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Merrell Bare Access Review

Posted by on Jan 3, 2012 | 25 Comments

When I first heard of Merrell’s plan to produce a zero dropped cushioned shoe, I was dismayed.  I have been a long-term opponent to any cushioning in shoes.  The main reason is simple- cushioning increases the force of your foot landing.  For a barefoot runner, this is a big deal.  Cushioning turns our normally-gentle foot landing into a clomping trot.  Unless we consciously lighten our stride.  The problem is that cushioned shoes require you to constantly monitor and adjust your stride, something that is normally unconscious.  A lapse in concentration means stride falls apart.

Also, cushioning hides bad form.  The more you place between the foot and the ground, the more sloppy your form can become before you receive any sort of negative feedback.  People will think their form is decent when it may actually be terrible.  I see this issue frequently in road races… most recently in the Dallas White Rock Marathon.

So I initially assumed the Bare Access would be a terrible idea.

Four significant things changed my thoughts.

1. I tried a pair of Hoka One One Mafates.  While I really didn’t like the shoes due to a complete lack of proprioception, I was able to run with decent form over terrain that would have required more energy if I had been wearing more minimal shoes.  I could use a relaxed, deliberate gait in the Hokas, whereas I would have jumped around a lot more in something thin and light.  That planted the idea that cushioned shoes may have a good use.

2. The Grindstone 100 kicked my ass.  It’s widely regarded as one of the most rugged 100 milers on the East Coast, and it lived up to the title.  The Trail Gloves I wore didn’t provide enough protection on the leaf-covered rocks during the night.  That began a quest to find a better gnarly technical mountain trail running shoe that still had minimalist qualities.

3. I began rethinking the logic we (barefoot runners) dispense to new barefoot and minimalist runners.  Our long-standing recommendation was to begin running barefoot.  Add shoes once you learn good form.  Avoid raised heels, cushioning, and support.  I think barefoot is still the best route, but I’m beginning to lighten up on the other options.  The reason is simple- a lot of people have no interest in running barefoot.  If we can get them to run with better form in a different shoe, I view that as a success.  I think we need to be completely honest about the short-comings of learning good form in various types of shoes, but we probably shouldn’t vilify it as much as we do.  We’re turning people off, which is NOT a good thing.  I’m not trying to create an exclusive club of pretentious d-bags- I’m trying to convince people there’s a safer, more efficient way to run.

4. Across the Years 72 Hour Footrace.  I just finished running this race yesterday.  Seventy-two hours is a hell of a long time to be on your feet.  The Bare Access was one of seven pairs of shoes I used during the event (the race itself served as an experiment-look for the race report soon!)  I ended up putting over 70 miles on these shoes during that time and came to appreciate the cushioning.

All of this transpired between first hearing of the Bare Access and actually getting a pair to test… except for the last.  I went from being horrified at the idea to being genuinely excited.

So… how about these shoes?

The Basics

The shoes are nearly identical to the Road Gloves as far as fit and feel.  For those that haven’t tried the Road Gloves, the fit is similar to the Trail Gloves with a different (flatter) foot bed.  The cushioning is much stiffer than expected.  Less like marshmallows and more like a pair of thick-soled huaraches.  That turned out to be a very good thing, which I will get to later.

The sole is flat as it is designed for navigating urban environments.  The weight is lighter than expected.  I’ll get another scale one of these days, but they are nearly identical to my Trail Gloves.

The liner is designed to be sockless, and it worked pretty well.  The shoes did rub at the Achilles.  I’m not sure if this will be an issue.  My first Road Gloves did the same the first few times I wore them but haven’t had a problem since.  I suspect this is more of an issue with my feet.

The lacing system is a standard lacing system.  I’m in love with the Omni-fit system and wish these would have used it, but I’d be using these shoes on steep mountain trails, not gently-rolling roads.

The shoe appears to be made on the same last as the rest of Merrell’s barefoot line as the fit is identical to the Trail and Road Gloves.  If those models fit your feet, these will, too.

Ventilation is on-par with the Road and Trail Glove, also.

