your body. However, the switch from a pair of New Balance running shoes to a pair of barefoot / minimalist slippers can be brutally painful.

The RealFlex makes that transition much, much easier.

Whether they transition from a RealFlex to a true barefoot shoe is another question altogether. Perhaps they use the RealFlex on rocky terrain or during a race. Perhaps they graduate from the RealFlex to a pure barefoot shoe. Perhaps they go all the way and ditch running shoes altogether.

Either way, the RealFlex is a good shoe. It’s not for the Barefoot / Minimalist purist. But then again, the purist is the customer Reebok is looking for. Reebok is looking for the millions who want to run without people staring at their feet.