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Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot Aqua Review

    I have to preface any shoe review with this disclaimer: I’m a barefoot runner.  I only use shoes in extreme temperatures, extremely rugged terrain, or when running indoors at an establishment that disallows barefoot running (like my local YMCA.)  I do wear shoes at work (I’m a high school teacher), during the winter, and when frequenting most businesses.  As such, I am always searching for shoes that allow me to run in extreme conditions and wear casually. 

     I’ve known about Terra Plana’s Vivo Barefoot line for some time.  As a teacher of barefoot and minimalist shoe running, I’ve done a lot of research on shoe options.  However, I never tried them myself.  I’m a pretty skeptical person.  Their claim to be a “barefoot shoe” seemed to be akin to Sylvia Browne’s claim of being able to see peoples’ future… it’s just clever marketing to bilk money from unsuspecting saps.  I was contacted by the Vivo Barefoot USA offices to try a pair of their Aqua shoes.  While I was very skeptical, I was curious to see if their claims were even remotely truthful. 

     When the box arrived, I was pretty excited.  I had read a few reviews online, but most came from people that had a preference for running in minimalist shoes.  There weren’t many comments from runners that ran almost exclusively barefoot.  This would be a fun experiment!

    I opened the plain gray box.  Inside were two fabric bags containing each individual shoe.  This packaging was a nice touch.  I took the left shoe out of its bag.  I didn’t know what color I would receive (they come in a variety of colors, some of which would not be appropriate for my school.)  I was relieved to see the dark brown model. 
     My first impression was not necessarily positive.  The shoe was slightly heavier than I anticipated.  I read that some people enjoyed running in Aquas.  As a barefoot runner, the weight of a shoe is critical.  For comparison, they were about as heavy as my Vibram KSOs and slightly heavier than my Saucony Kilkennys.  The Aquas weighed about half as much as my traditional dress shoes I sometimes wore at work.  Also, I found the sole to be much stiffer than I anticipated.  It could easily be bent, twisted, and rolled into any shape, but my preference had always been extremely flexible soles. 

   On a positive note, the shoes looked very cool.  The style was definitely better than any minimalist casual shoe on the market today.  Also, the sole was very thin… maybe a few millimeters throughout.  The heel and forefoot were the same height, a necessity for any minimalist shoe.  The workmanship was top-notch; neither shoe had a single flaw.  It is obvious that quality control is important to Terra Plana.  The shoes were wider than any casual shoe I found, which is usually a kiss of death for other minimalist shoes.  So how did they feel?

   After carefully inspecting each shoe, I put them on and walked around my house.  To say I was amazed would be an understatement of epic proportions.  They felt amazing!  At first, it was hard to describe the experience.  Most minimalist shoes I tried seem to be designed to hug your feet to move with the natural motions of the foot.  It is as if they are designed to be sock-like.  The result is always some degree of awkwardness as the materials of the shoe cannot work in perfect unison with the complex motions of the foot.  The Aquas were different.  It felt as if my feet were working in the exact same way as they would if I were walking barefoot.  I could feel my toes splaying with each step as the wide toe box allowed for this natural movement.  This feeling was unique; it is the first shoe I have tried that allows for freedom within the shoe, yet does not feel “loose” or sloppy.”



     The weight of the shoe was not an issue while walking around.  The shoes felt lighter than I had originally anticipated.  I’m not quite sure what to attribute this to other than the fit.  I had used a pair of driving moccasins prior to the Aquas.  They are a lighter shoe, but yet feel heavier in actual use. 

     The purpose of the stiffness of the sole, which I was concerned about initially, became apparent.  It allowed my foot to move freely within the shoe without being impeded by the floppiness of the sole.  I was also surprised that the sole felt much more flexible on my foot than it did in my hands.  As I later read, the soles contain a layer of Kevlar-like material to offer protection against punctures. 

