Vibram V-Aqua: Versatile, ventilated, but vexing
As a fan of minimalist running footwear, I have recently enjoyed some of the more fun road options that the genre has to offer. As a Certified Running Technique Specialist in the POSE method, most of my training (and that of those that I coach locally and rehab in our PT clinic) tend to stick to the pavement and light trails for most of their miles.
However, in recent years especially after suffering my first foot fracture back in 2017 and a re-aggravation earlier this season, I learned the hard way that just because you have learned to fine-tune your form, it does not mean that you can fail to be mindful of your variation in running surface and level of cross training.
In this spirit, I had high hopes and anticipation for the V-Aqua, winner of the Men’s Health Fitness Award for footwear in 2018. While the shoe certainly has its strong points, it is equally certain that this shoe has some areas in need of improvement.
Upper & fit
One thing that has always been an issue for sizing with the Vibram Five Fingers line is getting the proper fit. After floating between two sizes, I have in the past worn a 43 in the KMD Sport and a 44 in the Bikila.
I came to a bit of a conundrum with the V-Aqua, while the 43 fit perfectly when worn with bare feet to ensure maximum proprioceptive feel and moisture management as a water shoe.
If worn as a shoe for longer distances, at least a nominal barrier layer (such as an Injinji liner sock) would be prudent to prevent blistering and friction from the aggressive rubber overlays and seams on the articulated toe caps of the shoe.
This necessitated a trial of the size 44, which proved to be a fair fit in said socks, but would be unable to be worn without, due to a very loose feel in the heel and edges of the 2nd through 5th toes.
In the end, to rate the shoe for its greater intended purpose, I opted for the 43 and logged the 52 miles in this shoe with no socks. Initially, the shoe felt great through the upper.
Most of my miles were either on the treadmill, in the pool for water jogging to offload weight recovering from the stress fracture, and on the track, the light mesh of the upper shed water admirably and kept the foot dry and free of irritation.
The two-way straps in lieu of the performance lacing on other models such as the V-Alpha did well to provide security and a gentle hug of the arch. The lateral strap and placement of strategic silicone pads in the heel prevented friction and loosening
That is an important feature when running through deep water and trudging through lakes and streams if using this as a portage and boating shoe. However, the same suppleness was lost in the first few weeks as the seams in the toes of the second and third openings lead to severe hot spots and blisters.
This did not occur during running miles exclusively on land. As a shoe designed for water use, when tested in the pool (given the inability to get outdoors) during the Polar Vortex, the shoe felt as though it was grinding near the tip of the left toes.
The same issue was not experienced on the right foot, which I believe is the case due to a discrepancy in my two different sized feet. My left being roughly ¼ of a size smaller than the right. For the roughly 60% of the population who share the issue of having two slightly differently sized feet, it would be an amazing improvement for VFFs to be sized accordingly.
In addition to the sizing issue, while the straps do well to provide some level of adjustability to the shoe, after multiple uses donning and doffing the pair, the straps seem to have stretched to the point where the larger portion of the Velcro surface is not in contact with the felt opposing it, leaving, "tails" at the end of the shoe.
That could prove troublesome when out along the edges of the river bank or on the trails between portage stops. In previous models, especially the KMD Sport, the band seemed initially tight at the other end of the spectrum and possibly even a tad short.
However, when the strap loosened over time during the break-in period, it became much more comfortable and consistently easy to secure without issue. A mild shortening of the straps by less than ½ an inch would do well to help this shoe maintain adjustability but lose the end range insecurity with prolonged wear and tightening.
A feature that I did find helpful (also present in the V-Alpha) is the pull strap on the back of the heel. Reinforced with synthetic material, it enhances the durability of the heel collar that notoriously has been troublesome in years gone by when sliding on and off the heel of the shoe as the fit instructions from Vibram suggest.
In sum, though light and well ventilated, the upper and overall fit in the initial model of this shoe leave much to be desired.
Insole cushioning system
While the V-Aqua has little to no cushion to maximize proprioception and improve running economy, each model of the Five Fingers line has a slight difference in stack height of the insole to aid in serving the specific purpose of the shoe.
In this particular model, the insole is a razor-thin 2mm of silicone treated EVA cushioning, which allows for great feedback from the surfaces underfoot, but leaves very little protection from objects such as stones and exposed roots/plantlife often seen ashore unlike the shoe cousin the V-Alpha which has a slightly softer foam underfoot.
