Many trail runners are starting to switch over to minimal zero drop trail running shoes from the normal 12 mm drop trail running shoes. This leads to many trail runners sustaining injuries as they attempt this transition too quickly. On the other hand, trail runners that have fully transitioned to “barefoot” shoes may find the need to go back to a more cushioned shoe for longer distances and more challenging trails. This is where the Merrell Mix Master 2 fits in perfectly!
- Out of the box
- Merrell Mix Master 2 Upper
- Merrell Mix Master 2 Midsole
- Merrell Mix Master 2 Outsole
- Merrell Mix Master 2 Conclusion
Out of the box
When the couriers first dropped off the Merrell Mix Master 2’s I was keen to see what they had changed from the original model, as it had issues with the upper blowing out. I was glad to find that very little had changed from the 1st to the 2nd model and only the composition of the upper material was altered. The Merrell Mix Master 2 looked good right out of the box, with a subtle grey and blue colouring that immediately said “trail shoe”.
The Merrell Mix Master 2 looked and then felt quite light, especially as I am used to heavier normal trail running shoes. The lack of a huge heel to toe differential or drop as it’s commonly called in running shoe circles was apparent as was the low stack height, which refers to the amount of midsole cushioning that the shoes has. This hinted that the Merrell Mix Master 2 should be a light, nimble and flexible shoe with good ground feel, as it sits low to the ground, almost like a low-slung sports car. The lugs are widely spaced oval designs, so looked to clear mud well but may pick up small stones. They felt to be of a medium density and did not look very aggressive.
Merrell Mix Master 2 Upper
The upper was the major area of change from the 1st version of the Merrell Mix Master. It now features more layers of softer and finer “air” mesh that flex naturally as the trail runner’s foot moves and prevents blow-outs in the upper around the ball of the foot. Being a finer mesh, sand and grit does not really enter the shoe anymore, important if you are running without socks, which works very well thanks to the breathability of the mesh and the lack of stitching on the inside of the upper. The plastic lip that joined the tongue area and the top of the toe box has also been removed in the 2nd model of the Merrell Mix Masters, so the top of the foot by the toe area is not irritated anymore when running sockless and socks aren’t damaged by the plastic.
I have quite low arches and prefer shoes that don’t provide any posting in the medial area of the foot, as it mostly leads to discomfort and blisters for me. Unfortunately, while the Merrell Mix Master 2’s don’t have any support built into the shoe itself, the 2 mm EVA insoles do rise slightly in the medial area and have given me blisters on longer runs. The insole provides some additional cushioning to the foot and being light and breathable it does not interfere with the mechanics of the shoe at all.
However one can always swop out the insoles if one feels the need for more or less support or even remove them completely (but wear socks then as there is stitching on top of the midsole), so don’t let this put you off the shoe. Trail runners with slightly higher arches should find the fit to be excellent in the arch area.
The Merrell Mix Master 2 incorporates a Aegis antimicrobial coating on the insole to help prevent bacterial growth attaching itself to the interior of the shoe after trail running. While sprays just mask the odour, the coating actually stops the odour causing bacteria from taking hold inside the shoe in the first place and does seem to make the shoes smell less funky.
The upper of the Merrell Mix Master 2 is held together and connected to the midsole, lacing and tongue via a welded TPU overlay support structure. Welding means no stitching to pull loose or rot and leaves the inside of the shoe virtually seem free for comfy use without socks. This welding also ensures a proper fit that wraps the shoe around the foot and hugs the mid-foot well.
The bellows tongue is soft and slightly padded and made from the same material as the rest of the inside of the Merrell Mix Master 2. I liked that it did not come up high or stick up at all, so seeds and other trail debris could not get in under the tongue and attach themselves either to it or my socks. The half-moon design of the top of the tongue means it also didn’t irritate the join of my ankle and leg, while the padding and smoothness prevented irritation to my instep and also meant the laces could be cinched down quite a bit without creating a pressure point. The downside of the low tongue was that socks with a short cuff tended to creep down or sit below the end of the top of the tongue of the Merrell Mix Master 2, which can lead to irritation and debris entering the shoe and/or socks.
The heel area has some padding, enough to be comfortable sockless and over longer trail runs, but not so much as to weigh down the Merrell Mix Master 2 and become bulky and irritating. The heel cup is fairly round and wide but not too firm, being flexible which suits the shoe and its intended application. The heel cup has a slight notch in the top to prevent irritation of the achilles tendon, something I never had any issues with, even while running sockless in the shoes.
I really liked the durable area at the front of toe box, which features a double layer of rubberised protective material that wraps around the toe box of the shoe. The 2nd layer is similar in feel to the rubberising found in the beds of pick-up trucks and I have found it to be really tough and durable. The material helps the toe box to keep its shape and together with a small bit of a rubber bumper at the tip of the shoe wards of rock strikes reasonably well. I say reasonably, as it is still not a rigid toe box as found on some more bulky shoes so you still feel the hit if you kick a rock like I did at the Dassie Trail race – the Otter’s little brother. It’s going to hurt but at least the shoe will come off unscathed. Because of its soft nature I also found it to be prone to rocks that poke into the toe box from the sides and diagonal angles when running in rock gardens. The good part about the softer material is that it stops one from losing toe nails from repetitive banging against the top of a hard toe box and makes going sockless a pleasure instead of a pain. Merrell has smartly increased the coverage of the material on the top of the toe box by the big toe so that when one lifts the big toe, it is still covered and doesn’t poke into the mesh upper or hit trail obstacles.