The Intended Use for the Shoe

The shoe is intended to be a transition shoe.  If someone is going from a cushioned, supportive trainer to a true barefoot shoe, this would provide a stepping stone.  For those that have some injury history or prefer the feel of a more cushioned shoe, the Bare Access could be a good choice.  The caveat, of course, is the cushioning is substantial enough to allow pretty bad form.  I wouldn’t recommend using any transition shoe unless you have external feedback, the ability to video tape yourself, or are VERY conscious of your form.  If you’re confident you can still maintain good form, give them a shot! They will help bridge that gap to a true barefoot shoe.

My Use for the Shoe

I wasn’t interested in the transitional potential of the shoe.  I was looking for a mountain running shoe.  The Bare Access was a candidate because I knew the fit would be good and the cushioning would serve the same purpose as a rock plate.  It would allow me to run over rough terrain I couldn’t easily see. The shoes would serve the same function as Hokas without the ridiculously-high stack height (sole thickness) that makes those shoes dangerously unstable on cambered surfaces.

My trail running “proving grounds” were mountain trails in Arizona.  The trails are exceptionally rugged with a high density of sharp, jagged rocks.  The trails weren’t obscured, so the testing involved actively stepping on the sharpest rocks I could see.

For the most part, the shoe was a success.  The EVA sole provided just the right amount of protection.  The sole thickness negated the “pokiness” of the most jagged rocks.  That’s exactly what I was looking for.

There are some negatives.  The lack of the Omni-fit lacing means it’s difficult to tighten a single set of eyelets without using locking knots. This isn’t a huge issue, but my toes did have a tendency to hit the front of the toe box on steep declines.

The stack height was a little more than I was used to, which made proprioception worse than the Trail Gloves.  It was, however, a little better than the New Balance MT110s.

The cushioning, while much harder than I expected, still robbed a little efficiency.  Having a hard surface under foot allows for a more efficient gait.  That little bit of “give” gave the shoes a slight feeling like running in hard sand.  Because of this effect, I think a thin sole with a hard rock plate would function better than a softer, thicker cushioned shoe for rugged mountain running.

The zero drop heel was very nice compared to the few models that have a minimally-rasied 4-6mm heel.  I thought 4mm wouldn’t be an issue on trails… until I tweaked my knee outside Las Vegas.

The flat road running sole performed very well on bare, dusty rock, though it would probably suck in mud or on gravel-laden hills.

The other testing condition was over the pancake-flat hard-packed gravel and asphalt of the one mile Across the Years loop.  I used the shoes for both running and walking- from approximately mile 35 to 105 or so.  The hard cushioning turned out to be awesome as the miles and hours piled up.  Softer cushioning would have altered form too much; no cushioning would have been harder on the soles of my feet.  Again, I’ll talk about this more in my Across the Years race report.

Conclusion

The Bare Access turned out to be better than I expected.  As a transition shoe, it will work if used correctly.  As technical mountain running shoe, it performed better than anything else I’ve tried except maybe my modified “Mountain” Gloves.  As a long-distance road shoe, it worked well.  If I were running anything up to and including a marathon, I’d stick with the Road Glove.  I’d bust out the Bare Access on the longer distances.  This shoe should work well in the right situations… a good tool to have in the toolbox.   If I end up using these for a mountain ultra, I’ll post the results of the experimentation.

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25 Comments

  1. Barefoot Running University » Across the Years 72 Hour Footrace Race Report: Junk Food, Alcohol, Sex, and a Wooden Ball
    January 10, 2012

    […] a pair of Merrell Road Gloves, Stem Origins, New Balance Minimus Zero Roads, Vibram SeeYas, and Merrell Bare Access.  Later in the race I also added a pair of original Luna huaraches and Altra Adams… and 2 […]

  2. David Specht
    January 7, 2012

    “I think a thin sole with a hard rock plate would function better than a softer, thicker cushioned shoe for rugged mountain running”

    I completely agree, and this is what I am waiting for, anything with a stack height over 1 cm makes me nervous about rolling my ankle. Have you ever noticed how it is much harder (maybe almost impossible?) to roll your ankle while running barefoot or in very thin soled shoes? Adding an extra inch underneath of your feet would easily increase rotational forces by 30% if you tripped on something, not to mention having a tall sole would catch easier on things.

