Vibram FiveFingers V-Alpha: A breath of Fresh air in a barefoot shoe
As a runner who enjoys the feel of the run beneath my feet and one that over the years have sought to improve their form through various techniques and training through POSE method, I have been no stranger to the Vibram FiveFingers series. My first pair was the KMD sport several years ago.
Since then, I have also tried on and worn the Bikila, V-run, most recently the V-Aqua, and now the V-Alpha - a new take on the trail offerings for VFF to bolster those who had been fans of the old KSO.
While most of my runs take place on tamer surfaces especially during the rough Iowa winters, this shoe got a taste of the great outdoors for short jaunts on varied surfaces as I worked my way back from a stress fracture this offseason, which necessitated finding some (relatively) softer ground to pound for a while.
This took a bit more time than usual, consequently, to rack up some miles on this rugged outdoor trainer. But, it was nice to savor the time in a comfortable and worthy model with just a few minor bumps along the way not uncommon to a brand new model of shoe.
Upper & fit
As mentioned in my previous review of the Vibram V-Aqua, the VFF’s have always been a peculiar fit for me. However, unlike the V-Aqua, the V-Alpha actually fit quite like a glove (at size 44 between a 10.5 and 11 in standard sizing). I measure on a 43 but have found in most models that this size feels too restricting on my big toe.
Since I live in the middle of the current deep freeze gripping the midwest, I primarily wore the V-Alpha with a pair of Injinji running socks (usually of the merino wool variety) to shield myself further from the harsh cold. While the fit was a bit snug with a midweight version, the light, ultralight, and liner socks all fit perfectly.
The upper is well built on a hybrid woven base with 50% merino wool infused to aid with moisture management as well as the well-known odor-fighting principle so vital to a shoe designed to be worn in bare feet. To ensure a secure fit, the V-Alpha features synthetic overlays at the midfoot and heel for a more locked in feel to complement the performance lacing through the top of the traditional lacing setup.
In the past, this setup has been problematic. The lacing can become lax and overstretched, limiting the ability to provide even pressure compared to the double strap of other Vibram models such as the KSO and KMD Sport, or even traditional lace-up versions such as the Trek Ascent and V-Trek.
With a more firm lace and a stay-put velcro lock at the base of the lacing system, I did not notice this issue as much, even in the cold, wet and snow of a Midwestern winter. That being said, I have only managed to log 51 miles of total training outdoors, and on the treadmill, so the sample size is limited in this arena.
In terms of feel, the upper does an excellent job of allowing for freedom of movement vital to a shoe grounded (pun intended) in proprioceptive feel and ability to re-train foot mechanics. The mesh surrounding the heel collar and ankle ring are plush and do not irritate even when soaked by snow or sweat during usage for my cross training at the gym.
In addition, the smell of the shoe (or lack thereof) might be the upper’s greatest achievement. For a gentleman that sweats as much as I do for a 4-mile run, a 30-minute gym routine, or hours on the trail at the local disc golf course, my footwear often develops a certain distasteful stench.
Even when placing safe washer shoes through a cycle or two, it can at times exacerbate rather than solve the issue. With the V-Alpha, I’m proud to say that the shoe smells the same as it did right out of the box, and it retains its shape and fit even after two washes thus far.
On the other hand, though the V-Alpha shines at the gym and is above average at moisture management, one flaw actually kept me from adding extra mileage to its test cycle. Suffering from a mild form of Reynaud’s Phenomena, my feet and hands are easily irritated and sensitive to cold (ironic for my Midwest and Nordic heritage).
Therefore, when I would go to shovel snow, run through the trails, and walk for appreciable distances outdoors in the V-Alpha, even with midweight wool socks, I was unable to stay out for greater than about 30 minutes without needing to get back indoors due to the lack of sufficient insulation.
This makes sense as the V-alpha is on the lower end of the trail models in terms of the level of warmth provided by the upper, with beefier models available in the Trek Ascent and V-Trek.
Overall, for the vast majority of usage, and in normal weather conditions, the upper of the V-Alpha is not only solid but very smooth, breathable and free of malodorous smell that can haunt those desiring the truly near-bare feel in their shoes.
Insole cushioning system
I found myself in a paradox when assessing the insole of the V-Alpha. At one moment, the 2mm insole with a soft foam base feels confidence-inspiring that one can feel the ground underfoot, yet have a modicum of protection from rocks and debris found out on the road, track and trail.
