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May 29, 2012

VIVOBAREFOOT Ultra and Ultra Pure Review

Although I've reviewed a lot of VIVOBAREFOOT shoes in the past, one notable model flew under my radar - perhaps because I never knew what to make of it.

The company's Ultra is the shoe equivalent of a Rorschach test: whatever you want to see in it, that's what it can be.  It was originally released in 2011 as a beach or travel shoe, but it's equally suitable as a casual shoe or a super-lightweight running shoe.  Its modular construction allows you to use the same pair for a variety of uses - and with a kids version released this year, it can also be a very cool schoolyard shoe: bright and fashionable for wearing in class, but athletic enough to sprint around the playground at recess.

In hindsight, I'm sort of embarrassed that it took me so long to get around to reviewing them - so to make up for it, this is a double review: I've been testing the modular men's Ultra as a running shoe, and my daughter has been wearing the non-modular (I'll explain shortly) Ultra Pure as an everyday kids shoe.   There's also an Ultra Kids model which is basically a scaled-down Ultra Pure with a Velcro strap.  All of the shoes are 100% vegan, and are constructed with the same injection molding technique which creates the entire outer shell from EVA.


Or, as my daughter put it, "They're like fancy Crocs!" - which is the primary comparison people make when they see or feel the Ultra for the first time.  However, in my opinion they're WAY better than crocs ...

... because they have all the features we love about VIVOBAREFOOT: completely flat, completely flexible, and completely suitable for pretty much any activity you can think of.   

They're also very impressively light: the standard Ultra weighs in at 5.5 oz, and the Ultra Pure weighs a mere 3.7 oz.  The difference between the two models is the presence of a sock liner that snaps into place at the heel and at the base of the lace area: the Ultra comes with the liner, the Ultra Pure doesn't.

If you remove the sock liner, there's a small pad that can snap into place underneath the laces on top of the midfoot.  All of this snapping back and forth can be done in a matter of seconds. 

One minor drawback I found with the lacing system is that the clasp that holds the laces in place can be very stiff when switching to the "unlock" position.  Fortunately, you don't really need to adjust the tension through the laces very much, and the shoe essentially functions like a slip-on once you get the proper setting established the first time.

Since the primary difference between the Ultra and the Ultra Pure is the presence of a sock liner, if you happen to be mathematically gifted, you can deduce that the liner itself weighs 1.8 oz.  If you remove the liner from the Ultra, it weighs the same as the Ultra Pure.  Some users wear just the liner without the shell as a protective second-skin sock, similar to a Sockwa or Moc3; the advantage of VIVOBAREFOOT's sock over those others is that it has full puncture protection underfoot.

This brings up another distinction between the Ultra and the Ultra Pure: on the Ultra, the puncture-resistant layer resides on the bottom of the sock liner - so if you take the lining out and wear just the shell, you don't have the same resistance that other VIVOBAREFOOT shoes provide.  However, on the Ultra Pure, the inner lining on the footbed is fully puncture-resistant.

The interior of the sock liner is very soft and comfortable against bare skin.  I run in mine sockless for all road mileage, but use a thin layer of socks for long trail outings. 

With the liner removed, the insole surface is lightly pebbled, which feels a bit odd at first but quickly gets accommodated by a bare foot.  This is the same insole pattern featured on the Ultra Pure, which doesn't have the sock liner. 

I tend to keep the lining in my Ultra for road running for a couple of reasons: 1) I'm usually running in the early morning when my toes get cold, so I like the insulation of the sock to keep my bare toes warmer, and 2) when your feet start sweating, if you're not wearing the liner there can be a bit of movement inside the upper as the EVA insole surface gets a little bit slick. 

Back to the shell construction: all Ultra shoes employ a modern EVA injection molding technique which combines a softer density (and more flexible) EVA in the uppers and a higher density (and more protective) EVA on the outsole.  The high-abrasion EVA upper is highly durable but very soft, allowing the foot to flex and move naturally.  The outsole portion is 7mm thick, but according to the company specs can compress down to as much as 3mm with long-term use.

