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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Merrell Trail Glove Review



This shoe has already caused quite the buzz in the minimalist running world.  Tons of people have thrown their hat in the ring supporting it.  Merrell has done a lot to promote it within our community, from creating a barefoot running website, to recruiting barefoot runners to help design and market the shoes.  I've read dozens of posts on it on various internet forums.  This newcomer to the minimalist marketplace is literally everywhere.  So far, it's the new, hot minimalist shoe on the market for 2011.

So with all that noise, why did I choose to snag a pair of these shoes and review them?  For one, because they looked sweet, and I needed a better trail shoe than my MT100s.  And seriously...I'm not one to pass up free stuff.  But mostly, it's because I noticed that a lot of big league barefooters have come out hyping these shoes as the best thing for feet since toes.  That influence has caused these shoes to fly off the shelves.  It's the celebrity endorsement effect (but to a lesser extent because people like Barefoot Angie Bee and Jesse Scott don't have their own perfume line).  Although I would buy a pair of shorts endorsed by Jesse if he made them just a tad longer. 



If they only hit his upper thigh, image where they would hit on me!

I"m not a big-name barefoot blogger.  Just a big-talking barefoot blogger.  I don't have 200+ followers on my website.  And I'm not sponsored by any company (although I'm still waiting patiently by the phone for Dunkin Donuts to call about that).  But for some strange reason, people still seem to listen to me.  Even if it's just because it's hard not to glance at the kid yelling "LOOK AT ME!" at least once.  So I want to offer another perspective now that the "new shoe dust" has settled. 

Initial Impressions

As soon as I took these things out of the box, I was impressed.  The shoes look really sharp.  I was happy to finally be in possession of a minimalist shoe that didn't look like strap-on feet.

Not only that, but these shoes were crazy light.  They were a lot lighter than they looked.  Definitely lighter than my old MT100 trail shoes, but not quite as light as my Vibram KSOs. 



Here's a side-profile of the shoes.  The color combo for my pair of Trail Gloves is called "Amazon".  After making my color selection, I was actually worried that I had chosen the ugliest one.  But in person I am really happy with it.  They actually look nicer in this picture than they do on the website.  Feel free to use my expert photography Merrell!

As you can see from the side profile, these shoes have a true zero-drop heel to toe ratio.  That's good.  They also look like they have a bit of a molded arch and a toe spring.  That's bad.  For those who don't read a lot of minimalist shoe reviews or know a lot of terminology, what I just said was "The shoe is flat, except for the toe."  I suppose I could have just said that, but it would mess with my street cred.  More on all of that later.



Here's a top view.  And as you can see in this picture, the toe box of the shoe is substantial.  Most trainers are smaller in the toe box than through the arch and heel.  This shoe's toe box is bigger. 



The sole of the shoe has a pretty nice cleat that extends its entire length.  Most of the cleat is located on the ball of the foot and the toe.  Notice that there's not a lot of sole material on the arch or heel of the shoe compared to the ball of the foot.  Again, more on this later.



For some reason, minimalist shoe reviewers always roll their test shoes up into a ball.  As if they're going to put them in their coat pockets or something.  So I did it too to be part of the cool crowd.  In doing so, I thought the shoe seemed less flexible than a Vibram KSO, but probably a little more flexible than a KSO Trek or Treksport.  I also found it hard to take a picture with a rolled-up shoe in your hand. 



Here's a rear view of the shoes.  There's not a lot of material back there.  The shoe seems to maintain a bit of rigidity from those grey and black straps.  But there's no heel claw or anything crazy like that.  Sorry this picture is a bit darker.  My wife shooed me upstairs after the first few pictures, and I took these from our closet.  The shudder noise was interrupting Glee.  Can't have that...

Pre-run Comfort and Fit

Before I start the section, I should mention that I don't wear Vibram soled shoes without socks.  A lot of people wear minimalist shoes san socks.  My wife already thinks that barefoot running is disgusting.  I don't want to see what smelly minimalist shoes would add to that picture.  Plus, I have a bad gag reflex.  So I slipped on some normal athletic socks and tried the shoes on.  I will say this...I'm happy to have be able to wear socks with minimalist shoes other than those obnoxious Injinji toe socks.  They always made me feel like that chick in Blossom.  I've actually had several offers from girls to let me take what I want from their 9th grade sock drawer.   



Seriously?!  A bolo tie?!  What were people thinking in the 90s? 

As soon as I put the shoes on, I felt like something wasn't quite right.  Since the shoe conformed tightly to my arch and heel, I could definitely feel a slight arch.  Not enough to call an "arch support" or a "molded arch" like you might find in a Vibram Bikila.  Just something touching my foot.  I wouldn't say I found it uncomfortable, but it's not something I'm used to feeling in a minimalist shoe. 

