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Vivobarefoot Hydra ESC: The Ultimate Swimrun Shoe?

The cuttlefish darts across the sea floor, an intelligent creature which predates homo sapiens by millions of years. Adaptive camouflage protects it from bigger predators and its skeletal frame is uniquely evolved to allow buoyancy as it swims through rocks and plants on the ocean floor. In short, it is a marvellous animal. 

According to the designer, Lee Kingston-Spiteri, the cuttlefish is also one of his main inspirations behind the Vivobarefoot Hydra ESC. In a world where shoes are increasingly looking like spaceships, the Hydra ESC has a refreshing look and feel to them. Have we forgotten the joy of the natural world? Vivobarefoot seems to think so. Dreamed up in the birth-place of swimrun, this shoe is a reminder that we are a part of nature. 

The Hydra ESC is an elemental and exciting shoe in many ways, it is also one of the only shoes on the market specifically designed for swimrun, which makes it an intriguing choice. After 6 months of rigorous testing through seas and rivers, through thick mud and dancing around rocky coastlines, could this be the ultimate swimrun shoe?

Big Impact Barefoot Design

The majority of us regularly use cushioned shoes and the barefoot design takes a bit of acclimatisation. In a nutshell, barefoot shoes are designed to allow us to move as evolution intended – and in practical terms this means a wide shoe which allows your feet to spread and with better foot striking. The result is a stronger and more robust lower body as our evolutionary process intended. 

Hydra ESCs are extremely comfortable for everyday use. Six months on, and the new strength in my feet is noticeable along with being in-tune with where the foot is striking the ground when walking and running. As if waking up from a deep sleep, decades of nulling my senses with cushioned footwear, I crave the feeling of the surface beneath. 

There are of course some sacrifices with cushioning and performance, especially if that is what you are used to. This was keenly felt jumping into the Baltic Sea and hitting a rock, shockwaves were sent up the body that a cushioned shoe would have better absorbed. 

The Hydra ESC has all encasing uppers which for designer Lee is one of the key highlights of this shoe. A formidable cage which performs multiple functions and looks ‘incredible’.  

A Multifunctional Shoe With No Boundaries 

Where this shoe really excels is its use case across many areas. You can run, hike, climb, swimrun, walk, go to the coffee shop, meet friends, drive and do pretty much anything in this shoe.And actually, its multi-purpose design is its main strength. When active, the lack of water retention and the speed at which the shoe dries means you can flip between using it in the water and wandering up a path without discomfort. For more passive use, it’s a comfortable shoe to wear all-day. 

Optimal Racing Distance 

The optimal racing distance in this shoe is up to 20km. It is comfortable with good grip that excels on dry rock and responsive on trails. Interestingly, the Hydra ESC was less good on wet grassy trails. Designed for rock hopping over fell running. It is not the shoe for pounding many miles on the trail, but a worthy choice for shorter races under the two hour mark. As with all barefoot or minimal shoes, you should train progressively rather than launching into a half-marathon distance swimrun. 

How Do Vivobarefoot Hydra ESC’s Fit?

The fit is true to size and very comfortable when on. It is a good all-rounder for slim and wide feet with the classic wide Vivobarefoot toe box with the flexibility to accommodate almost all foot types. If you are not used to wearing barefoot or zero drop shoes, you might find the toe-box roomy but quickly get used too and indeed enjoy the extra space. 

In The Water 

Barely noticeable in the water with a sleek hydrodynamic design. The Hydra ESC resembles a pair of flippers when you kick in the water. The bright orange sole is good for sighting if in a pairs team and a lace lock system which doesn’t come undone when swimming. It grips well at transition areas and gives you a real feel for what is under the water. 

On The Trail 

This shoe was created to be an-all rounder and to grip wet rocks. A strong and tough sole protects the bottoms of your feet from the challenges of hard rocky ground while being made of ‘sticky’ rubber which aids grip in the slippiest of environments.  The armour system which follows a biomimicry design philosophy (solving complex human problems using the natural world) does a decent job protecting against sharp thorns, rocks and a tough upper which keeps your feet cut free. 

The Hydra ESC weighs 370g dry, which is over 150g heavier than some competitors and worth noting that weight is also magnified on the feet. An update on the Hydra ESC is due to see a weight reduction in the coming years. Vivobarefoot closely works with Michelin (the tyre makers) for soles which produce optimal compounds for the terrain. 

The dry weight can actually be a red herring. For swimrun specifically, the Hydra ESC retains very little weight and its saturated weight is on-par to most other shoes. And since your feet will almost certainly be wet, the dry weight soon becomes an irrelevance.  

The Invincible Shoe?

Modern sports shoes wear out quickly and if lucky, you might get 300 miles out of a pair of shoes. The Hydra ESC are in exactly the same condition, 6 months on as if they were out the box new and credit to the design team for making a shoe which is hard-wearing and robust. These look like they could last five times longer than a normal pair of shoes and potential buyers should consider that this shoe should have longevity. Although the soft rubber sole might wear down over time. 

The Verdict

The Vivobarefoot Hydra ESC is a shoe where strangers will stop you in the street and say ‘wow, cool shoes’. Beyond aesthetics, the design is incredible and inspired by the natural world. It is a tough and robust shoe, built for adventures and marching around in for everyday life. It is an excellent pathway shoe for those looking to try barefoot style shoes and a good choice for short to middle distance swimrun races.

Fred Newton

Fred is the Editor and co-founder of swimrun.com. He has actively been involved with the sport of swimrun as an enthusiastic participant, race director, volunteer and journalist.

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