The outsole EVA is also firmer than the upper to enhance ground feedback.  Obviously, the primary drawback of an EVA outsole is the rate of deterioration; my pair came with a disclaimer slip stating that with proper running technique, they should last for up to 300 road miles.  However, since I'm primarily running on trails, I anticipate that they'll last significantly longer.

Traction isn't outstanding - in fact, it's probably the worst of any VIVOBAREFOOT running shoe.  On steep hills or gravel fire roads it's definitely a limitation compared to something aggressive like the Breatho Trail outsole.   And interestingly, considering its original marketing as a aqua shoe, I've found that traction on wet, rocky stream crossings is pretty shaky.  However, the grip is perfectly adequate for road running in all but the slickest conditions, as well as for groomed trails that aren't obnoxiously technical.

It also makes a great hybrid shoe for high-mileage runs that shift from roads to trails, which is why they were on my feet during my 20-mile Pebble Beach adventure a few weeks ago.  You may recall that run had significant stretches of running in deep sand, and since the Ultra's outer shell is completely porous, I was curious to see how the sock liner protected my feet from sand intrusion over the long haul.

I was pleasantly surprised, as this picture (click to enlarge for a better view) taken after a long sandy stretch illustrates.  Very little sand made it through to my socks (Drymax hyper thin, if you're interested), and most of the debris was either trapped by the sock liner or fell to the bottom of the shell for easy removal.

Overall, the Ultra and Ultra Pure turned out to be highly functional for both my daughter's and my needs.  She loves the open look and summertime feel of the Pure without a sock liner, and I'm impressed with the Ultra's performance as a hybrid running shoe.  (Of course, for me or any other ultrarunners out there, the name of this shoe conjures something that's better equipped for rugged trails than for tame roads, but that's just semantics.)  They're also very suitable for a lot of cross-training activities, or simply as a funky-looking warm weather casual shoe.

All of VIVOBAREFOOT's Ultra shoes are quite affordably priced, and available from the company website at the links below:

*Products provided by VIVOBAREFOOT
**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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nrmrvrk 5/29/12, 6:49 PM  

I'd love to try a pair out, especially after reading your review BUUUUUT they stop their size range just short of my US 14 (EURO 49) feet. I guess when you're that big you're doomed to a pair of Brooks Beasts or some other huge built up footwear.

Glad you like them though.

Rose Buenconsejo 5/30/12, 12:29 AM  

i love this to bits. :) even use them on trails but traction can be an issue. :)

Anne 5/31/12, 6:44 PM  

Totally off subject but we're sitting here watching the National Spelling Bee and I thought of you. Will we be getting an analysis? One of the finalists is from San Diego - goes to a school where my daughter once student taught!

Pete 6/1/12, 6:36 AM  

Was looking for a good review on these, thanks for the post!

Rob Smith 6/5/12, 6:35 AM  

@ nrmrvrk - i also have infeasibly large feet (although more like euro 48) but you may be pleasantly surprised by the ultra. if you ignore the inner liner sock, they are very generously sized and my toes don't go near the end.

@ donald. interesting review - thanks! i was especially interested in the ultra pure having the puncture proof sole without extra weight (hmmm, how do they do this?). i'd like to know if you can tell the difference running over small stones. i was surprised you seemed to think they would last *longer* running on trails than on roads. my experience is the opposite but then my trails are quite sandy and stoney, maybe you are running on grass. i reserve my ultras for road competitions only and have done a couple of marathons and several half marathons in them (always getting a PB!). they are so light, they are incredible. the only problem is that they don't last long - i reckon the manufacturers label is about right. i also prefer the sole to be harder so that it doesn't feel as though it is absorbing my energy - but this comes at a cost of weight, obviously.

jp,  10/30/12, 3:38 PM  

Just wondering if these are good on wet grass, traction wise that is

Donald 11/5/12, 6:30 PM  

@jp: definitely not as good as anything cleated, but not too bad.

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