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Tuesday, March 15, 2011
VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Review
Back in my shod days, I remember being completely willing to fork over $100+ for a pair of feet marshmallows (aka shoes, for those of my readership that still haven't converted to my religion). In fact, I had no problem with doing it every 6 months to a year. It was kind of like paying taxes. Every April (and sometimes October) I would just fork over the cash. It seemed like the price of doing business in the running world.
To pay anything less than a hundo all but assured your feet's slow and painful destruction, one jarring heel-strike at a time. In fact, if anything I felt like I needed to pay more. If the $100 shoes were comfy, then $130 shoes were down right heaven. And for a mere $150, I would enter into the "luxury" running shoe market...where feet floated pain-free on a cloud of cushioning so advanced that it would instantly fix my form, break my PRs, end my plantar fascitis, massage my legs, do my laundry, and get me a free bowl of soup.
Then I came over to the minimalist shoe camp, where I was hit with an entirely different set of completely unrealistic expectations. Minimalist shoes were expected to last 5000 miles without showing signs of wear. They were supposed to conform to a rigid set of criteria (wide toe box, zero drop, etc.) that only 5% of the running market actually wanted. They were supposed to be good on all surfaces in all conditions. They were supposed to be everything to every minimalist runner. And they were supposed to do all of that for less than the cost of a Walmart water shoe.
In a word, minimalist runners are picky and cheap. And I totally get where minimalists are coming from with that penny-pinching. We minimalist runners are a picky lot. We have grown to love the freedom of barefoot and minimalist running. So it's hard to strap just anything to our feet. Not to mention that it's hard to shell out $100 for a product that, in most cases, you can't try out in a store and probably won't like when you get home.
That's why, even though I know they make outstanding products, I avoided VIVOBAREFOOT shoes for the longest time. I've heard nothing but good things about their flagship running shoe, the Evo. They stood up to mile upon mile of abuse. They had great ground-feel. They had everything that a minimalist runner looks for in a shoe. And they were $160 big ones. Plus shipping. From Europe. Deal-breaker....
I'm not sure if Terra Plana designed the Neo running shoe to address that price concern or not. I suppose if they wanted to do that, they could have made a cheaper, crappier version of the Evo II. Instead, I feel like they made a slightly different shoe for slightly different tastes with the Neo.
Whatever the intent, this shoe was released in March 2011 to remarkably little fanfare in the minimalist community. Did we overlook these shoes? Or did they just plain suck? Whatever the reason, I snagged a pair to see if these shoes provided the answer to concerns over the Evo.
Sometimes it's the little things about a product that make it special. I got that feeling about the Neo from the minute I opened the box. For one, each shoe came individually wrapped in a fabric carrying case.
It's kind of like getting one of those robes at a fancy hotel. You wouldn't pay for it otherwise, but you'll look for a reason to wear it because it's a nice little extra. If nothing else, it's a nice feature to carry my shoes when I need to throw them in a gym bag or something.
The shoes I selected were the green and gray model. The shoes looked very low-profile and sleek in person. Not at all like the giant marshmallows they appeared to be on the company website. They looked like 1970s Nikes with a more modern color palette. Very cool.
Here's the side profile of the shoes. This picture reminds me how much I want to re-tile my bathroom floor. White linoleum isn't exactly my dream material.
Unlike the honeycomb pattern that decorates the Evo and Evo II, the Neo has a TPU mesh upper that I'm accustom to seeing on normal trainers. The gray material surrounding the mesh is a suede-like fabric. I'm actually not a huge fan of the Evo design, so I'm down with the retro look of the Neo. But I've already gotten some negative comments about it as well. So it's not for everyone.
Here's a top view of the shoes. The toe box looked more than ample. And unlike my Merrell Trail Gloves, the Neo appeared to maintain the width of the toe box for almost the entire length of the shoe.
The company website indicates that the bottom of the same 4mm puncture resistant sole found on all VIVOBAREFOOT shoes. Although that's the same thickness as a Vibram KSO, this sole felt a bit more substantial. I attributed that feeling to the waffle tread pattern on the bottom of the sole.
To test flexibility, I flexed the shoe in every conceivable direction. I felt the flexibility to be less than a Vibram KSO, and slightly more than my Merrell Trail Gloves. Considering the reported thickness of the sole, I was surprised by this discovery. Again, I attribute this diminished flexibility to the tread pattern.
I got flack in my Merrell review for having a picture of my shoe rolled up in a ball. My response: when you get an awesome blog like mine you can roll your shoes in whatever direction your little heart desires. But since that probably won't happen, you're stuck with my shoe ball. Suck it...
