Sunday, October 30, 2011

New Balance Minimus Trail vs. Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove: A Tale of Two Trail Shoes


I am going to make a statement, and I want my meaning to be clear: I'm a barefoot runner. By that I mean I run the vast majority of my miles wearing absolutely nothing on my feet. This has been my preference for the past two years or so. Apparently by "running barefoot," many people mean they run with some kind of minimalist shoe on their feet. "Bare" means, according to Webster's, "without covering or clothing." I love running barefoot on most surfaces in most weather conditions: grass, pavement, and concrete sidewalks as long at it's above 35 deg. F. However, true barefoot runners always encounter a dilemma: many of us, myself included, also love running gnarly trails that are not so barefoot friendly. And I love running year-round (I don't own nor do I care for treadmills). What's a fella to do?

As luck would have it, the shoe manufacturers that specialize in trail running wares also are at the forefront of the whole minimalist movement catering to runners with a "least is more" foot covering philosophy. The two names that are clear front runners in the category of minimalist trail shoes are the Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove and the New Balance Minimus Trail.

So which one is the king of minimalism off the beaten path? I'm going to break down each key difference between the two shoes (as I see it) so you can make an informed decision. Disclaimer: I was provided neither shoe by a sponsor, so I get nothing other than personal satisfaction from writing this review. All opinions are painfully and willfully subjective; It's what I think, and your experience may differ. The pair New Balance Minimus shoes I am reviewing came courtesy of the Maple Grove Barefoot Guy, one of my barefoot running blogger friends and primary influences. Check out his site RIGHT NOW!

The Contenders
*Ding ding ding* In this corner!...
Merrell Barefoot collection flagship: The Trail Glove (the "Trail Glove" or "MBTG")
And in the other corner, the challenger...
The New Balance Minimus Trail (or just "Minimus"). You might notice the drawstring laces; they're Yankz brand, and I love them. I hate laces and much prefer drawstring-type or velcro strap systems.
Appearance
This is the most subjective of all the several rather subjective categories of shoe design. People's taste in the look of a shoe can be as varied as people themselves. Because of its tall and wide toe box coupled with a very narrow sole through the midfoot and heel, the Merrell takes on what has been described as a "clown shoe" appearance. Still, the color combination looks quite appealing and understated: a big departure for minimal shoes when it first arrived on the market. In contrast, the Minimus Trail (often referred to by its model name: the MT10) is quite attractive by traditional running shoe standards. There is nothing really remarkable about its shape, but it lacks the awkward width offset of the Trail Glove so that's something. The fishnet look of the upper is pretty sweet, too. I also totally dig the "LOOK AT ME! I wanna be like Anton Krupicka!" orange - because, of course, Anton is the man. If you watch the video about him here and don't want to go out and run some mountain trails right this minute, there is something very wrong with you.
Advantage: New Balance Minimus Trail

Fit
This is a category I could spend quite a bit of time on because it is one area where the shoes are a stark contrast to one another. If there is one factor that causes people to strongly prefer any one similarly-purposed shoe over the other, it's probably going to be how they fit.

The Minimus has quite a wide toe box that is soft and pleasantly stretchy at the top. This is due to the lack of toe cap protection restricting movement - definitely a tradeoff with value dependent on the high-root-and-rock content of your local trail. The midfoot upper of the Minimus has been the source of much controversy due to the metatarsal band that runs across the top. I did not find this to be a problem because I have pretty narrow feet for a barefooter, but more than a few people who have worn the MT10 do not like it for this very reason. Through the rest of the shoe, the Minimus Trail fits much like a traditional shoe albeit a bit slimmer through the midfoot.
Wiiiiiide. Just how I like it. 
The Trail Glove has an equally controversial fit issue that sparked a lot of rants online. The Merrell is very slim-fitting through the midfoot and heel. It has often been described as glove-like, which I think is dead-on. This is a fantastic feature on the trails - one of the BFTG's best trail-specific features. The shoe stays in place... as long as you cinch the sucker down, a job made much easier with its really clever Omni-Fit lacing system. Basically it has nylon loops that sweep around underneath the tongue and attach to the upper effectively connecting the midsole to the tongue. The feel all of this creates for a wearer is a decidedly acquired taste. In addition, the middle portion of the footbed has a "rise" that touches the arch. I have found that this "rise" flattens itself out over the course of the first 20 miles or so. It gave me fits when initially trying the shoe on, and I actually considered sending it back; Yes, it really felt that weird. The shoes are well-broken in now (>50 miles), and they feel very conformed to my foot.
I tried to take a detailed picture of the Omnifit lacing system. This is the best I could do.
Sockless wear is a major consideration for many barefoot runners looking for minimal trail protection. Socks are just another layer between you and the ground. Both the Trail Glove and Minimus advertise linings that are no-sock friendly. I got a blister going bare in both, so I wear thin socks on the trails. With all said and done, this category is pretty much a toss-up. I like the fit of both shoes for very different reasons, but I am going to go ahead a pick a winner which I'm sure my fellow shoe reviewers will have fun picking apart. The primary factor that puts it just over the top is the toe box.
Advantage: New Balance Minimus