    Jason, off topic, but do you know if Merrell ever has any plans to make a zero drop hiking boot?

    David

  3. David
    January 5, 2012

    Nice review. One thing seems quite weird – you basically say having any sort of cushion is going to turn people’s form to crap. That feels wrong. I think people who have good, ingrained form from running barefoot, or in 5finger type stuff, aren’t going to fall apart with a little cushion, especially in a zero drop product. Maintaining proper form shouldn’t be much of an issue for those folks. Even for newer minimalist runners, the zero drop aspect alone should help promote decent form.

    • Jason
      January 6, 2012

      David- I should have clarified. Cushioning will cause some people’s form to go to Hell. You’re right- people that have learned good form and committed it to muscle memory can run well in anything as long as the shoes don’t alter posture.
      The problem I had was I developed a need for tactile feedback to maintain good form. As soon as the tactile feedback disappeared, form suffered. It’s taken years, but I’m finally at the point where my form doesn’t change with shoes. This is an issue with many people that learn good form via barefoot running.

  4. Erik
    January 4, 2012

    “a lot of people have no interest in running barefoot” — you’re absolutely right about that. I personally disdain shoes and only run shod when it’s really cold, but I don’t do gnarly runs like you (congrats, by the way, on completing the Across the Years race–quite an accomplishment!). But even for tame, jogging-type runs, most people simply cannot think outside of the shod perspective. Heck, even Invisible Shoes tells us that going barefoot is dangerous. I’ve been a barefooter for some 30 years and have zero converts (although my brother has taken up minimalist running/walking at my urging). By embracing both the barefoot and minimalist perspectives, honestly and open-mindedly, you’re the true guru of the natural running trend/movement, and the only blog I feel compelled to read regularly. Heck, I even read your shoe reviews.

    • Jason
      January 6, 2012

      Thanks Erik, but I prefer to not think of myself as any sort of guru. I just babble a lot. :-) I’d much rather encourage other people to be gurus and leaders by teaching others… for those that are comfortable with the role. ;-)

      • Erik
        January 7, 2012

        I meant it in the sense that you’re (1) the only one (that I’m aware of) investigating, and experimenting with, all facets of barefoot/minimalist running, (2) traveling around the county taking the pulse of the trend/movement and documenting it, and (3) maintaining yourself calmly open to all possibilities.

  5. Dave
    January 3, 2012

    The Trail Glove is my shoe for up to 30-40 mile trail races. For longer and/or rockier would you suggest bare access or mix master?

    • Jason
      January 6, 2012

      Depends on fit, Dave. I’d try both, go with the one that fits your feet best. Note- the MM has a 4mm heel. If you’ve spent a lot of time in zero-drop shoes, it may cause some form issues.

  6. Harold
    January 3, 2012

    I am one of those people on the fence about the barefoot/minimal running movement and some of the dogma that I was hearing was putting me off and making me wonder about whether it was an extremist approach or one that I would enjoy moving towards. Your blog is one that I read regularly since returning to running in Nov and this change, made me more comfortable with going in this direction.

    I believe that it will be the right direction for me, but I am not quite ready to completely go completely to barefoot either. I am currently running in the Saucony Peregrines, (I know too much cushioning), but they are a lot less than I have run in, in many years.

    The Merrill’s are in the mix for the next step down to zero drop and it was good to see a good review of them here. Now if I could only get a hold of a good pair of the Old Blue Dellinger web Adidas Marathon Trainers, that was a pretty good minimal shoe and I enjoyed running in it. But that is a different story. :-)

    Thank you for the information you provide to us out here, it is listened to by many more than you think.

