Capsule Review: Vivobarefoot Breatho Trail barefoot shoes

Posted: 09/04/2012 in Review, Running

After yesterday’s North Tyneside 10k I should have been resting up today, but as it’s the last day of my holiday, and because I wanted to try out the Breatho Trail shoes, I headed off for a quick jaunt at my local Country Park.

First of all, the shoes:

Now, I’m a sucker for a nice looking shoe, and these look ace – I especially liked this colour, as they look like bumble bees on your feet. They were a smaller size than expected – I usually take a UK 11 to 11.5 depending on what I’m wearing, but got away with the equivalent of a UK 9.5 – that’s not a problem, and I get the impression from looking at the Vivobarefoot site that they’re probably open to ordering a couple of pairs and returning one. Saying which, if you can get to a shop that sells them, I’d definatley recommend trying the on to get the right size.

The uppers are a close-woven mesh, with a sewn in tongue that’s made of a sligthly heavier material the feel like it’s probably good at wicking away any moisture. The heel box is a little sturdier than the upper, and the laces pass through the yellow tapes you can see in the picture. The whole is bonded to the sole, a thin and flexible ruuber withbuilt in grips. The sole is 2.5mm with 4.5mm lugs according to Vivobarefoot’s website. There’s a liner inside the shoe, though the advice on the box encourages you to remove it as soon as you feel comfortable. I can see the point of that, why have highly flexible and responsive shoes then stick a couple of militmetres of cushion in there?

I’m used to running trails in Mizuno Wave Harriers, which are pretty flexible shoes. However the Breathos, due to their barefoot heritage take it to a whole different level. If you don’t know much about barefoot running (and I only know a tiny bit), then the basic idea is that by removing all the cushioning, support and gubbins that have beomce part of the running shoe, we are more able to feel the sensation of running and this reduces our likelihood to run in a manner that will damage our bodies and therefore reduce injuries. I’m not an evangelist for the barefoot movement (at the moment), but I do love to be able to feel what I’m running on. My current road shoes feel a bit pillowy now, and the thought I could run in a better way that would allow my body to find its own form is pretty attractive. One of the main tenets of barefoot running (whether actual barefoot or in barefoot shoes) is that you should land with your forefoot, rather than your heel, allowing the bones in your foot to absorb the impact naturally, rather than need a load of gel/foam to cushion you.

The toe box feels nice and roomy to give your toes the space to move around and spread. The heel and ankle feel like they’re in a glove, and the thin and flexible sole means you get fantastic feedback  when you’re moving.  You can also pretend you’re a ninja, which is pretty cool. 🙂

I’m not sure whether the trail shoes are more flexible that the road shoes, as I haven’t tried a pair of those, but the website sounds like the sole of the trail shoes (ignoring the treads) is thinner, so in theory these should give more feedback.

With all this in mind, I headed off to the Country Park, with its well-trodden tracks and the only decent hill in the area. Walking up the tarmac road was a bit of a peculiar sensation – not unpleasant, just a lot more sensation than I’m used to. I was concerned that the treads would stick into my feet on very hard surfaces, but that didn’t happen, so that was a relief. I jogged along the side of the road, and soon reached the trail. Another part of the barefoot running thing is lots and lots of small steps, rather than gigantic strides, so I was trying to run with wee steps, touching down with the ball of my foot – I think I pretty much run that way to start with, so it seemed to work.

On the one time I’ve tried running actually barefoot, on the sand, I properly overdid it and my calves were staggeringly painful for days – so I tried to take it easy, listen to my muscles and so on. I was aware of a little bit of tightness in my left calf, but it didn’t seem to get worse. I know my joints aren’t as flexible as they should be – I can’t (for example) get down into a crouch with both soles of my feet touching the ground. I think part of the issue with starting to run barefoot (or ‘transition’ to barefoot as it’s known) is your feet getting used to the extra little bit of drop of your heel that is normally blocked by the wedge of cushioning at the back of a shoe.

One of the things that amazed me as I ran along was just how tactile the shoes felt – I could barely feel them on my feet, but I could tell when I was running over slightly stony track rather than smooth, or when bits of the path must have been wetter and were a little softer. I started running over different bits of terrain to get a feel for it – there’s definitely something grand about being able to get that much sensation from your feet.

On a little further, and up the hill – I usually approach hills with the same rhythm but smaller steps – given that I was already taking pretty small steps that was a bit difficult to do, but I think I pretty much got there – the run up the hill was blissfully easy – now some of that may be down to my increasing fitness, but I didn’t feel any of the usual warmth in my legs from pushing up the incline. Seems like small steps, fast rhythm does pay off pretty well. Again I was struck by the sensation of the ground – where the grass was a bit muddier I could feel the give in the ground, where it was drier I could feel the harder surface.

