Barefoot shoes: One would have to be sleeping at the keyboard if he or she hasn’t read at least a dozen articles outlining the benefits or the hazards of going bare. Even the more cautious of souls (such as yours truly) have begun to wonder about and wander into this fascinating trend in running. And, the shoe market is keeping up with this trend reasonably well. From the venerated Vibram Five Fingers to the diverse offerings of Merrell, runners, particularly trail runners, are seeing more options for covering their feet in a minimal fashion.
VIVOBAREFOOT has been a major competitor in that market for some time. Vivo has the distinction of being one of the few shoe companies that was built from the ground up for barefoot shoes, not just as a sideline for other products. And, for many years, Vivo has offered runners of flatter and gentler surfaces shoes with great success. Now, with the release of their Breatho and Neo lines of shoes, they have made their bid into the trail running market.
Selecting between the two models is a relatively easy task. The Neo, the heavier of the two models (9.2 ounces), has a removable sock liner that is meant to help keep the elements out. The Vivobarefoot Breatho ($90), the lighter of the two (8.8 ounces), has the construction that one would expect in a “summer” pair of running shoes, lots of mesh and great breathability. Thanks to iRunFar and Vivobarefoot, I was able to take a pair of Breathos through their paces for a month.
As mentioned above, the Breathos are meant as a warm-weather shoe. The midfoot and forefoot areas of the uppers are comprised mostly of a lightweight mesh (for reference: a softer version of what covers Kinvaras) and reinforced with synthetic leather. I will be the first to admit my surprise with the durability of this mesh. However, after a month of the usual abuse, it looks no worse for the wear and shows no points of compromise. The upper portion of the toe bumper has softened considerably and, while the sole still provides protection (more on that later), this is one area I would like to see the maker strengthen.
The “tongue” and heel portion of the upper is made up of a soft fabric and foam combination. This is easily the warmest part of the shoe during a run. While the front of the shoe moves air freely, the heel cup remains quite sealed and is sadly not as well-ventilated. While not a fatal flaw, the difference in foot climate was noticeable after a run.
The “tongue” of the shoe is completely integrated into the fabric around it. This design causes the fabric to fold on itself when the shoe is tightened up to a narrow foot, such as mine. While I was concerned about hot-spots or discomfort at first because of this feature, I encountered no such problems. It also seems apparent that this kind of construction would be adaptable to many different foot volumes. It comfortably formed to my high, narrow, and small feet, even though the initial fit seemed very large.
Overall, the design of the uppers is appealing. Unlike other barefoot offerings, these shoes appear to be “normal” running shoes at first glance. Many of my running friends were surprised to hear they were barefoot shoes. (“They don’t have funny little toes?”) The “tongue” and heel fabric did capture some sand particles from some river-runs, which gives them a slightly speckled appearance.
Don’t blink, you may miss this section of the review. True to form and theory, the Breathos lack any midsole. Only one piece of the shoe anatomy fits, barely, into this category. The shoes come with inserts, which can be removed for a truer barefoot feel. They are a tad thinner than a typical pair of inserts in other shoes. As such, I choose to leave them in.
When I saw the advertised weight of the Breathos, I was a bit surprised that they were not lighter. After all, when you effectively remove the midsole of a shoe, you should expect a significantly light shoe, right? Well, the weight of the Breathos comes at their bottoms. The outsoles not only boast some of the most aggressive lugs I have run in for a while, they also wrap up around the foot providing close to 360* protection for the foot (2.5mm outsole with 4.5mm lugs). These features certainly cost the shoes in the weight department. However, I have come to believe that the feeling of security they lend is invaluable.
When running in Merrell Trail Gloves (iRF review), I always felt very hesitant and cautious about foot placement. It only took a couple of wrong steps and a couple of sharp rocks to form that habit. However, after a couple of weeks in the Breathos, I found myself paying more attention to the woods around me and less to each little step. The amount of proprioception a runner desires is a highly subjective thing and cannot be reduced down to a universal number. However, for my tastes, the Breathos offer the right amount of protection in a barefoot trail shoe.
The traction the lugs provide is remarkable. Their shape is sharp and aggressive and worked extremely well on the wet and muddy trails that I ran them over. At this point, they don’t show any noticeable wear. However, as the trails continue to dry out and I venture out on longer runs, I suspect the lugs will begin to wear a bit more rapidly, as the rubber is a bit on the softer side.
Compared to the other barefoot shoes I have owned or encountered, Vivobarefoot’s Breathos are a worthy offering. One can easily see and feel the experience of this company in barefoot shoes benefiting these new trail models. Individuals looking for a barefoot trail shoe that offers reasonable foot protection and good breathability should certainly lay their hands on a pair.