    After thirty minutes of walking, skipping, and jumping around my house (hey, it works well as my testing criteria!), I was convinced of the claims made by Terra Plana.  This shoe really did work as advertised.  If only I could say the same about Sylvia Browne…

   The true test came a few hours later when I wore the shoes for a run around the block.  Initially, I did not wear socks and removed the insole.  Running was okay, but not as impressive as walking. The shoes were a bit too heavy for my tastes.  Aside from that, they continued to function in the same way as walking.  I could feel my feet moving within the shoe just as they do when running barefoot.  The sole was a bit too unresponsive for me, also. I couldn’t “feel” the ground as well as I like.  This will always be an issue with any minimalist running shoe.  As a barefoot runner, my preference is to have nothing between my foot and the ground.  The trade-off is protection.  To really test the shoes, I ran on an extremely technical trail near my home.  I could easily run over any obstacle (rocks, roots, chunks of sharp ice, etc.)  without problem.  What the shoe lacked in ground feel, it made up for in protection.

     Since most runners are not barefoot runners, I gave the shoes to two runner friends to test out.  Both are in the very early stages of transitioning to barefoot and minimalist shoe running.  Both LOVED the shoe for running.  It was obvious they appreciated the degree of protection offered by the shoe coupled with the design that allowed for natural foot movement.  As a running shoe, hard-core barefoot runners will probably shy away from the Aqua.  New barefoot and minimalist shoe runners would likely find the Aqua to be an excellent running shoe option.



    Over the next four weeks, I wore this shoe daily.  It performed flawlessly as a daily “work shoe.”  The lack of a raised heel and design that allowed my foot to move as intended makes this an ideal casual shoe.  As time passed, I actually experienced less aches and pains from standing and walking at work.  I would confidently rank this shoe as the best casual shoe I have ever worn.  I always recommend my barefoot running students spend as much non-running time barefoot as possible.  This shoe would be a perfect solution for occasions when my students must wear shoes. 

     As a running shoe, it would be ideal for new barefoot or minimalist shoe runners.  More experienced barefoot runners may prefer a more minimal running shoe.  Terra Plana is preparing to release their EVO running shoe, around March of 2010.  If the EVO is designed based on the same principles of the Aqua, it would be hard to imagine it wouldn’t be a runaway success. 

Here are a handful of other issues:

•    Cost- these shoes are expensive compared to the other minimalist options available.  It retails for $150.  This is what initially prevented me from seriously considering this shoe as a minimalist option.  I don’t have a problem spending more for quality products, but my skepticism prevented me from spending the money on one pair of shoes.  After testing these shoes, I would not hesitate to spend $150 for these shoes.  Truth be told, I think they are under-priced for the value.  Not only are they the only causal shoe I’ve tried that acts as advertised, the design, construction, and durability are impeccable. 

•    Fit- My Aquas are EU size 45, which is larger than what I would normally wear.  I would recommend ordering one size larger than your standard size.

•    Traction- Traction on dry and wet surfaces is very good.  Traction on ice is bad. I live in Michigan, so I spend a good deal of time walking on icy sidewalks.  The Aquas perform very well on every surface except ice.

•    The company- The more I researched Terra Plana, the more impressed I became.  They are a socially and environmentally-responsible company that is deeply concerned with producing quality products that meet the demand of their intended audience.  Their customer service is second-to-none.  I anticipate this company will grow by leaps and bounds as the barefoot/minimalist shoe movement takes off… I really hope the company doesn’t lose this “family” feel.  Even though Terra Plana is a major player in the world of shoes, they do not have the ‘faceless behemoth” feel of corporations such as Nike.  I won’t go into more detail for brevity’s sake, but you can read more about the company here: http://www.terraplana.com/vivobarefoot.php.


Conclusion

     If you are a current or aspiring barefoot runner looking for a casual shoe for work or play, this shoe is second to none.  After using this shoe for a month, I couldn’t even recommend an alternative to this shoe.  It will allow you to develop and strengthen your feet and legs during non-running times by allowing natural foot movement.  The cost is of this shoe is a value for the quality and function of the product.  If you are a new barefoot or minimalist shoe runner, the Aqua could be a viable option as a running shoe.  I am eager to test other models from Terra Plana’s Vivo Barefoot division.  Some other styles could easily be used for business or business/casual dress, and the EVO promises to be a quality minimalist running shoe.  Terra Plana also produces an excellent line of women’s shoes.  After hearing me rave about these shoes, my wife is looking forward to trying the woman’s line.  If you have any questions about the Aquas, please email me at robillardj “at” gmail “dot” com.