    Harold

    • Jason
      January 6, 2012

      Thanks Harold! As far as introducing barefoot running, I’d suggest trying it in very small doses on a smooth, hard surface (like a sidewalk or asphalt road.) Even running a quarter mile will reap great benefits.

  7. Dan
    January 3, 2012

    This is an urban/road designed shoe. Will Merrell be releasing a zero drop, cushioned Trail Access, with a rock plate and perhaps a more trail oriented sole?

    • Jason
      January 6, 2012

      Dan, I’m working on persuading them of just that… though I’d prefer no cushioning and a hearty rock plate (lower stack height = better proprioception.)

  8. Rob
    January 3, 2012

    The only negative I’d see with that shoe for mountain races would be the flat sole. Get into some slick conditions and you’d be slipping everywhere. Think wet rocks, roots and mud! I’d agree that for dry conditions this shoe would fit the bill, much like the Altra Instincts. For mountain trails and all conditions I really like the Altra Lone Peak. It’s still a bit heavy for my taste but as a first run trail shoe by this new company it’s pretty darned good. Zero drop, anatomically shaped for proper toe spread, thin midsole with rock plate AND pretty fair outsole traction. I’ve used them on some pretty gnarly conditions: slick wet limestone rock, roots, mud on steep single-track trails up to 32 miles at a pop. So far so good. Could be lighter and perhaps a bit better traction but not bad.

    • Jason
      January 6, 2012

      I agree- they’re not an ideal mountain shoe… just one of the better options available. I’m hoping to try out the Altras in the future… I have a pair of Adams right now and will be posting a review within a few weeks.

  9. David Repp
    January 3, 2012

    They look pretty cool. I still am of the opinion that shoes like this are best for those who have experience barefoot and are running a distance or in some type of environment where they want cushion – but they have already learned the correct form. My fear with some shoes like these are that people will switch to them and then heel strike just like they did but with less cushioning than a traditional shoe end up injured quicker. But, for those who have run barefoot previously these look pretty cool to me.

    • Jason
      January 6, 2012

      Agreed, which is a worry I have, too. It’s possible to run with HORRIBLE form in these shoes. I’m banking on Merrell’s education materials thwarting some of that.

  10. Alex
    January 3, 2012

    Good work, moving on from previously stated dogma. That’s too infrequent a skill in the blogoshpere. As for the shoe, I think Merrel can just about set up a direct deposit from my checking. The trail glove was great; I’ll probably buy this and the road glove too.

    • Jason
      January 6, 2012

      When the goal is open discussion and education, it’s easy to admit you may have been wrong. ;-)

  11. briderdt
    January 3, 2012

    Wow… Was it a long drop from that no-cushioning high-horse? :^)

    Good to see the slackening of the dogma. Really. I think you’ll be in a better position to draw people to the movement.

    And thanks for the review. I do have issues with the TG’s, and these may be what the (shoe) doctor ordered in the Merrell Line.

    • Jason
      January 6, 2012

      Not that far of a fall… I landed on a big pile of EVA. :-)

  12. Joshua
    January 3, 2012

    Thanks for the review! I’ve been running in the Saucony Hattori’s, and have gone as far as 7ish miles in them. I feel a little sore, though, the farther I go. I’m considering the Bare Access or the Road Glove, and would like to work up to a half-marathon this spring and a marathon this fall. So, which would you recommend for someone that has been running in the Hattori’s??

    Thanks, & I love your blog!!!!

    • Jason
      January 6, 2012

      Josh- I’d actually advise you to play around with actual barefoot running… at least for a few miles per week. It will help you maintain good form, which may help alleviate the soreness.
      As far as a recommendation, I’d probably lean toward the Road Glove. The minimal cushioning will help maintain better form than the Bare Access.

  13. shel
    January 3, 2012

    the only time i like to employ cushioning is in that exact scenario – it is murder on the feet to do a FLAT 24 hour or multiday. i still thing that the shoe overall should be flexible and have a zero drop…but a lil softness under the foot is just what the doctor ordered…or else you’ll get hamburger feet.

    • Jason
      January 6, 2012

      That was my experience at ATY, Shel. :-)