Nonetheless, in a shoe designed to provide proprioceptive input at a premium, the purist will say that the insole on this model dampens this sensory input due to the relatively supple nature of its cushioning. For my own use, the insole provided the level of protection I needed for my HIT training and workouts.
It also can perform balance activities in the clinic as a PTA with a limited compromise to proprioception compared to my normal in-clinic footwear choices such as LEMS, XeroShoes, and Altra (on the far end of the cushioning spectrum).
One area for improvement that I noted was that the fabric on the top of the insole could use some re-tooling. While the mesh setup did help with moisture management, it seemed to cause a great deal more friction under the ball of the foot when worn sockless compared with other models that feature different footbed designs, leading me to wonder if there might be a better alternative.
Outsole & durability
The V-Alpha is built on the newer Megagrip Vibram platform, designed to give maximum traction over wet, dry, and icy conditions. Being new to the outsole, I was initially cautious on my first few trials outdoors on the icy streets and even stepping gingerly for the first few times shoveling snow in the driveway.
After time though, I gained confidence in the V-Alpha as I have not had one slip on the ice or fall on the trails yet this winter in this shoe. It grips the road well, and while it can occasionally make a mildly annoying squeaking sound on parquet at the gym during agility drills, it otherwise has given me no issues on a vast variety of surfaces.
In terms of durability, this shoe has held up admirably given the variety of activities it has endured. Unlike its cousin the V-Aqua, there have been no loose seams or imperfections resultant from usage during plyometric training, runs over snow and wet conditions.
This is also the case with elliptical and spinning workouts as I gradually worked my way back into normal mileage on the roads. As mentioned earlier, even after two rounds through the wash, the shoe looks brand new.
Being a physical therapist assistant, I am rather partial to the ergonomic value that the VFFs have to offer. I love the fact that my toes not only can move more freely and independently but they are more spaced out at rest than in a traditional shoe, allowing the great toe to stabilize the foot and make better use of the fine muscle movements in the foot and ankle.
However, always a limiting factor is the versatility of the shoe when it comes to the working world. On message boards from LinkedIn to Facebook, I have seen multiple reports of workplaces that do not consider the VFFs to be a, “closed toed shoe” or that they look, “unprofessional” in the workplace.
As a former shoe fitter, this came up often as VFFs would occasionally be returned for this reason. This particular model does its best to reverse this perception.
The V-Alpha offers a range of very neutral colorways that helps to keep it look young on the road. It is, after all, a shoe for the mud, muck and otherwise murky miles. Colors like black, military/olive green and fatigue brown are all neutral enough to go with just about any wardrobe combination you could find.
Also, the V-Alpha lacks the openness of the V-run in terms of its mesh upper. It does not have the flash and dash of the SeeYa and other models featuring neon highlights.
In fact, the only highlighted feature on this understated model is the traditional hexagonal Vibram logo on the back, next to a very practical and durable pull strap to aid in donning and doffing the shoe with relative ease.
Overall, while I love the style and think that this particular model has great versatility and potential, it is definitely a tough sell at times for the working world and other semi-formal settings.
- Articulated toe box makes for an anatomically correct and efficient position for proper foot/ankle mechanics through stance and take-off
- Above average ground feel despite soft foam insole
- Vegan-friendly materials and a strong, but relaxed overall feel for ease of body and mind
- At 4.8 oz. a shoe, it is tough to beat for feather-light performance
- Merino wool blend kept the smell of the shoe from becoming an issue
- Insole top layer of mesh irritating when worn barefoot during speed and cross training activities
- At MSRP $110 it is a bit pricey for such a minimal shoe
- Lack of versatility in the cold and for your day job may make it a lesser used shoe in the quiver
- Lack of insulation for extreme cold conditions limited duration of outdoor usage
For the maiden voyage of a shoe designed to step in the place of a legend, the V-Alpha fits the bill for an out-of-the-box trainer and cross-country sole mate in need of just a few minor adjustments to bring the bare feel-seeking runner bliss.
For the purpose of review, I’d like to thank Vibram for providing me with a pair of V-Alpha shoes. No additional compensation was provided and the review process objective over the course of a normal life cycle of my daily training shoes.
In addition, as noted in previous reviews of minimal footwear, I have spent the past 3 years transitioning to intermittent use of minimal footwear with very low stack heights.
If you have a history of stress fractures, peroneal or posterior tibialis discomfort, it is wise to consult with your coach, physiotherapist or a trained shoe fitting professional prior to extended use of this footwear. While it has documented benefits, it is best done gradually and with care to running technique and proper gradual increase in mileage.