Flatness
This is pretty simple: The MT 10 has a 4mm lift in the heel; the Trail Glove is flat. The narrowness of the Trail Glove along with the contouring of the sole in the arch creates some awkwardness at first in the shoe as I mentioned. Many have mistaken it for arch support, but it is simply the glove-like fit at work. The contour is reduced as the shoe is worn. By 25 miles not including casual wear for break-in, I could no longer feel the rise in the arch. The very small bit of cushion in the sole compresses with wear. Having not heel lift is a serious advantage for a minimal shoe, in my opinion. The less "shoe" I have to interfere with the normal function of my foot, the better.
Advantage: Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove

You can see the "drop" from the heel to the midfoot. It looks like an afterthought not even integrated with the shoe. Why NB felt the need to throw that in there, I have no idea.
Ground Feel
The amount of feedback a shoe allows is viewed as an important "minimal" factor with more tending to be better. However, for a trail shoe, a delicate balance must be struck between feeling the running suface and protection from nasty rocks and roots.

While the distance between your foot and the ground is quite minimal at 11mm forefoot and heel, there is sufficient protection from pointy debris... provided you don't land on your arch. Ouch!
The Minimus has a slight bit more material between foot and ground at the heel (14mm vs. 11 of the Trail Glove) but less at the forefoot (10mm vs. 11mm). However, the Trail Glove features a harder, less supple sole with a rock plate just behind the ball of the foot at the instep - which I found to be ideal placement to prevent those nasty rock bruises. The extra material in the Minimus does give a slightly more cushioned feel despite the "hard" density of the midsole which is not necessarily a bad thing in my opinion. All things considered, I would have to give this one to the shoe with best balance between ground feel and protection.
Advantage: Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove


Weight
The weight difference between the NB Minimus and the MBTG is fairly negligible. They are advertised at 7.1 ounces and 7.0 ounces respectively - not a big enough difference for me to declare a clear victor.
Advantage: Draw


Traction
A very important feature of a decent trail shoe is its ability to grip the trail. One can imagine the challenges encountered creating a grippy trail shoe that maintains its minimalist qualities. The Minimus performed well in most conditions on most surfaces, but the MBTG clearly outperformed it across the board. I find this curious considering the fact that Vibram designed the outsole on both shoes, but the design differences, and the advantages of the MBTG, are obvious even at at a cursory glance . On the flip side, the Minimus probably owes its better on-road feel an performance to its less-pronounced, disc-like traction lugs.
Advantage: Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove

Yummy traction. The "widow" slits on the left show off the rock plate.

The dimples on the individual disks added some grippiness, but they have begun to wear off after less than 100 miles, especially at the forefoot and far back on the heel.

Flexibility
Due to its slightly increased sole thickness, the Minimus has considerably less flexibility in the mid and forefoot than it could potentially be. The MBTG is fairly flexible throughout the foot except at the rock plate. I have also found the outsole of the MBTG to be harder and less supple than that of the Minimus, making a "clunking" sound almost like a dress shoe when walking indoors. Once again, both shoes have to strike a balance between pure flexibility and performance on the trail which requires both to hold their form and stay in place on the foot. If you try both shoes on the trail, I don't think you could come to any other conclusion than what I have here.
Advantage: Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove

I don't think I will ever publish a shoe review without a shot like this.
Durability
After more than fifty miles in either shoe, I can say definitively that the rubber sole of the Trail Gloves appears to be holding up better. Both shoes are above average in this department, so I'm really splitting hairs here. The one factor that makes the biggest difference is the interior of each shoe; the lower sock liner glued into the Minimus, which is typical felt-like fabric found in many shoes only supposedly permanent in this application, is coming detached an wrinkling up. It's a minor annoyance and easily dealt with, but it's enough to push the Trail Glove to the front in this category.
Advantage: Merrell Barefoot Trail Glove

Minor wear on the heel is pretty apparent. The same can be seen at the forefoot. Despite falling short to the MBTG in this category, the Minimus has shown itself to be very resilient over the past few months.
Versatility
A shoe's ability to perform well on multiple surfaces and various conditions is a HUGE plus for me because I run lots of mixed surfaces (pavement-to-gravel, pavement-to-dirt, ect.). Despite both shoes being designed and advertised as trail-specific, I found both to function quite well on hard surfaces. In fact, I set a 1-mile PR in both shoes (Minimus first, then the MBTG). While I greatly differ from many of my fellow reviewers on this opinion, I think both shoes are decent road shoes especially if you are moving down from a more traditional running shoe. There are better road options out there for people looking to get a closest-to-barefoot experience (Vibram Fivefingers, Invisibleshoe huaraches, Softstar Runamocs, etc.), but the gap between those extremely minimal shoes and these two trail-bred workhorses is not as wide as one might expect. The hard part: which one is more versatile? If pressed, I'd have to say...
Advantage: New Balance Minimus Trail
Me setting a miler PR in the MBTGs. Pic provided by one of my fellow teachers.
Price
MBTG: $110, NB Minimus $100.
Advantage: New Balance Minimus Trail


Other Considerations
- I replaced the laces in the Minimus because they didn't glide through the lace loops - not a problem with the elastic Yankz.
- The MBTG suffers from a similar problem with the wonkiness of the Omnifit system only tightening on part of the foot at a time - a major headache for me, but some people see it as a positive feature. Go figure.
- There are other competitors on the market - particularly if you are interested in a bit more protection and/or significantly more traction for rougher conditions. See my review of the VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Trails for one such shoe that is also a very viable option.
- My VIVOBAREFOOT Neos are still my go-to shoe for running on the road when it's too cold and too dark to run barefoot, but the MT10s have joined the rotation.

Verdict
The winner: Merrell's Barefoot Trail Glove with a score of 5! The Minimus came in with a score of 4, but there really are no losers in this showdown. Both shoes are very capable on the trail and better than expected on the road - a pleasant surprise for you frugal runners such as myself and those demanding versatility from their footwear. While the shoes are wildly different answers to the same problem, they both some how hit the mark. What was most interesting to me while breaking down all the myriad features of each shoe is that there is still quite a bit of room for improvement, especially with the Minimus. New Balance has already announced and previewed the release of the new zero-drop Minimus line which promises to raise the bar while lowering the sole height for minimalist shoes. It's really starting to get exciting for minimalist shoe nerds. I can't wait to see what's next!

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for this thorough review! I've tried both shoes on in the store and found the Minimus to be a more comfortable fit for me. I think I'll be getting the NBM! :)

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  2. Thanks for your comment, lavender. There is a definite advantage for the Minimus in the "intial fit and feel" department, although that is not always the best way to choose a shoe. Actually, that is one of the most important lesson I have learned in my shoe purchasing and testing adventures: always do your research. Read reviews, ask for feedback from the pros, surf the forums for tip, and talk to shoe sales reps. I think minimalist runners are doing a much better job than the general running public at these things, and the market is responding well!

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  3. This is a great review. I trained and ran my first race (a 5K turkey trot in Snoqualmie Ridge) in Merrells' Lithe Glove. Lacing had been a trial and error experience - there is a tendency to pull it too tightly (and you pay with pain of course) and the zero-drop took getting used to. But I trained and ran without injury and no pain, in these shoes - and that is the most important thing.

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  4. Loved this review, very comprehensive. Agree with most of your assessments. I filmed a video of my own take on Minimus vs Trail Glove debate, if anyone's interested https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YV9R8MlBKwE

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  5. Many thanks, Brother. Your video was very good stuff. Was that your first shoe review?

    Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete