VivoBarefoot review

VivoBarefoot review

After our natural movement workshop it was clear that to keep improving our running technique, Aoife and I would need to buy shoes that were not conflicting with what we were trying to achieve. Luckily, like the participants in our workshop, Tony Riddle and VivoBarefoot kindly provided us with a discount code for purchases in their shop and we went for two pairs each: the road and treadmill running shoe (Aqua lite for men and the popular pink Lucy Lite for women) and the trail running shoe “Breatho“. A week after our order, a big package arrived and we excitedly tore the wrapping (Christmas come early) and had a look at the beasties.

René in VivoBarefoot shoes
Happy René ready for his first run in VivoBarefoot Aqua lite

Why did you have to change runners?

To enable a return to your optimal and natural running patterns, you need to achieve a number of things the first being correct posture and the second being proprioception. When wearing shoes with a heel to toe differential (the heel being higher off the ground than the toe box as in traditional runners), you cannot attain optimal posture for running as your hip is tilted forward and your centre of gravity changes. Runners with more than 3mm of cushioning below the sole cannot achieve optimal proprioception, which means your body’s sense of position, balance and movement. Almost all sports requiring great levels of skill use shoes with barely any sole for this reason (think ballet and martial arts), and as runners we need to catch up to this notion.

The human foot provides much of this “proprioceptive” feedback and really only has one design flaw – we do not have hooves or pads like other running animals which could have stopped our species’ plans for world domination if we had not used our brains to invent extra protection where needed. This balance between leaving your foot sensitive but not vulnerable seems to be at 3mm of sole. Apart from these overall requirements, no shoe should interfere with the natural workings of your foot or unbalance it by carrying significant weight, such as thick cushioning, at the front or back. Most traditional runners are unbalanced at the back with shoes such as Newton’s carrying weight both on the front and back from a thick layer of cushioning. To test this, balance your shoes on your finger halfway between heel and toe, and see if the weight distribution quickly tips it one way or the other.

A final thing you need from your shoe to allow natural running is a toe box wide enough for  all of your toes to “splay out fully”. During the workshop, and subsequently, I have noticed how the many runners I know and work with have a big toe that is pointing inwards rather than outwards and often the early to late stages of a big bunion forming on the big toe joint. This is a phenomenon related to Morton’s toe, a syndrome where the big toe is shortened in relation to the second toe. This is caused by very footwear that is too tight around a the front “squeezing” your toes like a vice and becomes a major contributing factor in the majority of common running injuries such as plantar fasciitis, posterior tibialis tendinitis, knee problems and hip injuries.

Without this background, your foot may look harmless enough with this syndrome until you understand that for the foot to settle optimally on the ground with each stride, the body’s centre of mass needs to fall onto the big toe joint. So: if your big toe “is not where it is supposed to be”, those loading forces from impact transfer onto other places such as the bunion that is forming or onto the adjacent toe joint. Both cause a reduction in your efficiency as a runner and increase your risk of injury. The only two pairs of runners I currently own that do not cause this “squeeze” are the Inov-8 Road-X Lite 155 and Inov-8 Recolite but after analysing them with Tony Riddle, both shoes could do with 5mm-10mm more width to be perfect so hopefully Inov-8 will keep improving on their design here.

Does the VivoBarefoot shoes deliver on this?

VivoBarefoot Breatho trail
The VivoBarefoot "Breatho" enjoying themselves at the radiator

As far as we can see the VivoBarefoot shoes are the most purist in the market featuring a very wide toe-box allowing full toe splay-out and none of their shoes have any heel to toe differential. The moment I put on the first pair, I felt instantly “grounded” and extremely stable. I have noted before on my blog that I believe a raised heel on an off-road running shoes is fundamental error. It is almost impossible to sprain your ankle in a flat shoe but the higher heel lift the easier it is, yet people blame their sprains on weak ankles!

When you wear the “Vivos” you notice greater stability instantly, you are planted to the ground like a tree or as you would be barefoot but without the feeling of vulnerability and anxiety that most of us “modern runners” experience when going barefoot on harder terrains, especially the rocky paths. The benefits of this became very clear on my first run with the shoes (below).

The off-road Breathos have a 2.5mm sole with 4.5mm lugs for extra grip while the Aqua lite and Lucy lite sport the standard VivoBarefoot 3mm sole. The outsole on the Breatho is quite aggressive and should do a proper job in most competitive situations. Once you master proper natural movement, you will naturally need less grip as you are “lifting” off the ground rather than “pushing” and thus have less ground contact time and less friction with the ground. To a certain extent extensive grips have become a crutch we use to compensate for insufficient technical ability on descents and challenging terrain. On the Aqua and Lucy lite shoes you have very little grip, just the minimal for very slippery road conditions, which is ideal as you don’t want any extra stickiness to the ground when running on road, track or treadmill.

