While I firmly believe that minimalist running is here to stay, I also think it will reach a settling point over the long term. I anticipate that many traditional runners will become convinced of the benefits of barefoot biomechanics, but will still want a marginal amount of comfort and protection from their everyday shoes. I also suspect that a percentage of current barefoot and minimalist diehards will eventually drift back – either for reasons of comfort or performance, or both – towards footwear that is something more than a flat slab of rubber and a little bit of leather.
Accordingly, there will be a huge demand for “nearly” barefoot shoes that are structured enough to appeal to wary traditionalists, but minimal enough to attract purists as well; basically, something that can bring minimalism to the mainstream consumer. And when that time comes, Merrell will be ready.
More than any other company this year, Merrell has completely thrown its arms around the barefoot and minimalist movement: from recognizing numerous biomechanics studies detailing the advantages of natural running, to educating its customers (largely through the efforts of barefoot advocate Jason Robillard) in proper barefoot technique, to supporting the minimalist community through a dedicated website and social media campaign, to creating a whole collection of footwear designed to appeal to the widest possible spectrum of folks interested in minimalism. This isn’t a “me, too” effort by a major company looking to cash in on the latest trend – it’s a genuine investment by an established industry player acknowledging that minimalist footwear is here to stay, and looking to establish itself as the dominant brand in bringing minimalism to the masses.
To my additional delight, they’ve also proven to be one of the most generous companies I’ve encountered – which is the perfect cue to announce two upcoming giveaways. After today’s review, we’ll have a contest for one pair of Merrell’s Men’s Trail Glove, which will be described shortly. A couple of weeks from now, I’ll post a review of their Women’s Pace Glove, and give away one pair of those as well. But if you’re still not a fan of the company after what I’ve just described, allow me to introduce you to the Trail Glove, which makes a strong case as one of the best minimalist trail shoes on the market today.
As usual, we’ll consider the vital specs first: the Trail Glove weighs in at 6.2 oz, with a midsole height of 12mm at both heel and forefoot. Thus, it’s a very lightweight zero-drop shoe that places you slightly higher off the ground than a pair of Vibrams (8mm for the KSO Trek), but lower and flatter than New Balance’s Minimus Trail (15mm heel/11mm forefoot). It has some protective features of traditional shoes without sacrificing any of the flexibility or mechanics of barefoot running.
Material construction of the upper is a somewhat traditional microfiber and air mesh design, with a rubberized bumper at the front for abrasion and impact resistance. Through the midfoot, synthetic overlays are looped into the lacing system, creating a very snug midfoot and forefoot feel. I found the uppers to be extremely effective at draining and drying after water immersions, but still warm enough to keep your toes happy when air temperatures get frosty. The toe box is wide enough to prevent hot spots and to allow your toes to splay without impingement. There’s a slight upward curvature to the toebox, but when they’re actually on my feet I found this to be unnoticeable.
The overall shape of the upper is cut to be snug through the metatarsal area, to the point where it’s sometimes hard for me to get my foot into the shoe (more on this in a second). It accomplishes a similar feel as the forefoot of New Balance’s Minimus Trail, without having an actual strap across the top of the foot. Merrell’s Omni-fit lacing system incorporates not just the TPU overlays on the side of the shoe, but small straps across the tongue as well, so that tension is applied evenly across the entire upper when the laces are tightened.
Since the Trail Glove is designed to be worn without socks, its ankle collar is very thin and sits snug around the heel, with an interior sockliner that is quite plush and comfortable against your skin. The antimicrobial microfiber footbed below has a somewhat rubbery feel to it, which further minimizes any slipping of the foot. If you're keeping track, that's about 5 different structural mechanisms to keep your foot stable and secure on top of the midsole, resulting in an overall feel like the shoe is simply an extension of your foot. Whether you’re on irregular terrain or steep downhills, your foot isn’t going anywhere it shouldn’t be inside this shoe.
One caveat to the whole sockless fit concept is that the upper is almost too snug to wear with traditional trail running socks. I’m not a fan of going sockless, especially on high-mileage days, so I wear socks for most of my longer runs in these shoes – but I find that even when wearing my thinnest socks (Drymax Lite Trail), I have to kind of wriggle my foot into the upper when putting the Trail Gloves on. Once I’m in, I’m good to go … but I’ve learned to budget for an extra 30 seconds or so when getting dressed in the morning. Fortunately, it’s a compromise I can live with.