In terms of durability and grip to the foot, however, the treatment does an excellent job of shedding water and muck that tend to collect in a water shoe while giving the wearer a sense of security in the shoe. Even when worn in the pool up to waist height, the shoe never felt like it would slip or glide uncomfortably despite the lack of a traditional lacing system.
In addition, the drainage ports located in the bottom of the shoe which flow through the ball of the foot, midfoot and even near the heel did an admirable job ensuring that when you do get out of the water, you will have little trouble shedding down most of the moisture build-up.
Since this is the first model of the V-Aqua, the positioning of the ports does not seem absolutely ideal, though, as one area near the heel of the shoe left some pooling water when removed after use. One or two extra ports behind in the heel cup of the shoe would help to reduce this small flaw.
In addition to its usefulness afloat, the drainage ports and grip were quite nice when using the shoe as a cross trainer in the gym or in a clinic as the sure grip and moisture management made for a lighter shoe when performing plyometric activities and hopping drills.
Outsole & durability
The outsole on the V-Aqua, like many of Vibram’s recently updated outdoor offerings, is the MegaGrip compound. At 3.7 mm thickness, it provides more than adequate feel for the terrain and provides adequate traction, which can prove difficult for a shoe with such minute tread depth (see Merrell models such as the Trail Glove).
On ice, it seemed a bit unsteady at times, but this may also be due to the fact that my feet were rather cold when taken for the limited testing outdoors and may have hampered ability to navigate the trails more than a lack of help from the shoe.
In terms of durability, there were a few minor issues in the latter stages of testing the shoe. While obviously designed for fresh and saltwater usage, the upper materials and straps developed a weathered color and slight pink tint after multiple uses in the pool and one trip out into the mud at the nature preserve.
While they were run through the wash a few times, a shoe of this price point should likely have a better time braving the elements for a limited amount of wear. In addition, one possible reason for the hot spots on my left toes could be an imperfection in the medial second toe near where the outsole and upper material meet.
As you can see in the photo below, it appears that the sole is slightly coming away from the upper which may have helped cause some of the rubbing issues that I experienced.
In general, the outsole did not disappoint and certainly lives up to its namesake in terms of safe and efficient grip to inspire overall confidence in the outdoorsman (the reason for the genesis of the company as stated by Vigo himself).
The design and minor tweaks to materials, however, will go a long way to determining the long-term success of the shoe in years to come.
Being a fan of the style that the VFF's have to offer, I admit that I am a bit partial to the design of this shoe. As a therapist, I love the fact that my toes not only can move freely and independently but that 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.
Having said that, for a shoe that is designed to take you through a vast array of outdoor milieux, it is fortunate that the V-Aqua has three color options to fit the varied needs of its wearers. If you are mostly poolside or a beachgoer, the grey, and off-white combo will probably suit you best.
For those on the water, there is a blue and black option. For the portaging fiend in you, there is an all-black option that probably will weather the storm best for the long haul.
As always, the main drawback lies in versatility for wear outside the workout. Due to the ports in the sole and the non-traditional design, it makes the shoe an obvious non-starter for most professional workplaces and even a safety hazard with a porous sole in other situations such as out on the streetwear sharp objects or tiny pebbles and rock salt could make things uncomfortable, to say the least, this time of year.
- Articulated toe box makes for an anatomically correct and efficient position for proper foot/ankle mechanics through stance and take-off
- Above average grip and moisture management in wet conditions
- Vegan-friendly materials and a strong, snug overall feel for the security of body and mind
- At MSRP $90 it is a fair representation of market value compared to similar models
- Highly flexible and thin sole makes it an ideal cross training shoe and for proprioceptive training
- At 4.9 oz., it is tough to beat for feather-light performance
- Imperfections such as the aforementioned toe area could lead to irritation for some
- Lack of versatility in the cold and for your day job may make it a lesser used shoe in the quiver
- A more abbreviated strapping system and tweaks to the upper would go a long way to the look and feel of the shoe over the long haul
- Lack of a wider array of sizing can be frustrating for them, “size tweeners” among us
While the shoe certainly is well designed for the purpose of granting you confidence in grip afoot or afloat, to keep the V-Aqua above the tide, it will need a few tweaks to reach its full potential.