Not too long ago I was asked what I thought about a shoe from a company called ZEM.  At the time I had zero knowledge of the company and its shoes so I contacted them to see if I could get a pair for review.  They were very quick to respond and graciously agreed to send me two different models to try out for you guys.  I have been wearing them basically non-stop since they arrived two weeks ago, and these are my initial thoughts with more to come as I continue to log the miles in them.

Per the website:

ZEMs provide you with enough protection to do what you want safely, but ZEMs are designed so that your foot can move naturally inside the shoe.

ZEM outsoles have a soft rubber bottom designed to give you traction. The high-frequency tech-bands over the arch of your foot flex with the natural movement of your feet that also help to secure the foot in the ZEM.  Our 4-way stretch lycra/spandex material and secure top collar are designed for wet or dry play, so feel free to go from water to land without taking them off.

ZEMs are designed for movement training and ZEMs can help you re-awaken your connection to your feet.  Simply put, more movement equals more control.

Do it barefoot in ZEMs.

Ninja Low

Ninja Low

The ZEM shoes come in two styles with two options per style.  They are all black with color

Playa Low

options coming in the form of colored straps over the top of the foot. They also have a kid’s version, which is a nice option.  The adult models all retail at $29.90 with the kids coming in at $26.90, a pretty great deal. The Ninja is a split toe martial arts style shoe that has the big toe separated in its own toe pocket while the other four toes are grouped together.  The Ninja is available in a low and high ankle style.  The second style is a called the Playa, and it is a mono-toed shoe that also comes in the high and low versions.  I find both to be very comfortable and very different than any other minimal shoe I have ever tried.

My Ninja Low Yellow/Black

I have logged nearly 50 miles in the Ninja, and I have been very impressed, which is what this review will focus on with thoughts on the Playa to come.  The rubber on the sole of the ZEMs is not as dense as the rubber on the Vibram Five Fingers so it is much more flexible and allows a great deal more feedback from the ground.  I would say this is by far the most barefoot I have ever felt in a shoe.  The big toe separation allows me some of the

The Inner Seam

toe movement that my VFFs do and that is a very nice feel.  There is more than enough room in the toe box for my four grouped toes to move naturally and not touch each other if they don’t want to.  My first run in these was in the rain, and I did develop a couple of small blisters on my instep, but that could have been caused by a number of factors.  The one that I thought would be the main reason is the way the sole is attached to the upper.  The upper comes down and rolls under to attach to the bottom of the shoe.  I could feel this seam on the inside of the shoe for that first run, and it is what caused the blister, along with wet skin.  I had reservations about this seam, but after that first run I no longer feel it at all, and I have had no further issues with blisters.  My advice is to wear them around a little before you run in them to soften the material at the seam.

The sole is incredibly comfortable and extremely minimal.  I have found myself out on runs forgetting that I am not barefoot.  The sole is 3mm thick, which is the same as a few models of VFFs,but as I mentioned before, the sole is softer and more flexible so it gives a completely different feel.  I feel every step and honestly receive so much feedback that I do not see much of a difference between these and being bare.  The biggest difference of course is the fact that my foot is protected, and I do not fear rubbing my skin raw at any time.  Knowing that the sole is a softer rubber than VFFs and feeling so much, I have purposely stepped on just about everything I found on the trails to see how they felt and  the shoes keep sharp things from cutting me.  This includes glass, nails, rocks, and a piece of metal I came across while running.  Yes, I put my valuable feet at risk, but these shoes held up great and kept me safe.  I had read in a few forums that the soles on these shoes are not durable and therefore not a good option as a running shoe.  I have a few thoughts on that.  The first one is that minimal shoes are held to an insane standard.  Any runner in conventional shoes is told to swap out their shoes every 300-500 miles and at $100 or more a pair!  Still no one really questions or gets upset about it.  If a minimal shoe doesn’t last 1,000 miles, they are considered to be sub par.  I have no idea how this came to be, but I think it should be left behind.  After the miles I’ve put on the Ninja’s I can see some slight wear but nothing other than some scuffing.  I had also read some complaints about how the sole attaches to the upper and that it touches the ground so it’s a bad shoe that won’t last.  Based on my time in the shoes, I would disagree with one big concession: form.  A runner with a clean form will find that these shoes will last quite a long time.  By clean form I mean that you pick your foot up and put it down without any dragging of your foot.  If you scuff along, I would not expect these shoes to give you more than 100 miles of running because they just are not designed for that.  If you have a clean form I do not see why you cannot easily get 500 or more miles out of a pair which makes them an outstanding buy at $30.  For the record, the pics in this post were taken last night after logging nearly 50 miles and as you can see there really is little to no wear on them.

