What’s the role, if any, of a transitional shoe for learning a natural or barefoot-style running form?
Is there room for a “transition” shoe in the toolbox of the would-be natural or barefoot runner? Is the shortest distance to learning barefoot-style running going straight to full-bare feet? Or is there room for shoes like the Nike Free or the Reebok RealFlex?
While many are likely to decry transitional shoes with a loud, angry “No,” I’m not sure the answer is so black and white. Actually, given that so many people dive into learning natural running wearing five-toed shoes, I’d say that most are already on the “transitional shoe” thought-train — after all, a few millimeters of rubber is still a far cry from the incredible sensation of going “full bare.” Indeed, I wonder how many minimalist footwear advocates ever go full-barefoot.
And if you’re already assuming some shoe to educate your running form, perhaps the better question is just how much shoe do you need? And how much is too much?
And that’s where things get pretty grey; perhaps you can learn to run with a barefoot-style in the pretty thickly cushioned and elevated-at-the-heel Nike Frees; perhaps you need more feedback and have to pick up some huaraches. If there’s one truth to the barefoot running movement, it’s that human beings are complicated enough that a one-shoe-fits-all approach is certain to fail.
The devil’s in the details — how much physiological change needs to take place before your Achilles’ tendon can stretch to handle the repetition required in a forefoot or midfoot landing without an elevated heel? How much ground feel do you need to provide that sensory input to quite literally rewire your brain, lighten your landing, and re-learn that your foot is a dynamic, functional appendage, and not just some static club?
This is a very, very hard question to answer, no matter what new research is being passed about. Barefoot may be best, but if you’ve been spending years or decades in biomechanically busted footwear, taking off or drastically reducing your footwear to something more anatomically correct is only the very first step towards rehabilitating your feet, your gait, and your entire body. I’ll save further comment here for a later post.
My point is that perhaps there is a place for transitional shoes. They can be but one more tool in the toe-box … there I go again. Of course, is the Bare Access a transitional shoe? I’m going to do my best to answer that question today — let’s just get to the review!
Introducing the Merrell Barefoot Bare Access.
Anyway, what is the Bare Access but a zero-drop (same stack height at the heel as at the ball of the foot), foam-soled and slightly Vibram’ed running shoe. The official line on the shoe according to Merrell is that the Bare Access (or Merrell Barefoot Bare Arc for the women’s version) is “For distance runners and those new on the path to barefoot running, our Bare Access 0mm drop running shoe gives you a barefoot feel, with added toe to heel cushioning. Still allowing your foot to land flat and follow its own natural motion.”
What you get with the Merrell Bare Access is essentially 10mm of flat cushion in the sole (my calipers pegged the thickness at 11mm, but that’s close enough for government work) with the same last (shape of the inside of the shoe) as the Road Glove and an upper material that is constructed of synthetic leather and mesh. Here are some pretty pictures:
A few things to note about the Bare Access. The toe box is pretty roomy and comfortable. It’s akin to what I’ve come to expect from Merrell’s Barefoot line, which is a decent sized toe box — better than a traditional shoe but not quite as roomy as, say, a VIVO BAREFOOT. Second, the Bare Access has that pesky, noticeable area around the arch — almost like it’s too narrow-soled here. I hesitate to call it “arch support,” but it’s certainly “arch something.” Third, the Bare Access can be worn barefoot as there is no removable insole and the few seams there are inside the shoe are not irritating. I wore the Bare Access almost exclusively barefoot (despite having on some socks in some of my initial photos!).
So how does it work?
I’m not really into running in foamy shoes so I wasn’t really looking forward to a run in the Bare Access. However, I was pleased to find that these felt pretty good on a short mile run; the Bare Access is light weight enough and thin-soled enough not to feel “wobbly” (more sole makes me feel a bit unstable) and I didn’t have any trouble maintaining a forefoot style running form; mind, I didn’t go on an epic run and my prior experience tells me anything more than a couple of miles would have left me backsliding into bad running form, which is something that can happen to me even in Vibrams. The sole of the Bare Acess is a firmer foam than, say, the NB Minimus Zero Road, which just feels like it has a little more give or ease of compression.
Really, as “cushy” shoes go (and these at only 11mm thick aren’t really that cushy), the Bare Access was leaps and bounds better than say, the Nike Free 3.0s, which I couldn’t wait to get off my feet in a run (and one day I’ll review along with the 5.0s, I promise). It’s all relative, right?
But you’re not going to get a ton of ground feel with the Bare Access; for example, if you were to walk on a steel stairwell with the raised tread you’d be hardpressed to actually feel any of the tread through the sole. Nuanced sensation of the ground is simply muted. Sometimes that’s nice.
The soles flex fairly well — say when you raise your toes (dorsiflex) and I never felt like my biomechanics were degraded by the shoes (though I’m sure I wasn’t stepping as gently as I would barefoot or in a pair of Soft Stars).
Bare Access’ing the Gym
I gave the Bare Access shoes the normal run-of-the-mill treatment in the gym for my regular heavy lifts — squats, deads, weighted chins (using a dumbbell in lieu of a belt or vest due to gym limitations) and on all fronts, I was pretty pleased with the Bare Access. It was nice to have a real “shoe” for the chins especially. The soles are stiff enough that I didn’t feel unstable on squats, which is pretty important.
While I was in the gym, I took the opportunity to do a quick (40 seconds or so) video of Bare Access in motion (on my feet). It’s hardly a very detailed video but it should at least give some sense of what the shoes look like on feet, flexing, etc.