The upper material by the toe box area also features a silver strip of a reflective nature to help with safety in low light trail running situations, especially when venturing on or near roads.
Merrell Mix Master 2 Midsole
Moving on to the midsole area of the Merrell Mix Master 2, the drop – or relative lack thereof – is the feature that will catch your eye and be felt by your feet first. Merrell measures the differential in the shoe between the heel and the ball of the foot at 4 mm, which is low, but not so low that those new to a more minimal style of shoe immediately feel out of place. Again it’s also not so high that it makes “barefoot” runners feel like they have strapped a pair of shoes made from lead to their feet.
The crucial difference here is that Merrell have combined a low drop with a low stack height– the amount of foam present at the heel and ball of the foot of the shoe – differing from other manufacturers that just focus solely on the drop of the shoe. I feel that in this category of “racing flat” shoes, a low drop and stack height combination is essential to produce a proper shoe that performs well in actual trail conditions and the 9 mm heel / 5 mm ball with the corresponding 4 mm drop of the MerrelFloat™ midsole gives you just that.
The low drop and stack height combination means that the Merrell Mix Master has less cushioning than many other trail running shoes, but the foam itself is of a softer variety so it actually feels more cushioned than one would think. It’s not at all a hard shoe, which makes sense given its aim as a mixed surface trail racing flat, but it’s also not a dull experience when one makes contact with the trail. There is a good compromise between feedback and cushioning, unlike some trail running shoes with for example gel cushioning in the forefoot that end up feeling like one is running on the trails with a road shoe, providing a dull feeling and giving very little feedback.
Increasingly and alarmingly to me, some trail running shoe manufacturers are starting to eschew rock plates in their shoes in favour of lighter and more flexible shoes. While cushioned shoes still have enough foam to mostly protect the trail runner’s feet from bruising, it’s in the more minimal types of shoes that it becomes an issue, as there is not much foam to ward of rock strikes. This trend is understandable to an extent but for me, on the rocky terrain in Gauteng anyway, this is not a good thing. I like bombing downhill, not tip toeing around every little pointy obstacle on the trail. With that in mind, I was relieved to see that the Merrell Mix Master 2 is equipped with a shock absorption plate in the forefoot area of the shoe (visible as the coloured ovals on the bottom of the outsole) to ward off said rocks and other sharp trail obstacles. It worked really well for me, so after a while of getting used to the shoes I barely felt any pointy rocks on the trails anymore.
Merrell Mix Master 2 Outsole
Merrell refers to the rubber compound used in the Mix Master 2’s Mix Sole as a “sticky rubber”, but I have not found it to be sticky enough to my liking. The positive side is that it does not “stick” to paved surfaces like other sticky rubbers tend to do, but it wore way too quickly and did not grip enough in wet and slippery situations.
The 3,5mm lugs themselves are spaced at a medium distance from each other and cleared mud reasonable well. Unfortunately their oval sipped design paired with a not so sticky rubber meant that I felt them to have no grip in wet conditions whatsoever. I ran part of the Otter route from Nature’s Valley while it was drizzling and had quite a few slips on the wet rocks. The same goes for moist soil, especially going uphill. However in dry conditions the grip was great with no slipping going uphill on my toes. Unless you really pushed the shoe on a loose over hard pack downhill, like I did coming down the Yellow trail in Groenkloof, you won’t easily find the limits of the Mix Master 2’s grip in dry conditions. Grip while rock hopping on large boulders at Hedianga Farm was also excellent, but again did wear the lugs down quicker than I would have liked to see. That said, rather a shoe that wears fast but grips than the other way around. Your shoes need to inspire confidence in your trail running!
Merrell Mix Master 2 Conclusion
In short I feel that the Merrell Mix Master 2 is the perfect trail shoe for racing and speed work, as well as also being a good transitioning “in between” shoe for trail runners looking to move to a “barefoot” type shoe. The Merrell Mix Master 2, as the name implies, does well on a mix of surfaces, from tar to trail, which also makes it perfect for runners covering some tar from their door before they can hit the trails.
For “barefoot” runners, the Merrell Mix Master 2 is a good training, long distance and rough terrain shoe. I highly recommend the shoe for those running on dry terrain filled with stones and boulder hopping with the occasional bit of tar thrown in. I would say that regular wet weather runners and those frequenting very loose or sandy conditions should rather look elsewhere. Because of its breathable nature, the Merrell Mix Master 2 also makes a good shoe for Xterra/off-road triathlon races where running short distances off-road without socks is the norm.
The Merrell Mix Master 2 is available at specialist shoe retailers for an RRP of R1049.00 in Charcoal/Apollo (tested) and Grey/Scarlett colour ways, in male and female specific designs.
Disclaimer: The shoes featured in this review were provided by Merrell South Africa. They were a replacement pair for the original version 1 that the tester purchased.
Review by Luan van Schalkwyk
Follow Luan on Twitter!