But barefooting get’s you injured, just look at the law-suit against Vibram?

Let’s put this to bed once and for all: there’s two ways to run “natural” or “unnatural” and then there is a continuum in between as you educate yourself moving from an unnatural to a natural movement pattern for running. The natural pattern is the better choice in all respects for everyone, except those who can’t be bothered or who don’t mind being injured. There are not individual sets of natural laws for each runner, I’m afraid.

What you do need is proper education to return to this movement pattern. So before buying a pair of these shoes you must first prepare your technique (your software) and your physique (your hardware). Without the software, running barefoot or minimalist will cause injuries, as we are now seeing and as physios are now decrying. Without the necessary hardware, the end result is the same but we are not looking at 18 month time-frames here but merely about six weeks. I was not new to minimalist before my first run with VivoBarefoot shoes, having attended one training session and two workshop days with Tony Riddle,  and having worn racing flats and minimalist shoes regularly over the last few years.

Let’s have a look at how the VivoBarefoot compared to the models I have tried before:

VivoBarefoot Aqua lite sole
Rene showcases the slick and fast sole on the Aqua lite

Comparison to my current minimalist shoes

Since the Kerry training weekend I had a soreness on the inside of my left shin. A very faint one but concerning nonetheless. However, niggles no longer stress me out as I know they are just reminders from the body that I am executing a faulty movement pattern, so to solve it I just need to correct the movement and I hoped with the VivoBarefoot it would become easier for me to do just that.

I had run all my runs in Kerry in either the Inov-8 Road-X Lite 155, Inov-8 Recolite or Inov-8 X-Talon 190 shoes. They were minimalist enough to cause problems with the 80km run in four days because each shoe in turn had it’s own shortcomings: the Road-X Lite 155 has a heel to toe differential and a 6mm sole, the X-Talons have a heel to toe differential and a very narrow front and the Recolite has both a 6mm sole and a 9mm differential from heel to toe.

I own a pair of Vibram FiveFingers but have never enjoyed using them as the sides of the Sprint version I have cut into my feet and the toe-design makes them slow to get into and uncomfortable to wear for me. They also caused more discomfort on hard surfaces which I struggle to understand as they have only 3.5mm sole, can the extra 0.5mm really make a difference or is it in the make-up of the sole?

My own theory around racing flats is that to a certain extent they represent the worst of both worlds, offering less of the artificial protection of modern running shoes but none of the benefits of barefooting as they still feature soles that are much to thick for a runner to receive feedback from the ground. My own Nike LunarRacers are particularly culpable for this with a very raised heel, thick “lunar” foam shutting out any feedback, and a very narrow and restrictive mould and toe-box. In the VivoBarefoot shoes, I have to employ my natural elasticity to run comfortably, meaning my plantar arch is compressing properly on impact. When wearing the Nike LunarRacers I had problems with soreness in my left arch because the foot is struggling to settle into its correct position through the thick layer of foam. In essence it has some similarity to running each step on a very thick rubber mat with predictable results.

First runs with VivoBarefoot

VivoBarefoot Breatho grips
The aggressive grip on the Breatho

My first run with the VivoBarefoot started out like most runs with the Vibram have: I felt tortured, sore in my shin and clumsy. But then, within a few hundred metres, my “natural software” started to click in and suddenly the running experience become more enjoyable and I noticed I could land relaxed flat on my foot without feeling any significant impact from the ground. It felt as good as when I did my short 1-3km runs barefoot on tarmac but without the slight burning sensation of “tarmac friction” that creeps up on you when you have “thin Western skin” under your feet. When I returned later it was with a smile on my face when I had left the house slightly despondent. The Aqua lite passed the first test with flying colours.

For my second run I wore the Breathos and we began on tarmac path running to Marlay Park before doing a 10km interval session on grass. The shoes gave me no trouble and helped me set a strong fast rhythm during the intervals. Unlike when I did these sessions in my X-Talons or BareGrip shoes there was little or no soreness in my achilles after and no fatigue in the calf muscle. Clearly a combination of the natural movement training, the better proprioception, lack of heel raise and wider toe-box result in a better running stride and discourages the damaging gait I was using when wearing my regular shoes.