Another feature found on most VIVOBAREFOOT shoes is a removable memory foam insole. I tested the shoe both with, and without the insole, and didn't come away with a strong opinion either way. There is a slight squishy feeling to the insole, but I only noticed it when I was paying attention. I'm glad that the insole is removable so that people can see whether it works for them.
Finally, the heel collar on the shoe more resembles a traditional trainer than a minimalist shoe, most of which have little to no material on the back. Since I don't wear shoes without socks, this isn't an issue to me. But it may cause some friction blisters for those who prefer going sockless.
Comfort and Fit
Putting on a pair of minimalist shoes for the first time always provides a different experience. Since I became a barefoot snob, usually that experience involves something wonky with the fit of the shoe. But what I immediately noticed in these shoes was very positive. I felt the absolute flatness of the soles of the shoes. These things are definitely zero drop. And I realized that, outside of huaraches, this is the first time I had felt a completely flat insole in a minimalist shoe. Every other brand I have tried has had some sort of arch. I like not having something touching my arch, and I'm sad that it took me this long to experience that in a minimalist shoe. I kind of feel like I've been missing out.
Next I tested the other must-have feature in any minimalist shoe: the toe box. I found it to be more than ample. None of my toes touched the front of the shoe. Good stuff.
As I moved around though, I discovered a few things that I found a bit negative. First, I felt the shoes had excessive width. Those folks with wide feet are going to love this shoe. I have more narrow feet, so my feet swam around a bit. This wasn't an issue on my test runs, but I imagine I could develop hot spots on the bottom of my feet during high mileage runs with all that movement.
I also was not a fan of the lacing system. The eyelets for the laces of this shoe seem to be spaced closer than on any shoe I've ever owned. As a result, when I tightened the shoe to prevent my foot from moving around, I experienced discomfort on the top of my foot. This discomfort didn't affect my running at all, but it was a bit annoying while lounging around.
The 800-lb gorilla for me with these shoes when I first heard about them was the weight. The company website lists these shoes at a hefty 9.5 oz. That's heavier than any other minimalist shoe I own by several ounces. It's heavier than a lot of normal trainers. I assumed that any of the positive features of these shoes would be completely overshadowed by this issue.
Since I sometimes struggle to heave one foot in front of the other with my clunky New Balance MT100s, I assumed my test runs would be death marches. But as I started to move, I was surprised at how nimble I felt. I could feel the weight of the shoes. They felt heavy, no doubt about it. Definitely the heaviest shoes I own. But for some reason, the weight was not as much of an issue as it is with my other shoes.
More specifically, I didn't feel was that signature heavy-legged feeling that I got with my other clunkers. Running in my MT100s occasionally feels like having resistance bands tied to my feet. In my Neos, I didn't feel like I was carrying around a couple of ankle weights. I'm assuming this has a lot to do with the design of the shoe. With my MT100s and my Merrells, it seems like the weight of the shoes is magnified by design elements that I don't like, such as raised heels or strange shapes. The Neo is flat-bottomed and sleek, so I didn't notice any of the negative design elements that I did while walking. I believe that made my form more efficient, so the weight of the shoe was not as much of an issue.
I was also surprised by the ground feel of the shoes. I had expected it to be diminished because of the shoe's lack of flexibility during my initial tests. But even with the insole in, I couldn't perceive a difference between the ground feel in these shoes compaired to my trusty Vibram KSOs. I was very impressed with this aspect of the shoe.
I was also impressed with the grip of the outsole tread. After running over some pavement I took the shoes over snow-covered trails. I found the tread to give me some nice added traction on ice and snow. Of course, the shoe has nowhere near the traction of my Merrell Trail Gloves on snow and soft trails. But then again, I didn't expect it to. Rather, I think this shoe will serve as a nice all-around trainer that functions very well on pavement, and adequately enough on trails to be used for most applications.
Since most of the objections I've heard to VIVOBAREFOOT shoes deal with price, I thought I would address this aspect of the shoe. Despite having most of the design features of the Evo, the Neo comes at $120; $40 cheaper than the Evo. That's still not comparable with most minimalist shoes on the market, which come in at around $90. So I'm not sure if this is enough of a price reduction to make these things fly off the shelves. But I do think it's a step in the right direction.
I definitely think these are the replacements to my beat-up KSOs. In fact, I find them to be very comparable to my KSOs. Like the KSOs, they have aspects that I would like to see improved upon. At the same time, they appear to be an extremely well-rounded and quality product that is useful for many applications.
I give them an 8 out of 10. They would earn a ten if they were 3 oz. lighter and $20 cheaper. Regardless, I think they are definitely a shoe to consider if you're looking for a replacement to your everyday minimalist trainer.
You can buy the VIVOBAREFOOT Neo by clicking on any of the banners or links on this review. Happy shopping citizens!