Bare Access’ing Casual Wear
Where I got most of my play with the Bare Access was wearing them casually, which is a place I found the shoes to really shine. They’re quite comfortable and have a good look to them as a sneaker. Since they’re not notably degrading my walking biomechanics, I found I could wear them about all day quite comfortably (without socks). That they muted the ground a bit was actually kind of nice at times; sometimes it’s nice to tune out the world, as very un-zen-like as that may be. Also, the extra “lift” off the ground was good in rainy conditions as it kept my feet every so slightly dryer walking through small-ish puddles.
Is the Bare Access shoe for new barefoot-style runners?
Really, when you step back and consider the competitive landscape of similarly soled “barefoot shoes,” the competitors to Merrell’s Bare Access are clearly the (just reviewed) Altra Instinct and the New Balance Minimus Zero Road. All three of these shoes have a level, neutral-from-heel-to-toe sole. Of course, the sole each of these shoes has is a bit thicker than a typical pair of Vibram FiveFingers or VIVO BAREFOOTs. Each of these shoes have soles with some give to them and enough cushion to mute ground feel enough that landing on a rock (e.g. “gravel, gravel, gravel“) is less likely to evoke wincing pains. Are the Bare Access, the Instinct, and the Minimus Zero Road all transitional shoes?
My gut reaction is to say, “No.” Not because these shoes couldn’t be transitional shoes (more on this in a second), but more because I’m not sure if many buying them are going to be doing it to “transition” to barefoot-style running. Why do I say this? Well, call it a hunch, but I have a feeling that people who are interested in minimalist, zero-dropped but slightly cushioned shoes are people who:
Already are sold on the benefits of a barefoot-friendly shoe (e.g. upsized toe box and no heel lift), and
Have dialed in their running form enough that they’re not likely to backslide into a higher-impact running style (heel-striking, over-striding, bad posture, harder landings, whatever) just because they’ve got more give in their soles.
If the above criteria don’t apply to you — if you are looking for a transitional shoe in the Bare Access, well, I don’t think you’re making a mistake in picking these shoes, particularly as compared to some other shoes that are marketed as “barefoot” like the Nike Frees and the Reebok Realflex. Just be cognizant that your shiny new not-quite-barefoot shoes will be giving you more sole, and by extension, less ground feel.
Ground feel, as it turns out, is a pretty key ingredient to learning to run gently. That’s because it’s the ground feel that fires all those nerves in your feet, causing them to react faster than you can think, and adjust your form to be gentler, less abrasive (lower friction), and more efficient. If you’re rehab’ing your running form, feeling the ground is pretty clutch.
I’m just not sure about the whole “transitional” moniker for the Bare Access. That said, if anyone does use the Bare Access in a transitional sort of way, please, please do us a favor and tell us all about it!
So if you can’t tell, I have mixed feelings about the Bare Access; on the one hand, I think they’re solid casual or workout shoes thanks to the neutral soles and comfortable build quality, though again the arch area is a bit too narrow and sorta feels like it hugs the arch a little too much; it’s a feeling that doesn’t bother me on sustained wear but I notice it immediately if I switch to the Bare Access from a less arch-y shoe.
As far as the Bare Access is a shoe for those wanting to transition to barefoot-style running, I’m not sure they’re really going to shine here — perhaps if you’re timid about going with less sole and want to feel what it’s like to run without an elevated heel, well by all means, try out the Bare Access. Or blow your mind and go for a walk or run completely barefoot on your local street just to see how your feet do (I’ll bet you’re pretty amazed by the experience). If you can handle a barefoot run down the street; I’m pretty sure you can handle a more minimalist shoe.
Meanwhile, if you’re a runner with dialed-in form, I think the Bare Access is worth some serious consideration. Just check out ultra-runner (and transiitional-shoe skeptic) Jason Robilliard’s take on them (never mind that he does consult with Merrell; he’s the real deal).
The Merrell Barefoot Bare Access is out and available for purchase now, if you’re interested. It’ll set you back about ninety clams, but could be just the thing you’re after.
What do you think? Is there a role for transitional shoes for someone wanting to rehab their feet towards a barefoot-style running form? I’m all ears so comment away!
Official Specs from Merrell:
For distance runners and those new on the path to barefoot running, our Bare Access 0mm drop running shoe gives you a barefoot feel, with added toe to heel cushioning. Still allowing your foot to land flat and follow its own natural motion, its cushioning protects from sustained impacts due to longer runs or a new barefoot training program.
UPPER / LINING
• Barefoot strobel construction offers flexibility and comfort
• Synthetic leather and mesh upper
• Reflective details for increased visibility in low light
• Breathable mesh lining treated with Aegis® antimicrobial solution resists odor
• Integrated footbed with 2mm EVA to cushion
MIDSOLE / OUTSOLE
• 8mm M Bound™ allows for cushioned entry into Bareform™ movement
• 0mm ball to heel drop keeps you connected to your terrain
• Wash as needed in cold water, gentle cycle and air dry
• Vegan friendly footwear
• Natural flex outsole with 2.5mm lug depth allows for dynamic foot movement
• Merrell Bare Access Sole / Sticky Rubber Pods
Men’s Weight: 5.6 ozs (1/2 Pair)
Justin Owings is a deadlifting dad based in Atlanta where he works for MURAL in marketing. When he's not chasing his three kids around, you'll find him trying to understand systems, risk, and human behavior.