The upper is very comfortable, and the tech bands that wrap over the foot keep the shoe on really well without squeezing too much.  The top collar hugs the ankle very nicely and does not let anything in.  I have purposely run through some sand courts in a park and I had zero sand in my shoes when I got home.  My only complaint about the upper is that it holds water a little more than I would like so it takes awhile to dry.  It’s not a big issue, and out in the hot Texas sun it has actually come in handy.  I was able to run through a couple of puddles the other day, and the shoes staying slightly wet helped keep my feet nice and cool.  The breathability is pretty good and I have yet to feel like my feet are hot in these shoes, either on a run or just wearing them all day.  I’ve worn them to work, out on my parents’ farm, and just going to see a movie.  I found the ZEMs to be great for all of these activities as well as for running.

I have run sprints, long distance, lifted weights, done agility drills, and hit the track, grass, mud, and pavement in these shoes with great results.  I find this to be extremely impressive since these booties were not designed for any of this.  This is a beach shoe originally designed to protect the feet out on the sand, more specifically while playing volleyball.  Much like Vibram a few years ago, ZEM is finding their products being used for much more than they ever imagined since goofball barefoot runners like me are out logging miles in them.  The truth is that the choices in truly minimal shoes is very limited, and as minimalist runners we are all just looking for anything that works so something like the ZEM booties are very appealing to us.  With that recognition ZEM is already accepting the challenge to improve on what is already a great product by working with top-level runners like Dr. Jeffrey Stamp, and now yours truly, to develop a minimal running shoe.  I will definitely keep you all posted on those developments as they come in.

ZEM stands for Zone of Endless Motion, and I believe they have created a shoe that achieves that.  There is zero limitation of foot movement or function in these booties.  In fact I would dare say that they do such a great job of not limiting the foot that you might not remember you have them on.  To say that of a shoe while you’re running in it is a pretty cool thing.

For more info or to order your ZEMs click on the ZEM logo at the top of this post or click here to go to their website.


20 responses »

  1. Angie Bishop says:

    those look great! Thanks for the review!

  2. lisa silvera says:

    GREAT review – thanks for sharing so thoroughly and honestly with us budding barefooters!

  3. Dan says:

    Look tempting. One quick question though; what are they like around the toes? They look like they could be tight on the little toe? After a few years of wearing nothing but Vivos and FiveFingers my feet hate anything that forces my little toe inwards.

    • Dan says:

      Never mind – I missed the bit where you talk about the toe box. That’ll teach me to read things better before I comment :).

  4. inbetweenmytoes says:

    I have some of these coming my way as well. It’s great to get your feedback on them. Can’t wait to try them on for a run.

  5. Brian says:

    Is there a preference between the separated big toe and the one that is all together? If I’m looking to wear it to school without drawing as much attention as the VFF do, which would you recommend?


  6. Brian says:

    Would you recommend these as an everyday minimal shoe?
    I also thought about the asics tai chi but haven’t decided yet. I was hoping for a shoe I don’t have to wear socks in that don’t get all sweaty. The VFF KSO’s would be perfect if they weren’t so hard to get on and drew so much attention.


    • I have enjoyed the ZEMs as an everyday shoe. One of the things I’ve noticed is that they don’t stink even after sweaty miles with no socks.

      • Brian says:

        Any experience with the tai chi’s or any pumas?

      • Sorry I have no experience with the tai chi’s and Puma’s are by far and away too narrow for me. I’ve tried multiple pairs and have never found one that didn’t stack my toes up. Depending on how minimal you want to be there is a company called Jinga that makes a minimal shoe that looks just like the Asics or Pumas.

  7. C. Beth says:

    Wow, thanks so much for the info here and on BRS. These are one of my top possibilities for winter now. Bookmarking your review….

  8. fivefingers(; says:

    so you can run in the zem shoes?

  9. Mittie says:

    Do you like the Hi or Lo cut better? I’m wanting to get a pair to wear on a sailboat.

    • I personally enjoy the low cut more but that is a personal preference. I have never liked high top shoes of any kind. For sailing you would do well with any model or cut that ZEM produces so you should be fine with your personal preference in that situation as well. I have had people tell me they like the higher cut for sandy beach use as it does a better job of keeping the sand out.

  10. Jason says:

    Thanks for the review! I am new to the minimalist thing, I live in northern Michigan, I am concerned about the water absorption. Would these work in winter where you are on ince and may need to step into snow where the shoe might get completley covered to get to some places (not like backwoods hiking or anything)? When wet do they then leave wet marks all over the floor?

    Also how do these compare to water shoes / aqua socks? I might splurge for some Vivo Oaks for church and such, but would like something cheaper for normal wear…

    Thanks! – jason

  11. Jason they do absorb water and are not water proof at all. I personally have no experience in them in the snow or ice but have had a few people tell me they are pretty good for those environments. They are a little slippery in ice but they said they are really nice for snow. I’ve run in them in the rain and never saw any wet spots on my floors so you should be good there.

    I’ve used both the ZEMs and water shoes and like them both but the ZEMs have a better feel and fit.

  12. Gabe Spedale says:

    I am a high school cross-country runner, and i own a pair of ZEM 360 Runner Series shoes (which i do compete in.) They are perfect for conditioning or even racing as well. i personally love the split toe pattern, and lo cut seam. I highly recommend them to anyone interested in minimalist running or just everyday use.

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