Two points for VivoBarefoot at this stage and I had not needed to resort to ultra-conservative distances to do this pain-free. With the very limited amount of time spend on re-educating myself, I ran 6km for the first run and more than 10 miles for the second, much of it at pace. My next run was short due to circumstance rather than choice but once again I felt that the longer I ran in the Aqua lites, the better I began to feel. This continued when I did my second interval session of the week, a set of 4x1km with 1km active running recovery which added up to over 14km on tarmac, and this time at even faster speeds. I felt a few of my old niggles very late in the process, reminding me that I had reached the limits of my mental or technical abilities to hold proper form at this stage. Yet, this was a far cry from the expectation often set that you have to settle into barefoot or very minimalist footwear with a few hundred metres per day building up slowly over months and years.

The VivoBarefoot shoes allow me to run much further using proper form than pure barefooting which had previously restricted me to about 2 miles. Based on the week’s experience when first testing these shoes, I would expect to be able to run somewhere between 70-80km per week in the VivoBarefoot shoes without issues. This is not far below my previous maximum range of 120-140km (something I have achieved rarely and often at great cost). My plan is that once this marathon training cycle is over, it will be possible to transition all my running into VivoBarefoot shoes within about six weeks. Running in these shoes has to stay accompanied with the daily natural movement drills to counteract the issues caused by the regular sitting and other unnatural stress factors of modern life, so that is one “price” you need to be able to pay.

Instruction natural running
First things first: learn natural running, then buy the shoe

How do I get training?

VivoBarefoot are a pretty unique company in that they provide a full training programme and have certified coaches teaching their methods from a programme devised by Lee Saxby. Videos and a free e-book are available on their website but although these online resources are terrific, my own experience shows that to give yourself the best opportunity to transition you need to work with a highly experienced natural movement expert on at least a few occasions until you have mastered the principles enough to continue entirely on your own.

As a results ChampionsEverywhere are making natural running and natural movement training available through a series of clinics and workshops we are rolling out over summer in conjunction with Tony Riddle, director of Pilates Running. The first workshop was held last month and the next will be held on the 16th and 17th June, so if you like this review and want to go for the shoes, go for the training as well or you may end up as another fallacious argument against natural running.

We cannot stand over a coaching model that does not address the primary cause of all running injuries, insufficient technical ability, when up to 80% of runners are injured yearly regardless of what traditional training they follow.

How do the Vivos perform on mixed trail?

So far I have only tested the Breatho model on the small rocky sections of St. Kevin’s Way but here it outperforms all my other minimalist shoes by not causing any discomfort or “bruising encounters” with stones. This seems counter-intuitive because the shoe is less protected than the Road-X Lite 155 or the Recolites. My personal theory is that the extra proprioception allows my feet to land better positioned in relation to my centre of gravity as well as allowing me to pull off the ground just that split second quicker when a sharp pointy rock is felt, thus protecting my foot from any pain in the impact.

I will need to test the shoes more on a wider variety of trails in the upcoming months to fully gauge their performance on trail and terrain.

VivoBarefoot Aqua lite
VivoBarefoot Aqua lite on their soap-box

Look and feel

“They look like clogs,” Tony Collins, one of our 800m runners in the CE Squad, told Aoife looking at her Lucy Lites this week. Well, they do look a bit different, the human eye is naturally attracted to the “sharp, fast” look of racing shoes so the broad snout and sole of the VivoBarefoot shoes can take a bit of getting used to. Personally, I quite liked the design, and if you are into something a bit different and colourful, the VivoBarefoot team have designed a “trendy”, slightly retro, shoe. But the comfort and functional properties are the real reason for buying the brand.

When it comes to comfort the shoes really deliver, the lacing system is put together in a way that does not press down on the metatarsals and restrict the foots natural movement and ability to relax. The ankle box is soft and you barely feel it and with the overall wide design of the shoe, they slide on like a cushy pair of slippers.

Everything on the shoe looks incredibly sturdy and tear resistant and with the lack of cushioning, I would expect each runner to get significantly more mileage out of their VivoBarefoot shoe than a traditional trainer.

Any minuses?

There’s little wrong with these shoes except I would like them to be a little bit lighter with the Breatho coming in at 272g and the Aqua lite at 187g. With modern running shoes sneaking down around 120-150g on some occasions, a version of the off-road and road shoe in this weight category would be welcomed. In the meantime, however, VivoBarefoot provide a very light amphibious shoe in the 157g “Ultra” and the 152g “Achilles”, essentially a running sandal.

[rating: 5/5] VivoBarefoot deliver exactly the tool needed to educate yourself back to natural running.

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.

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