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Altra Vanish R Review

An ultralight racing flat for minimalist road runners
Altra Vanish R
Photo: Atra
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Price:  $100 List | $49.98 at Backcountry
Compare prices at 2 resellers
Pros:  Ultra-lightweight, breathable, specialized toe/heel grips
Cons:  Overly supportive, finicky to lace, lack of resilience
Manufacturer:   Altra
By Aaron Rice ⋅ Review Editor  ⋅  Dec 1, 2020
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70
OVERALL
SCORE


RANKED
#5 of 9
  • Performance - 30% 8
  • Barefoot Accuracy - 25% 6
  • Weight - 15% 10
  • Traction - 15% 5
  • Versatility - 10% 6
  • Durability - 5% 5

Our Verdict

For the ex-track star who doesn't enjoy the raw feedback of a full barefoot shoe, the Altra Vanish R is an ultra-minimalist shoe with a bias for barefoot design. A flyweight, TPU/mesh construction tips the scales at an unbelievable 4.2 ounces per shoe, a wide toe box promotes toe splay, and a zero-drop design should all add up to a barefoot shoe. But the combined midsole/outsole stacks up to 14mm, placing it outside of our limits for barefoot shoes and firmly in the realm of minimalist runners. The Vanish R is a true racing flat with barefoot trappings, a shoe that promotes good running form and allows you to fly over both roads and hard-packed trails. We only wish these shoes were more resilient, as the exposed EVA outsole began to compress after only a few dozen miles.

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Altra Vanish R
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Altra Vanish R
Awards  Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award Top Pick Award Top Pick Award 
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Pros Ultra-lightweight, breathable, specialized toe/heel gripsSuper lightweight, exceptional ground-feel, freedom of movementSuper tacky outsole, low profile, extra durableTough exterior, stable, snug lacing systemDurable, versatile, minimal stack height
Cons Overly supportive, finicky to lace, lack of resilienceInconsistent grip, short stock laces, potentially short lifetimeOversized, not very versatile, outsole loses grip when dirtyOdd flex pattern, decreased sensitivity, lack of dexterity in toesWeighty, bulky, overly padded upper
Bottom Line Somehow both ultralight and supportive, this racing flat is designed to go fastA perfect mix of road and trail runner, our Editors' Choice for outstanding barefoot accuracyA true barefoot gym shoe designed with durability in mindA FiveFinger shoe that earns our Top Pick for Adventure and Trail RunningMuch more impressive than it looks, this versatile trainer stays true to its barefoot design
Rating Categories Altra Vanish R Merrell Vapor Glove 4 Inov-8 Bare-XF 210 V2 Vibram V-Trail 2.0 Xero Shoes Prio
Performance (30%)
8
7
9
8
8
Barefoot Accuracy (25%)
6
9
7
6
8
Weight (15%)
10
8
6
7
5
Traction (15%)
5
7
7
8
6
Versatility (10%)
6
7
6
6
7
Durability (5%)
5
6
8
9
8
Specs Altra Vanish R Merrell Vapor... Inov-8 Bare-XF 210... Vibram V-Trail 2.0 Xero Shoes Prio
Style Minimalist road Barefoot road Barefoot gym Barefoot trail Barefoot road
Weight (oz per shoe) 4.2 oz (size US 9) 5.4 oz (size EU 42) 7.5 oz (size US 9.5) 6.9 oz (size EU 42) 8.4 oz (size US 9.5)
Stack Height (mm) 14 mm 6.5 mm 4.5 mm 3.7 mm 5.5 mm
Heel to Toe drop (mm) 0 mm 0 mm 0 mm 0 mm 0 mm
Outsole (mm) <1mm laminated rubber pods 3.5 mm, Vibram TC5+ 3 mm STICKY rubber 3.7 mm, Megagrip Rubber 5.5 mm, FeelTrue Rubber
Midsole (mm) 14mm exposed EVA with Propel Plate None None 2 mm EVA None
Insole Flat, or optional 5mm insole None 3 mm Power Footbed None Optional 2 mm
Upper Material Engineered mesh Cordura mesh and TPU Lightweight mesh 3D Cocoon Mesh Mesh with synthetic leather overlays
Best For (running, hiking, etc.) Running Running, gym Gym, running Running, hiking Running, gym
Width Options Regular Regular Regular Regular Regular

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.

Performance Comparison


These ultralight shoes will help you run as fast as your feet can...
These ultralight shoes will help you run as fast as your feet can carry you.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Performance


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.

Though a bit tight at first, the thin mesh toe box provides plenty...
Though a bit tight at first, the thin mesh toe box provides plenty of space for your feet to settle in and spread out. Within minutes of running, we had completely forgotten about any initial discomfort.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

Even though its not their intended design, we loved running trails...
Even though its not their intended design, we loved running trails in these shoes. But they will remind you if you don't pick up your foot with every step... we stubbed our toes more than a few times due to the lack of any protection in the toe box.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Barefoot Accuracy


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.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

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.

These shoes are also torsionally flexible, which allows your foot to...
These shoes are also torsionally flexible, which allows your foot to make quick adjustments in uneven terrain and adjust for better balance over flat ground.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Weight


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.

You read that number correctly... through our research, we only...
You read that number correctly... through our research, we only found a handful of shoes that even come close to the weight of this shoe.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Traction


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.

Is it a midsole or outsole? The Vanish R has a design unlike any...
Is it a midsole or outsole? The Vanish R has a design unlike any we've come across before.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

If you do enjoy trail running, these shoes are better suited to...
If you do enjoy trail running, these shoes are better suited to well-travelled (read: well-compacted) cross-country trails, rather than more adventurous terrain.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

The inset, laminated rubber extending from your big toe to the ball...
The inset, laminated rubber extending from your big toe to the ball of your foot, allowing for maximum grip when pushing off. Notice the difference in wear between the laminated rubber (black) and the EVA-foam (blue), after only about two-dozen miles.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Versatility


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.

A fatal flaw in the sole design when it comes to running trails or...
A fatal flaw in the sole design when it comes to running trails or gravel roads. You would think that this is a once-in-a-blue-moon situation, but we were surprised when it happened more than once over the course of our testing.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Durability


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.

The compression of the EVA-foam outsole is obvious after running...
The compression of the EVA-foam outsole is obvious after running only a few dozen miles.
Photo: Aaron Rice

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.

You would think that the ultra-thin mesh upper would be prone to...
You would think that the ultra-thin mesh upper would be prone to rips, but the engineered knit is surprisingly durable.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Value


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.

For those who want options, this shoe includes a 5mm insole (right)...
For those who want options, this shoe includes a 5mm insole (right) which provides much more arch support than the traditional racing flat insole (left.) Just be aware that the thicker insole does take up a significant amount of space, so consider sizing up if you need the extra support.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Conclusion


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