The key to any gear test is to eventually put it through the roughest conditions it might face. Taking a pair of running shoes on the pavement or on mild trails is one way to go about it, but the conditions don’t get any rougher for shoes than a place littered with loose stones, slick spots, protruding tree roots and jutting rocks.
Mix that in with a long series of vertical gains and losses, and you get the drift: The runner will be tested, but so will his or her shoes.
That’s what I set out to do when I took a pair of Merrell True Glove minimalist running shoes for a final test – a 4.5-mile trail run at Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness.
Turkey Mountain is a multi-purpose site for hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders and trail runners. The city’s park system does a good job maintaining Turkey Mountain’s trails, but they do so while preserving its rugged nature. The trails make for an easygoing hike, but once you add some speed via the run or in the saddle of a bike, then things change dramatically.
In the past, I’d looked at most trail running shoes as unequal to the task of handling Turkey Mountain for long. I’d even tested a pair of lightweight Merrell hikers with the idea of seeing if their more robust construction might make them an appealing alternative to traditional trail runners. (You can read that review here.)
So what in the world was I doing bringing minimalist shoes to a place like this? Isn’t that akin to bringing a knife to a gunfight?
If you look at the shoe, the first-impression answer to that question would be “yes.” But you never know until you try, and taking gear to its limits will give you a good idea of how good it is.
Turkey Mountain is actually a long, wooded ridge on the west bank of the Arkansas River. The hills and ridges around Tulsa are actually the westernmost extension of the bigger, higher mountains of the Ozarks in Arkansas. The city set aside Turkey Mountain as an outdoor recreation site with as few man-made embellishments as possible.
Many trails I’ve run are relatively smooth, gravel paths with gradual inclines. Most have had tripping hazards removed. Not so at Turkey Mountain. Its growing reputation as a rugged single-track biker’s haven is also what makes it such a fun trail run.
You will trip on stuff. You will have to jump over things. You will blow your legs out running to the ridge’s summit, and you will be just slightly out of control going downhill. When it’s over, you will have had a seriously thorough workout. It’s the site of many trail run and bike races, and was last year’s Oklahoma venue for the Warrior Dash.
The ridge has four basic trail systems, plus a more extensive network of side trails that go for miles. I chose to do the Yellow Trail, which goes up to the ridge top, goes north to the ridge’s end, then back south on the ridge’s east side. It’s 4.5 miles with steep inclines to start, a long straight stretch in the middle, and the last half being a series of climbs and drops that will just sap you.
As in my first and second tests, the shoe is the Merrell True Glove. It’s a minimalist shoe with spare construction, but it’s been given a Vibram sole. Vibram is famous for its five-finger shoes, but well before that, it’s been known for some killer soles on hiking boots for a variety of manufacturers.
The first test went well, but without socks, blisters were the result. For the second test, I snagged a pair of Adidas Climacool runners’ socks. I went just 2 miles, but got a good workout nonetheless. And no blisters.
Both times, the shoe forced me to conform to the minimalist running style of shorter, quicker footsteps (about 180 steps per minute, less than the 120 per minute for most runners), mid-foot striking and a more upright posture. Both tests were on pavement – the first on a flat track, the second on a hillier, but still manageable route.
This one would feel much different than the previous two tests, and for obvious reasons. Running on pavement, you are allowed to set breathing patterns and rhythms. You can do this in spurts on trail runs, but the nature of this trail didn’t allow it very often.
That also meant the barefoot/minimalist stride would also be more sporadic. When you’re scrambling up a gully filled with jutting rocks and tree roots, everything goes out the window.
On the flatter sections, running form takes over until the next climb or descent. I also found that many times, my strides would be even choppier than the normal minimalist gait, mostly because of obstacles on the path.
That didn’t stop me from tripping when I wasn’t paying attention or when I got tired. Hey, it happens. Trail run for any length of time and you’re going to bite it.
But how would the shoe hold up to kicking hard objects? How would my feet feel after 45 minutes of stepping on stones and stumps? Would the spare tread grip the trail on steep downhills, particularly on bare rock?
Lots of questions. The answers are mostly good.
Yes, if you kick something or step on something in minimalist shoes, you will feel it more. But nothing happened that forced me off the trail with pain or an injury, and the shoe held up.
Like road running in minimalists, your legs will work harder. Without the spring of more cushioned soles, your legs absorb more shock while also pushing harder to propel you forward.
As in previous tests, my legs grew more tired, especially my calves. But already, I’m noticing differences in the muscularity in my legs. All that extra work is developing a strong base.
There was also some foot fatigue, but not nearly as much as I would have expected on a minimalist run for 4.5 miles.
I also found that she shoe did well in keeping traction on the trail, even in the more troublesome spots. Its light weight made it easier to be nimble when there was cause for quick footwork. But I also had to be a little more conscious of where I put my feet. What I might crash through in thicker soles would not be a good idea here.
The bottom line: I suffered no ill physical effects (blisters also avoided again!) and the shoe weathered the conditions well.
Minimalist shoes aren’t going to be for everyone. But what I can tell you a few things from the three tests I did.
First, the shoe will change your form, and if you conform, you will save your joints and back a lot of grief. Heel striking will be prohibitively awkward and uncomfortable. So the shorter, quicker steps will feel more natural. The change will mess with your breathing cadence, but chances are you will adjust in time.
Second, you will reap conditioning benefits. The lack of cushion will make your legs and core work harder, and that will make you stronger. What runner or other athlete doesn’t want that? Just be sure to monitor your feet, ease into it and back off if you feel pain in your feet that goes beyond mere soreness.
Third, this particular shoe is good to go on any surface. Outside of bushwhacking off-trail, I pretty much tested them on every running surface available to me. The results were all similar: Because you can feel more of the ground, you will be forced to run lighter on your feet. I felt a lot more on the trail run, but that would be true with any shoe.
One thing I’d like to see: Minimalist shoes are pretty spare when it comes to material and construction, so I’m not sure their price should be as high as traditional running shoes. I bought mine on sale for $80, but I’ve seen some shoes from Merrell and other manufacturers run as high as $130. Given the design of these shoes, I have to think there’s a pretty big mark-up here.
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