I also had a strange feeling under my big toe, like I was sensing the shape of the cleat underneath.  I had experienced this before with the Vibram KSO Trek, so I took some of this sensation as being normal in a minimalist trail shoe.  But as I moved around, I could definitely feel the shape of all of the cleat on the ball of the foot.  At the same time, I couldn't feel the cleat on the heel and arch of the shoe at all.  This made the shoe seem a little top heavy.  The best way to describe it was like walking in a clown shoe.  I've heard jokes before that these shoes look a bit like "clown shoes".  I don't think they look that way, but they certainly felt like that on my foot.  

I also noticed what other reviewers have termed "negative heel to toe drop".  With as much material as Merrell has put into the front of the shoe, it feels like the shoe is actually lower to the ground at the heel than it is at the toe.  Kind of like wearing those shoes you use to strengthen your calf muscles. 



Now there's a shoe that promotes a forefoot strike!

Anyway, I was less than impressed with how they felt after I slipped them on.  All of those funky fit issues just left a bad taste in my mouth.  Not that they weren't comfortable.  It felt great to have all of that room in the toe box.  And my foot felt secure even when the shoes weren't tied very tight.  Something just didn't seem quite right as I walked around in them.

Running

So after walking around for a while, I took off for an 8 mile run.  I hit up the trail as well as the street, to see how it performed on both.  In doing so, my opinion of these shoes improved.

The first portion of my run was on the road.  Here, the fit problems I noticed earlier amplified, and the shoes felt a bit clunky.  All of that material at the front of the shoe seemed to be making me land more on my forefoot than normal.  With all the material in the front of the shoe, it's probably hard not to forefoot strike.  Then as I rolled back onto my heel, I again felt that "negative drop".  All of that together was making my stride a bit awkward.  Almost like I combined those calf shoes with clown shoes, and tried to run in them.  Adding to this impression was the fact that these shoes were louder than any of my other minimalist shoes.  It sounded like I was wearing high heels!

After a couple of miles, I turned onto a dirt trail with a light covering of snow.  Instantly, that clunky feeling was gone and these shoes started to shine.  All of the fit issues that I noticed while walking and running disappeared.  The shoes no longer felt tight around the arch.  And I didn't perceive any "negative drop".  I attribute this to the softer running surface.

The shoe also handled normal issues of trail running with ease.  The cleat was aggressive enough to let me glide over ice and loose dirt with ease.  And the sole sufficiently protected me from large debris.

At the same time, I was impressed with how light these shoes felt.  I didn't notice any significant difference between the weight of these, and that of the KSO.  Normally, I'm used to carrying around MT100 boat anchors on my feet.  Appreciating this difference really made the trail portion of this run enjoyable. 

One trade-off you're going to make if you get these shoes though is ground-feel.  I can't say that I liked how little feedback I was getting underfoot, or that I felt much of anything at all.  This lack of sensation actually caused me to slip on the ice, and roll my ankles a few times on obsticles.  Those are things I usually don't do.  I can overlook this for the most part, because the shoe is meant for trail use.  Trade-offs in the name of protection are a given.  But those who like more ground-feel on the trail will be dissapointed with this shoe.

Conclusion

I would recommend this product to anyone looking for a minimalist trail shoe.  It is by far the best shoe on the market for that purpose.  People who want a new road trainer should save their money.  This shoe is a bit of a beast on pavement.  For roads, there are a lot of other options. 

Since I don't do a whole lot of trail running, this shoe probably won't be winning any "Best Shoe" awards at my house.  The Vibram KSO is still on the top of my list there.  Because of it's poor performance on roads, I think this shoe is a one-trick pony.  But it does do that trick very well, so it definitely will be my go-to shoe on the trail or in the snow. 

For trail running, I give it an 8.  The fact that it feels a bit like a clown shoe until it gets to the trail keep this shoe from getting a higher rating.  For road running, I give it a 4.  It wasn't a pleasant road running experience.

You can buy the Merrell Trail Glove or any of the other Merrell Barefoot line at the links below.  Happy shopping citizens!



22 comments:

  1. Those calf building shoes look like the ones on Seinfeld with Jimmy the basketball player! I didn't know they really made ones like that.
    Your review was great. I have a pair of Evo II's and have wondered what the Merrill's were like in comparison. It sounds like for road running I'm better off sticking with what I've got. They sure are nice looking though.

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  2. I knew a guy who used to wear those calf shoes in school. I guess they work, because he had a huge vertical jump.

    I think you're better off with the Evos. I wrote the review mostly because I wanted to make it clear that these really are "trail shoes". You can use them for road running, but there are better uses for your money.

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  3. I appreciate the honest review! I'm considering Merrells for my next minimalist shoes but also considering Altra & Zem. From what I've read so far I'm guessing I'll end up in Zems. I LOVED my original Zems but I got holes in them quickly.

