The Merrell Bare Access Ultra & Me: A Love Affair

The Merrell Bare Access Ultra. Very green aren't they?

The Merrell Bare Access Ultra. Very green aren’t they?

Though the minimalist shoe fad has largely passed, I’m still a fan of the near-barefoot running concept. I like the idea of my feet being strong, mobile and able.  I don’t like the idea of relying on a lot of foam, plastic and arch support; and I like the idea of the low drop from heel to forefoot. Maybe what I like most is that I find minimalist shoes to be the most comfortable for me, which seems to count a lot when selecting running shoes.

My last pair of road shoes was the Nike Free 3.0 v 5.  I loved ’em! Unlike some prior iterations of the Free, they had a roomy forefoot which allowed my toes to spread out as human toes are wont to do. Though they were a minimal shoe, they had just enough padding to make running on pavement and gravel quite comfortable.

All good things must end though and the Frees are worn out, destined for yard work. I needed new shoes.

As I said, the minimalist shoe movement has faded out a good bit. They were touted by many to be the cure for all sorts of foot ailments. (I fell under that spell.) And like any miracle cure, their “magic” wasn’t magic for everyone. Thus, the selection of minimalist shoes has shrunk.

My Internet prowling revealed far fewer minimalist shoes than I remembered being in existence. To make a long story a little shorter, I couldn’t find more of the exact Nike Free that I wanted and I felt the replacement called the Nike Flyknit was more money than I wanted to spend.

I love my New Balance MT1010s (my 3rd pair) and I recalled there being a similar version of a road shoe. That shoe doesn’t seem to exist anymore. (For that matter, it looks like the MT1010 is out of production. Damnit.) The search continued…

I looked for reviews for minimalist road shoes and found a very useful site called Run Repeat.  It aggregates shoe reviews so it’s sort of like a Rotten Tomatoes for running shoes. (Run Repeat features far more than just minimalist shoes. It appears to discuss a very wide range and brand of shoes.) I found their list for 34 Best Minimalist Running Shoes in 2016. On that list was the Merrell Bare Access.

I was familiar with Merrell shoes such as the Trail Glove but I’d never owned any. I always thought I’d like to check out a pair and the Bare Access seemed like it was up my alley: a low-drop, lightweight minimal road shoe for training with lots of good reviews. I wanted to find a pair.

A few days later I found myself at the always fun DSW Shoe Warehouse. What did I behold in that store but several pair of Bare Access Ultras — on the bargain rack and in my size!

I was ready to run as soon as I put them on. They felt very light and lively. Sounds weird but I wanted to run out of the store in them. I’m not kidding.

What’s so great about them?

  • Fit: The heel and mid-foot are perfectly snug but not tight. The forefoot is spacious and gives my piggies plenty of room to spread out.
  • Cushion: The cushion feels great. It’s a minimal shoe so it’s not terribly thick but enough to make running very comfortable. I find the shoe to be very snappy which I suppose is largely a function of the sole and cushion. They make me want to sprint!
  • Upper: I can tell the upper is very well ventilated which isn’t much of an issue in the winter but I think they’ll be very cool and comfortable in the heat.
  • Weight: They’re very light which again, makes me want to move fast.

All of this adds up to a shoe that feels light and fast. I honestly don’t want the run to end when I’m in them.

The Minimal Shoe Debate Heats Up


If you’re an exercise geek like me then you may take interest in the latest goings-on over at Zero-Drop, a very fine minimalist running blog.  Three posts are worth reading: “ASICS Have Really Dug In Their Heels,” “The ASICS ‘Minimalst’ Shoe Debate Continues…,” and “The Other Shoe Has Dropped: Dr. Craig Richards Challenges ASICS and Other Shoe Companies.”

