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June 13, 2011

ZEM Gear Ninja Review

On the continuum from bare feet to minimalist footwear, there’s something of a disconnect in the transition from sock to shoe. Shoe companies trend downward by stripping away all but the bare essentials, while sock manufacturers augment their products to tolerate general all-purpose outdoor activity.

The ideal middle ground is to have a product that feels as thin, natural, and comfortable as a pair of socks, with enough durability to run high mileage in various conditions like you could with a shoe. I've recently been testing two products that come closer to hitting that sweet spot than pretty much anything else I’ve tested; one of them comes from the “sock” side of the spectrum, and the other one (which I'll introduce in the near future) originates from the shoe side.

Today’s post features ZEM Gear, which packs a lot of technology into a rather simple design, and has multiple applications for people who want to feel barefoot without actually being barefoot. I tested the Ninja Low Ankle version, which the website describes as the “first choice of barefoot enthusiasts, runners, and athletes.” It basically looks like a neoprene sock, and at 2.2 oz, it’s about the lightest thing you can put on your feet.

Material construction of ZEM Gear consists of a 4-way stretch lycra upper that is approximately 2mm thick. They provide enough insulation to keep me warm on 40-degree mornings, and breathe fairly well on hot days, although we’ve yet to see an extreme heat spell so far this year. The Ninja is intended for wet or dry use, so they would be equally suited for a winter run in the rain or a summer day at the lake.

Across the top of the upper are stripes called high frequency tech-bands which help prevent slipping of the foot inside the upper – and while this next point has nothing to do with the their performance, my gold-on-black stripes kind of reminded me of something an ancient Egyptian pharaoh might wear.

Walk like a minimalist Egyptian ...

As the name implies, the collar of this model sits quite low around the ankle – perhaps lower than pretty much any other minimalist footwear I’ve tested. Although I had a compulsion to reach down and pull the collar up at times, it actually stayed in place quite well. The Ninjas have a secure-top collar which stretches far enough to put them on easily, but stays snug enough around the ankle to keep debris out. There’s a high ankle version which appears as if it would sit right above the lateral ankle bone if that’s your preference.

Ideal flexibility

The Ninja upper is most noteworthy for its split-toe design which separates the big toe from the rest to help improve barefoot feel and balanced during activity. Yes, it looks weird, but I found this to be a nice compromise between Injinji-style toe pockets and single toe box models. I suspect that with a single toe box, my foot would have a bit more trouble gripping the ground, but having single toe pockets on a neoprene upper might make the Ninjas more difficult to put on or take of.

Narrow outsole shape

While the upper feels very comfortable against bare skin and stays in place quite well, I found the overall shape to be somewhat narrow, especially in the front of the foot. Each time I ran for more than an hour or so, I noted hot spots on the outside of my pinky toes, where the toe box angles inward a bit too sharply. If the toe box was slightly wider, the outer toes could spread and flex completely naturally, but with the current shape they seem slightly restricted.

Outsoles of the Ninja are composed of a soft 3mm-thick rubber with molded traction lugs to improve your grip. Obviously with such minimal thickness, flexibility and ground feel in ZEMs is outstanding; you’ll feel every single crack in the road and bump on the trail. One problem I noticed with the outsole is that its softness sometimes causes very small or sharp pebbles to get embedded in the rubber – think of the feeling you get when there’s a small rock stuck to the bottom of your foot, and that’s what I experienced every now and then with my Ninjas.

Beginning to fray on inside of big toe seam

Another potential drawback of the outsole is the rather large seam that attaches it to the upper. I thought this would be an issue at the heel area where I tend to wear out the insides of my Soft Star Dash moccasins, but the first point of failure was actually in the forefoot and toe area, where the fabric seam started to fray after repeated abrasion on asphalt.

The biggest challenge in sock-like products such as ZEM is making them durable enough on the underside to be worn for running or other high-demand activity without excessively compromising ground feel. This is a drawback for ZEM as well, as mine started to fall apart after about 75 miles or so. However, a few points are worth noting in their defense:

1) ZEMs weren’t originally intended as running shoes; they’re another of those products that were designed for fairly routine barefoot use only to be seized upon by the minimalist running crowd. There’s actually a disclaimer on the website saying that you shouldn’t wear them for an extended period of time on concrete or asphalt … but we all know how good runners are at listening to precautions.

2) The company has a new product line coming out very soon which features an outsole with greater abrasion resistance – but then I’m sure some purists will gripe about the decreased barefoot feel. They’ll be interesting to test, and I’ll pass along more feedback about them as I’m able to.

3) With a low retail price of $35, you can afford to burn through a few pair of these in relatively short order with a return on investment that’s close to some other minimalist footwear out there. I'd predict that you could get at least 100 miles or more out of a pair before you need to replace them - and if you just wear ZEMs for walking and general outdoor use, you’ll probably stretch your dollars even further.

Ultimately, I think the Ninja is more suitable as a light-use shoe than as a hardy training shoe, but there is a lot of potential for ZEM’s products to be an extremely attractive option for minimalist runners looking for bare-bones protection without sacrificing the barefoot feel they love.

ZEM’s Ninjas retail for $35 from the company website.

*Product provided by ZEM Gear
**See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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Steve 6/13/11, 8:29 PM  


Perfect timing - I was reading this and thought "I'll give those a try".

At the website the largest men's size is 9-10. Not even close to the size of my feet.

Oh well. I'll wait for that "next best thing".

Spokane Al 6/13/11, 8:30 PM  

"Walk like a minimalist Egyptian ..." - gotta love your sense of humor!

It looks like you tested the two toed sloth model.

Chris 6/14/11, 7:07 AM  

Nice review and excellent pictures.

Do you think they'd last a lot longer on basic dirt and grass trails rather than asphalt and concrete? If I could get around 200+ miles on them, I'd consider buying a pair for my local 5-mile grass/dirt (very tame) trail.


Jay,  6/14/11, 7:53 AM  

Hi Donald,
I just searched your site yesterday to see if you had reviewed a ZEM product. Great timing! I'm interested in what the new model will be like. I followed your link and found that it is due out mid-July.


Donald 6/14/11, 8:46 AM  

Chris: I think they'd definitely last longer on soft trails, but I wouldn't want to guess a total number of miles you may get. It's a fairly low price of entry to find out, though.

Assistant 6/27/11, 9:59 AM  

I know there is a lot of research out there both for and against the barefoot style gait...

I have absolutely no arch in my feet so have always worn high stability shoes. What do you think about barefoot shoes for no arches?


Rikki O.,  4/9/12, 3:10 PM  

Do you recommend these for school? I generally walk on mulch, concrete, tile, and carpet. I move around a lot by jumping and leaping and whatnot. Do you think they'll hold up or will they just fall apart?

Donald 4/9/12, 8:52 PM  

@RikkiO: they'd hold up well for a while, but I'd be surprised if they make it through a whole school year.

nja,  6/10/12, 6:40 AM  

hmmm... I was wondering- if You are saying that these could last just about 100 miles that I'll probably try something more durable. I'm running about 100 miles/ month or more than 1000 miles per year. It looks quite expensive for me.

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