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  4. The killer feature of this shoe for me is that it comes in a size 15, and even the 14 is large enough for me. At 6'7" (in your Skechers, as previously posted), I'm imagining shoe size is a limiting factor for you too. I'm curious/worried if the new Vibram Bikila LS 47 will be able to replace my worn out KSO 48s? Oh well, at least my bare feet still fit.

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  5. Great review. I got a pair of the Merrells to use as this year's trail shoes and had pretty much the same experience. Good on trails, kind of 'meh' on the roads. Comfortable fit, though I didn' have any of the problems you were describing with feeling the cleats. I was using Newtons last year and I actually DID have the problem you're describing with them. Their lug idea is interesting, but my feet differ in size by a half to a full size depending on the shoes, so they just don't line up right.

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  6. @David: The funny (or tragic, depending) thing is that I don't have very big feet. My feet are swimming in my size 12's. I'm kind of like a giraffe. Tall lanky body with little feet. My anatomy is set up for a spectacular fall.

    @Nick: Now that you mention it, I wonder if my problem with feeling the cleats is a size issue. I could probably fit into a 11. I will have to go to the store and try on a small size to see. But I doubt it will change the way they feel on the road.

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  7. I'm usually a 14.5/15, so I originally got 15s. I could run okay in them as the fit nice and snug through the heel and around my midfoot (I didn't slide around in the shoe), but the toe end of the shoe had a definite clown shoe feel. I swapped them for a 14 and the clown-ness disappeared, and running on pavement felt much better. Plus, I still have plenty of room around my toes.

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  8. Most people, and I see you have included yourself test sole flexibility in the wrong manner, by grasping the shoe at both ends and bending the sole. But that flexes the shoe behind instead of at the ball. If the foot were flexed in the same manner, the five metatarsals would be fractured.

    To properly test for flexing, rest the shoe sole down on a table or counter. Insert one hand inside, using a couple of fingers to press down on the ball. With a finger of the other hand, lift the toe tip of the shoe. If the toe end, tip to ball, lifts easily, the shoe is flexible. The degree to which it resists toe lift is the degree to which it is inflexible.

    I really wish you folks that desire to review shoes would recognize this. It is simply not a realistic test of sole flexibility.

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  9. Butner, if you read my post you'll notice I'm making fun of how shoe testers always do this. I could give a crap if the shoe rolls up in a ball.

    I test sole flexibility by running in them and seeing how flexible they are. If you stick your fingers in the shoe, then you're testing how flexible they are on your hands. That's fine, but it's probably hard to run like that ;)

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  10. I was filling up my water jug tonight and the cashier asked me if I had tried the Merrel's. He ran to his car and pulled out the shoes. The bottoms are thick! I was was wearing my Evo's which let's me feel the ground a whole lot more. Not as much as barefoot or in my KSO's.

    We have lots of trails in the Bay Area. I may get the Merrel's just for the trails.

    Speaking of KSO's...they suck! My seam blew out in 6 weeks. Good thing REI takes things back. I took the Trekkers back because they did not give me a good feel on wet grass or on trails.

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  11. I definitely agree with your assessment of the thickness of these shoes Mark. That's part of what I didn't like about them on roads. I need a bit more ground feel. Now on trails...that sort of protection is a good thing over time.

    I definitely recommend them for trails. They are my favorite trail shoe right now.

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  12. Thanks for this review...I had been wondering how these perform, being that I run 1/2 road and 1/2 trail in the summer.

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  13. Good review and it actually helped to my decision for these shoes. Exactly the same feeling, like some "foreign object" is inserted in the front of the sole, adding some thickness, but this disappears after few km on trail. I would not be so critical about the road run also.

    One issue might be the size - I ordered the same size I have on my "ordinary" Nike running shoes and it was definitely too small. So I send them back and got 1 size larger.

    And since then I have not run in my Nikes anymore...

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  14. Thanks for the tip Ivars. I actually could have used one size smaller if anything. There is a lot of extra room in there.

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  15. I am a fellow Minnesotan, running now in Vffs and looking for an alternating minimalist "shoe" .I was thinking Merrell gloves but now am not sure after your review.Any other suggestions-primarily road running with some trail.
    Also -hot pavement in summer???How do you barefoot on that?

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  16. If you want a shoe for mostly road with a little trail, I can't say enough goood things about Terra Plana shoes. They have groundfeel like a Vibram, but with enough tread to be adequate for most trail runs. I have friends who do ultras in them. I have the Neos, but the EVO is equally good.

    As for hot pavement, you have to get used to it. On hot days I stick to the trail or the sidewalk. At some point, asphalt is too hot to run on without risking blisters.

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  17. I love running trails, but don't get to as much as I'd like. I have the Merrell Pace Gloves and they look sweet. I have very small feet (6.5 ladies) and they do not look like clown shoes on me. Anyhow, they rock on trails, not so much on the road. I hate running on the road anyway. I want to try some sandals for running roads. I'm off to read your sandal reviews.

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