It seems that shoe company ASICS is not jumping on the minimal shoe bandwagon like most of their competitors.  ASICS shoe designer Simon Bartold is quoted in the article and he speaks fairly derisively of the movement toward flatter, thinner and more flexible shoes. He demands proof that minimal shoes are healthy and useful for runners.  (Meanwhile, there’s certainly no proof that modern, “good” running shoes are healthy either.)

What’s most interesting however isn’t the article itself but rather the spirited exchange that follows in the comments section where Bertold and the blog author go back and forth over the scientific particulars of this issue.  The discussion gets quite heated and the drama even spills over to another blog. “ASICS vs Zero Drop, Minimalist vs. Maximalist” comes from the great minimalist site, Runblogger.  It’s a very thorough examination of the type of proof that Simon Bertold demands.  The article in fact draws a comment from ASICS’ Bertold that that might be seen as a little bit of backpedaling.

The issue of science and scientific “proof” is a prominent feature of these discussions.  It’s unlikely that any one study will prove 100% whether or not any type of shoe–or no shoe at all–will cause or prevent a given type of injury.  There are many many variables that go into an injury or lack thereof.  (Interestingly, several studies suggest that conventional “good” running shoes matched to foot type do nothing to prevent injuries.)  Further, just because a rigorous study hasn’t been done doesn’t mean that a given cause-and-effect relationship doesn’t exist.  Minimal shoe/barefoot running may or may not in fact be healthier for most people than running in a conventional running shoe but there may be no powerful study that exists that proves either condition.

There’s nothing wrong with examining the anecdotal evidence either.  It’s often the anecdotal stuff that motivates someone to study something, and there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence out there supporting the idea that less shoe is better than more shoe.  I can speak from my observations of clients in the gym (as well as my wife and my own condition) that many people move better and feel better in minimal shoes.  I’m not the only one observing this.  In fact the shoe companies making minimal shoes are responding to the requests of their customers.

Finally, if you find all of this interesting, then you should get over to a recent post at the Science of Sport.  The barefoot running debate: Born to run, shoes & injury: the latest thinking is a remarkably in-depth discussion on the shoe issue.  The Sports Scientists take their subjects very seriously and they always get deep into the science behind athletics.  They discuss the important of running technique and the idea of how to transition from a conventional running shoe to the barefoot/minimal running style.  Very informative stuff there.


Selecting Shoes by Foot Shape


Results of three military studies showed that prescribing shoes based on foot shape made no difference in the rate at which injuries occurred in Army, Marine and Air Force basic trainees, who spend quite a bit of time running. That’s “no” as in none, sports fans.

Any runner is familiar with the idea that certain shoes are made for certain types of feet.  We’ve got motion control shoes, neutral cushioned shoes, stability shoes….  The idea being that these different types of shoes help guide feet in the healthiest most efficient manner.  This concept has been challenged by three military studies.  Army, Air Force and Marine studies all had similar results.

“We found no scientific basis for choosing running shoes based on foot type,” said Bruce Jones, M.D., injury prevention program manager at U.S. Army Public Health Command (Provisional), Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

The most recent study looked at 1400 Marine recruits.  Men and women were randomly assigned into two groups.  One group got shoes matched to their foot type, the other group received stability shoes. Similar to Army and Air Force studies, the recruits with shoes prescribed according to foot type experienced the same rate of injuries as those in the control group, regardless of other factors, such as age, sex, race and smoking habits.

I wonder what the shoe companies have to say?

These findings echo statements found in Noakes’ Lore of Running.  He refers to a study by Stacoff (1998) of orthotics.  The study found that the orthotics–thought to control pronation of the foot–didn’t actually change ankle motion in the test subjects.  Though this study refers to orthotics, it’s quite likely that shoes designed to control pronation produce similar results.  So if shoes are prescribed to a runner based on his or her foot strike pattern, and if we’re expecting to see that foot strike pattern altered in a certain way, then the expected outcome is unlikely.

