Altra Vanish R Review
Cons: Overly supportive, finicky to lace, lack of resilience
Our Analysis and Test Results
The secret to the uber-lightweight design of the Altra Vanish R is the combined mesh/TPU upper, which measures less than a millimeter thick in all but the heel-cup. To improve ground-feel and response, engineers exposed what normally would be an EVA midsole, reinforcing it with laminated rubber pods to create a 14mm outsole — nothing else stands between your foot and the ground. However, if you wish for a little bit of arch support, you have the option of swapping the stock racing flat insole for a 5mm insole.
The Vanish R is fast. Even though this has many of the design features we seek in a barefoot shoe, this shoe is first and foremost a racing flat; albeit, an ultra-minimalist one. This is the lightest shoe our reviewer has ever run in (by far) and is a shoe that gives you the sensation of flying over miles. The Vanish is not much more than a thin-mesh upper fastened directly onto the 14mm EVA outsole. While this results in an unbeatable swing weight, it can be difficult to lace correctly. These shoes may feel uncomfortably tight when you first put them on, but your foot quickly settles into the natural, "Foot Shape" design within minutes of your run.
The biggest difference between minimalist runners and true barefoot shoes is that you can strike out over pavement and trails without fear. While you still receive an appreciable amount of feedback from the relatively thin outsole, you don't need to worry about dodging every single rock — except for the ones you may stub your toe on.
At first glance, this shoe hits all of the design criteria of a barefoot road runner. Not only is the Vanish R unbelievably lightweight, but it is designed with a wide toe-box to promote natural splay. The shoe is sized perfectly, putting our toes right at the front and allowing us to dig into the ground thanks to a particularly flexible outsole. The upper is a combination of a mesh forefoot and tongue, which fades seamlessly into an ultra-thin TPU with just the right amount of padding around the achilles. All of this translates into a racing flat that actually does seem to vanish after being laced up.
But as you move down through the list of barefoot criteria, it becomes quickly apparent that the Vanish R actually belongs firmly in the minimalist camp. Although it is a zero-drop shoe without any conventional support structure, designers cleverly exposed the EVA foam that normally would make up a shoe's midsole and unconventionally turned it into this shoe's outsole. Although the "outsole" is listed as laminated rubber pods, these only make up the space directly under your big toe — and on the opposite heel the rubber outsole makes up less than 1mm of the 14mm stack height, the majority of which is actually the exposed "midsole" dubbed the Propel Plate.
When it comes time to weigh-in, the Vanish R truly lives up to its name. At only 4.2 ounces per shoe, these are approximately a ½-pound lighter than any other pair we tested. That is a huge difference when it comes to swing weight and a more natural fit and feel while running. What is truly remarkable is that the Vanish R can offer more than twice the support of our top-scoring barefoot shoe while weighing nearly an ounce less.
Let's expand a bit upon our previous discussion of the unconventional outsole design. The majority of the outsole is made up of the exposed EVA-foam midsole — while the foam is shaped with v-shaped lugs, these quickly wear down after only a few dozen miles. Despite that breakdown, these shoes continue to grip well, particularly on roads.
Regardless of your foot strike, every step involves a shift of weight and balance from your heel to toe. During neutral pronation, your weight shifts from the outside heel, moving through the ball of your foot and into your toes, where your big and second toe primarily push-off while the others stabilize.
Cleverly, Altra engineers focused their attention on the two spots where we most impact the ground — the outside heel and big toe — and inserted laminated rubber "pods" into those two impact zones. So while it may be a bit confusing as to what actually constitutes the outsole of the Vanish R, know that you'll at least be able to grip as you run through your normal heel-to-toe locomotion.
Although we took the Vanish R on its fair share of trail runs (our reviewer prefers to run on dirt), it is definitely more of a road-worthy shoe. Traditional to the purpose of a racing flat, this particular outsole is not designed to grip anything but the road or track, and indeed slips and slides in loose trail conditions. It would certainly add a small amount of weight, but by extending the laminated rubber to create a full, thin outsole, the Vanish R could be a great minimalist trail runner — we certainly appreciated its agility on cross-country runs.
Like many competition shoes, the biggest flaw of these racing flats is that they are simply not built to last. Even after just a few dozen miles, we noticed some telling changes to the structure of the Vanish R.
Since the EVA-foam design is essentially an exposed midsole (with minor reinforcement), the wear-and-tear didn't surprise us too much. But we hoped that we wouldn't see a significant sag in the makeup of the foam after only a handful of runs. You may be able to get through a full racing season in these shoes, but don't expect them to last much longer than that, especially if you tend to run longer distances.
For those racers looking to eek-out an extra second or two by upgrading your gear, the Vanish R could help you make it to the podium. We love the ultra-light design of these shoes but are disappointed considering their longevity. While they are offered at a competitive price, it may become prohibitively expensive to replace these shoes every season.
The Altra Vanish R is a truly ultralight racing flat. Offering road and track racers an unmatched weight advantage, this shoe is able to deliver both comfort and performance. Although we cannot qualify it as a barefoot shoe, it earns a well-deserved nod as a notable choice for a minimalist road runner.
— Aaron Rice
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