I reached the top, a little surprised at how well it had gone, and crossed to the other side for the descent. Now I’ve been trying desents with longer strides, and let gravity get on with it. In an attempt to see how this small step thing worked, I tried increasing the rhythm and trying to keep the step size roughly the same – it felt like my legs could whizz off at any moment, but it certainly worked – I clocked up a very respectable pace, and had an ace time through the mud at the bottom – the squishy sensation was lovely.

Next a stretch of sharp gravel path, and I had wondered what the shoes would make of that – is there such a thing as too much sensation? Nope, turns out not – I could feel the individual pieces of gravel underfoot, and feel them moving as I ran over them, but it was another enjoyable feeling, not at all unpleasant.

Up through the woods, past the horses and that’s me done, a 4km run – calves feel like they’ve had a bit of a work out, but nothing too bad – won’t know until the morning.

I checked the shoes afterwards, they looked fine, not a scratch or a scuff. I guess that if you’re into making very flexible shoes then you must have an idea how to stick them together so the flexing doesn’t make the pieces come apart. As a running shoe, they’re one of the most comfortable things I’ve worn – due to the fit and ride, rather than masses of cushioning. I think I’m going to continue trying to get out in the every week or two in the hope that it builds up my barefoot stamina. What I’d really love would be some VVBF road shoes as my weekday pre-work road runs are shorter and therefore better for the working-up-the-distance transition process. Saying which, there are some nice work shoes too, but I suspect I’d need to make a pilgrimage to London to get a pair of those – I spend most of my day in work clothes, so it would make sense to continue the transition while in the office.

I asked a couple of questions of VVBF customer services via the website and got non-nonsense, well explained answers each time. The site and the company seem to have quite a community feel to them.

I’ll update this review once I’ve used the Vivobarefoot Breatho Trail for a while longer, and once I’ve been out on some more full-on trails. 🙂

  1. Nik.c says:

    Nice review, it is amazing how much info you’re feet give you running in these shoes! I started running in these at the start of Jan, and I was amazed how enjoyable the experience is. I used to enjoy cross country running at school (many, many years ago now sadly) and these shoes have rekindled my enthusiasm for running.
    After many years of trying in conventional running shoes, which encourage you to run in large heel first stride patterns, I always gave up, through a combination of sheer boredom, pain and niggles to my knees, back, feet. Now with the wonder of the web, I found out about the barefoot technique and these shoes, which fit like a glove, my niggles and pains have all but disappeared, and my running is far more efficient.
    I’m only doing about 3 miles max at the moment thru park and trail, and have to take a breather by walking, but I’ve noticed an improvement already, the stiff halves gone, and I look forward to getting out in these shoes and getting muddy, even thru the snow and ice. I’m aiming to be able to run the same off road bike trails of about 6-7miles by the summer as my strength and fitness improves.
    You can also shove these shoes in the washing machine, another bonus!

    • Very true Nik – I took the insoles out of mine, though I do still wear a pair of socks after some debris got in and rubbed a hole in my foot. I was out in the snow and then the slush – shoes were ace, and wet feet dry out after a few miles.

      I came to barefoots after having a niggling knee that wouldn’t go away. After about seven or eight miles it started to ache and just got steadily worse. Never had a bother with it since, and no way I’d go back. I wore my old Mizuno Wave Harriers last week, just to go out to town, and they felt way foamy, yet at the same time I can remember when I first got them and felt like there was no cushioning in them at all compared to my (then) road shoes. Teeny steps, fast turnover and job’s a good ‘un. Likewise with the transition – short distances, working up.

      Haven’t tried the washing machine – I clean mine by dipping in a bucket, a bit of a swill about then hang ’em on the line. 🙂

  2. Graham says:

    I have the Neo Trail – same sole, but more substantial upper. I got them looking for something more substantial than the Ultra Pure which I love for general use and looking eccentric in which apparently I can do quite well :-). The Neo Trail is grippy but I’ve been disappointed to find that it seems much narrower than other Vivibarefoot shoes and even though I had to go up a size they still nip my forefoot. Something with the same last shape as the Ultra Pure with a more knobbly sole would be great. I’ve not been brave enough to use them for running but they have been great for rehabilitating a dodgy ankle. And bizarrely for a minimal shoe they weigh more than my Inov-8 Roclite 315s.

    • The different Vivos seem to size differently – I had the same size in Evos and needed to go up a size. There’s a size comparator thing on the site that works quite well.

      Took me about three months to get to run half decently in them transitioning was a piece of work – still find them a bit minimal on roads, often use my old Mizuno Wave Harriers for road running.

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