With most natural running shoes, there’s a performance tradeoff through the midsole area; true minimalist fans want their footwear to be as flexible as possible, which inherently limits the possibility of incorporating any protective features. And if there’s any midsole at all (for purists, none is preferable), it should be as thin as possible to maintain maximal ground feel against the bottom of the foot. This is where Merrell has staked out a nice middle ground, by incorporating two design elements that add a dose of comfort while not detracting too significantly from overall barefoot feel.
The first element isn’t anything novel: it’s a 4mm compression-molded EVA layer between the outsole and insole. This thickness is similar to Vibram’s Trek midsole – and just as with the FiveFingers, I’ve also noticed that there’s a settling period during the first 100 miles or so of use. In other words, the initial “cushy” feeling eventually recedes to allow improved ground feel than you have on your first run out of the box.
It’s in the forefoot area that Merrell offers a cool innovation: a 1mm forefoot plate that distributes impact pressure from sharp rocks, but is still completely flexible. This combination of slight cushioning and slight impact protection makes the Trail Glove somewhat unique in the spectrum of minimalist trail shoes. From my testing, its ground feel is slightly less than Vibram’s Trek or Terra Plana’s Evo, but there’s a little more comfort over exceedingly long runs or rugged terrain. Compared to New Balance’s Minimus, the Trail Glove has a similar level of comfort, with slightly better ground feel. Granted, we’re talking about differences of millimeters one way or the other – but if you’re a longtime minimalist runner, you notice these things.
For the outsole, Merrell turned to the most prominent name in performance footwear. The Trail Glove features Vibram TC-1 rubber that is cut with moderate “knobbing” throughout and ridges across the front end. Like a pair of FiveFingers, it’s contoured very closely through the arch area and narrow through the midfoot. Durability of the outsole has been excellent after about 150 miles, and traction has been great in a variety of conditions (with a couple of exceptions below), especially on wet surfaces. I’ve worn my Trail Gloves for a handful of knee-deep stream crossings, and I was pleasantly surprised at how secure my footing was on the round, slick rocks beneath the surface. They also remain quite stable in mud, and grip nicely around irregular surfaces like rocks and roots.
The only drawback to the outsole I’ve experienced is some minor slipping on loose gravel on steep hills. Going up, the knobs and ridges don’t grab the dirt, occasionally just pushing it backwards a bit. On steep descents, I’ve had a little bit of sliding on top of the dirt, especially if I’ve run through some wet conditions already and have some lingering mud caked into the lugs. This particular problem isn’t uncommon with other shoes, and I’d rank the Trail Glove outsole slightly ahead of the Vibram Trek or Terra Plana Evo, but slightly behind the New Balance Minimus in this regard.
Overall, Merrell has done an outstanding job of incorporating nearly all the elements of barefoot mechanics while offering a compelling option for traditional runners who are reluctant to go “all the way” to pure minimalist footwear. In an increasingly crowded field, the Trail Glove is a true standout that’s equally suited for ultramarathons or light recreational use. It’s clear that Merrell did their homework in developing this shoe, which isn’t too surprising in light of their extended commitment that I described at the beginning of the post. If their goal is to make minimalism accessible and enjoyable for the masses, the Trail Glove should be considered an enormous success.
Merrell’s Trail Glove retails for $110 from TravelCountry.com as well as other online vendors – but in conjunction with this review, one lucky reader will get a pair for free. My usual “big” contest rules apply here: we’ll do a weighted entry system, with additional entries for links to this post from your blog and/or Facebook page (remember, I double-check sometimes). Leave a comment below for a single entry, and let me know how many additional tickets you’ve earned, for a possibility of up to three total entries. Remember, this is a men’s shoe only – so ladies, you’re entering for your brothers or husbands on this one (which is fine with me), and your own contest will take place later this month.
The winner will be announced on Saturday, April 23rd. Good luck to everybody, and thanks very much to Merrell for sponsoring such an awesome giveaway!
*Product provided by Merrell