That’s not to say the right shoes and/or orthotics won’t work for an individual.  But the mechanism by which these shoes and inserts work is unclear.  At the very least, these studies suggest that we don’t really know why a certain shoe or orthotic may work for someone.  Nor can we predict accurately the right type of shoe/orthotic someone needs based on looking at their foot type.

News on Barefoot Running: Part II


Previously I discussed how wearing shoes alters the human running stride.  For millennia, our feet functioned well enough to get us to the 1970s when we put them into running shoes.  The result seems to be our adopting a running stride (heel strike) that may be more stressful and injurious than an unshod stride (forefoot strike).  I want to continue the discussion by looking at a few more studies of our feet and the effect of shoes.

The original ATV...

I’ll go back to a Science Daily article from November of 2007 called Your Knees Want to Take you Shoe Shopping.  The research was originally presented in 2007 at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Scientific Meeting.  Researchers analyzed the effects of various footwear on patients with knee osteoarthritis.  Specifically, they looked at loading of the knees.

The first point the researchers make is this:

“In knee osteoarthritis, there is abundant evidence that patients with abnormally high loading knees (high amounts of stress on part or all of the knee joint) are at increased risk of both injury and disease progression.”

Now, the important research findings were these:

“Researchers found that clogs and stability shoes were associated with significantly higher loading of the knees, while the walking shoes and flip-flops resulted in lower knee loads similar to those occurring when walking barefoot. Therefore, shoes that allowed natural foot motion and flexibility appeared to be more beneficial in terms of knee loading.”

That final statement goes to the point that a natural stride, unaffected by modern high-tech footwear seems to be more healthy for us.  Here’s more supporting information.  Footwear Alters Normal Form and Function of the Foot is a 2009 Science Daily article that profiles a study on barefoot walking.  Specifically the researchers studied people who’d never worn shoes.  The researchers wanted to observe the biologically normal function of the foot which had evolved for millions of years without the influence of shoes.  They indeed saw habitually unshod feet moved performed differently from shod feet.  The article notes:

“Barefooters have a relatively wide forefoot and manage at better distributing pressures over the entire surface of the foot sole, resulting in lower (and most likely favourable) peak pressures. As such, the fundamental scientific results are also important for clinicians and for the design of quality footwear, which should not hamper the foot’s biologically normal function.”

In Part III of this series I’ll discuss new research that demonstrates running shoes actually contribute to greater stress at the ankles, knees and hips.

News on Barefoot Running: Part I


The cutting edge of running technology!

First of all, a disclaimer: I am NOT telling everyone to throw out their running shoes/inserts/orthotics and go barefoot to run all the time forever.  If you’re having success then keep doing what you’re doing.  I do however suggest reconsidering what you think you know about the human foot and the shoes we put on them.  If you’re in pain then you MIGHT consider changing from a highly structured foot environment to something less structured.  Alright, on to the important stuff.

The case against running shoes (or maybe FOR going barefoot from time to time) seems to be mounting. What we’ve got here is more evidence that for running, the human foot all by itself is likely the most highly advanced instrument for the job.

I’ve posted previously on the issue of running and human evolution, and the issue of running shoes vs. barefoot running.  Research continues on the issue.  An article in Science Daily titled Barefoot Running: How Humans Ran Comfortably and Safely Before the Invention of Shoes tells us of research on three groups of people: those who had always run barefoot, those who had always worn shoes, and those who had converted to barefoot running from shod running.  (This analysis of different types of runners is one strong point of the study.) Runners in Kenya and the U.S. were subjects.  The project was a joint effort between Harvard, University of Glasgow, and Moi University.  The full article can be accessed for a fee in the journal Nature.

The researchers observed very different patterns during barefoot running vs. shod running.  Barefoot runners land on the mid-foot or the forefoot whereas running in shoes tends to promote a heel strike.  Barefoot running results in a more spring-like step by utilizing the arch of the foot rather than driving the heel into the ground.

