In March, Vibram Five Fingers will release its first trail-specific running shoe, thus taking its campaign to popularize barefoot running from the smoother paths and beaches to the rugged trails in the backcountry.
The obvious thing that sets the Spyridon LS apart from the premiere barefoot running brand’s other models is the outsole design. It uses square-shaped cleats. The nubs generally have a low profile, as you’d expect from a shoe intended to give the same feel as running barefoot, but the cleats are raised in specific areas to provide traction on uphill runs and to help with braking while running downhill. The Spyridon’s upper is thicker than most of Vibram’s previous shoes as well, and combines with speedlock lacing to provide a very snug, supportive fit.
Less obvious is the feature that really identifies the Spyridon LS as a trail running shoe: its rock plate. Off-road running puts the feet in contact with exposed rocks, roots and other obstacles, and a hard step on a pointed rock can ruin a runner’s day. Most trail running shoes combat that issue with a stiff TPU rock plate placed between the shoes’ midsole and outsole to absorb the force of impact. The problem with adding a traditional TPU rock plate to a Five Finger shoe is that its stiffness would negate its main selling points: the shoe’s flexibility and the foot’s tactile connection with the ground underneath it.
Vibram’s solution is to take a slip of woven, heavy-duty nylon fabric (think bulletproof vest material) and bake it into the top of the Spyridon LS’s outsole. The fabric disperses the force of impact with trail debris without limiting flexibility or sacrificing groundfeel.
The added protection makes the shoe more substantial, but you can still fold it and twist it like a wet rag. On test runs, the shoe felt like it had a better grip than other Vibrams. The tread dug into all types of trails, from packed dirt to crumbling granite. Even running downhill on a leaf-covered path felt reasonably stable.
And the “rock plate” certainly works. It took much of the impact not only when I stepped on a rock, but it also seemed to take a lot of the footstrike impact. I normally cap a run in barefoot shoes at around five or six miles, but I did a 14-mile singletrack run in the Spyridons with only some minor soreness to show for it. The shoe’s upper held up as well; despite multiple creek crossings and granite scrambles, the exterior dried quickly and showed no signs of wear.
Make no mistake — you’ll still feel the trail. The burly outsole and rock protection eliminated the sharp pain, hopping, and cursing that would generally be part of a Five Finger trail run, but you’ll remain aware of every rock, root, and obstruction underfoot. You’ll still have to step lightly as you would with any other Five Finger shoe.
I like the balance of flexibility and protection enough to say that the Spyridon LS shoe is my favorite offering so far in the Five Finger line. It makes trail running a whole different experience, since I could go full-speed without sacrificing the feel of running barefoot or worrying about injuries.
It might be difficult to grasp until you experience it yourself, but running “barefoot” through the mountains like a caveman looking for dinner is a darn good feeling.