Our feet were made in part for running,” Daniel Lieberman (researcher) says. But as he and his co-authors write in Nature: “Humans have engaged in endurance running for millions of years, but the modern running shoe was not invented until the 1970s. For most of human evolutionary history, runners were either barefoot or wore minimal footwear such as sandals or moccasins with smaller heels and little cushioning.

The researchers suggest than in fact barefoot running may be less injurious than running in modern running shoes.  They caution that running barefoot or in minimal footwear must be a gradual process if one has been running in shoes for a long time.  Lieberman delves further into the biomechanics of barefoot running on his web page called (surprise!) Barefoot Running.  I haven’t read this site yet but I’m planning on digging into it ASAP.  Looks very interesting.

From what I’ve learned as a personal trainer I recognize the immense importance of properly functioning feet.  If you take a look at your feet and how much movement is available to those things you may be surprised.  There’s a lot of potential movement there!  Proper foot movement brings on proper knee movement which brings on proper hip movement which makes the trunk and the shoulders move properly.  Liberman observes that humans have been using their feet for far longer than the modern running shoe has been around.  In our modern age we’ve decided that much like our food, we’re going to out think nature and “improve” on something that’s worked well for a very long time.  But what happens when we put our feet in running shoes?  We start to take away movement.  We put a big piece of foam between us and the ground so that we desensitize our feet.  (Compare this to going to a movie in sunglasses or listening to music with earplugs in.)  In other words, we seriously alter something that’s been working pretty well for thousands of years.  This alteration in function is made even more dramatic if we use orthotics.  So it seems entirely likely to me that many cases of knee pain, hip pain, even shoulder and neck pain may well be rooted in what we’ve done to our feet.  At the very least, I think it’s worth examining the issue.  I’ll discuss more on the issues around barefoot vs. shod running in upcoming posts.

Lots of Stuff to Read: Sports drinks with protein, Negative phys. ed teachers, Running shoes and knee damage, Why crunches don’t work, Science of weight loss


Wow!  There’s a lot of good reading out there on the health & fitness front.  I can’t comment on all of it but I’ll refer you to several articles that may pique your interest.  I’ll get back to recovery strategies for endurance athletes later.

Distance Running and Human Evolution


With the recent running of the New York City Marathon, some information on distance running seems appropriate.  The Human Body is Built for Distance is a recent story in the New York Times Health section.  Part of the discussion includes the theory that humans are unique among animals in our distance-running abilities. It seems that we might indeed be the fastest of earth’s land-based creatures over the long haul. Some of our advantages include our foot structure, spring-like connective tissue, our cooling system, our glycogen storage capacity, and even our sense of balance.

Of further interest is the discussion on running injuries and footwear.  Christopher McDougal author of Born to Run suggests in the article that many of our ancestors as well as some of our less-advanced contemporaries ran and do run many more miles with far fewer injuries than we do with our fancy modern running shoes.  The idea that primitive running is better running has been suggested  here, and here.  It’s also the driving idea behind shoes such as the Nike Free and Vibram Five-Fingers.  About 90 percent of runners training for a marathon experience injury according to statistics in the article.

Sort of makes sense right?  How long have modern running shoes been around?  Nike started business in the late 1970s.  Meanwhile, humans were running around a lot longer than that, their feet shod in some very minimal items. So what’s going on here? As our running shoes evolve are the wearers actually devolving?

I know enough to know that I definitely don’t know the answer to this question. I’ve gone back and forth on the issue and I’ve moved from running in Nike Frees to running in Nike Frees with Sole Supports in them. Isn’t that odd?  From what I’ve read and experienced though, the issue of high-tech running shoes vs. low-tech running shoes vs. barefoot running is an extremely personal matter. What works miracles for one running may wreck havoc on another. It can be a maddening process trying to find the ideal way to address your feet.

If this topic is of any interest to you, I recommend strongly that you read the Science of Sport’s series on running.  It’s remarkably in-depth in its analysis of shoes, feet, and running technique.