“The human foot is not to be regarded, as seems almost to be the idea with many, as an incoordinating mass of flesh, bone and gristle which may with impunity be crowded into almost any sort of protective covering to form a fleshy peg, more or less similar to a horse’s hoof, on which to walk. It is, on the contrary, one of the most intricate anatomical structures of the human body.”
–Edward Lyman Munson The Soldiers Foot and the Military Shoe: A Handbook for Officers
WHAT IS AN ALTRA RUNNING SHOE?
When I first got a look at the Altra, I had to wonder, how did they feel when I ran in them? In my nearly 35 plus years of being a runner I’ve tried out a lot of running shoes and running brands; Nikes, Pumas, Adidas, Asics, Saucony, Brooks and they all fit me reasonably the same. Certainly there are some differences, (gel, weight, thickness of cloth) but there was nothing in them that stood out for me. But the industry has changed a lot again in the last few years with the addition of new running shoe brands. The current trend is for minimal shoes or thick-soled shoes and even sandals (such as the Luna brand sandals) for almost near to barefoot running.
I recall that when I first cued up to be issued shoes in the military, I gave the quartermaster my foot size and he gave me one set of Brooks running shoes. Everyone got the same brand, the same color, and the same style whether you liked it or not. Woe be it to the guy who had blisters, or shin splints! If they didn’t fit, tough luck. That was your problem. Just run, suck it up and do your best to not fall behind! I’ve always been used to the traditional, tapered toe-box design; that pointed shape we see at the shoes stores. But if you have two flat feet, like me, as wide as frying pans then you might end up with blisters, neuroma or black toenails wearing the pointed toe shoe.
The Altra shoe company has changed this by introducing a shoe that deviates from the running shoe industry when they created the wider toe-box for runners with a larger forefoot. For people who have a pinky toe that breaks out of the sides of their shoes, and find that even a standard sized shoe (and even in EE’s) is too confining, please consider the Altra line.
So how does the Altra feel?
Pretty darn good! However, they may not be for everyone at first. Remember that runners who have spent years running in traditionally cushioned shoes are going to need time to adapt their feet and calves to the new stresses. Running in a minimal shoe means you’re giving up some of the heavy, cushioned, motion control of typical shoes. For those who have a lot of pronation it might be good to get a video assessment and a test run in them to see if you’re in good knee and ankle alignment.
Altra recommends rotating between your old shoes and your new Altras weekly for about a month. This will give you transition time to adjust and build up. In fact, your posture will change too in the Altras because you’re going from the traditional 2 to 1 ratio of a wedge-shaped heel to toe shoe into the newer flat 1 to 1 ratio sole of the Altra. Your body will be taxed a bit differently. Embracing the lighter, more flexible shoe means your connective tissue and muscles must strengthen and stretch differently. Good posture comes into play here.BACKGROUND
Let’s get a little background on the Altra so you can decide on whether you should try them out. They are in fact very reasonably priced for a really well-crafted running shoe.
The Altra brand was first started by a trio of guys who started modifying various types of running shoes in order to come up with a better performing shoe. As one of the creators noted on the Altra website, “For decades, virtually every running shoe has featured pointy toe boxes and heels that were twice as thick and heavy as the forefoot. While shoe companies claimed this design would protect your body from running injuries, the scientific research did not agree.”
With this thinking in mind, creator Golden Harper began to modify shoes in order to give runners an alternative to what was on the market. They melted the outsoles off of traditional running shoes and removed the excess heel elevation. They coined the term “Zero Drop’ to describe how the level cushioning no longer dropped from the heel down to the forefoot. Another change that came to the running shoe industry was their creation of a shoe with a toe-box that mirrored the shape of a healthy foot.
Harper claims their toe box helps to alleviate foot problems, including bunions, neuromas and plantar fasciitis. This was one of the major selling points for me. Within weeks of running in Altra, my neuroma was gone but my calves were sore!
Altra recommends: Rotating your new Zero Drop footwear with your old shoes for the first few weeks. Start using them on short, easy workouts at first, and then work your way up to harder workouts. Try this schedule to allow your muscles and tendons the necessary time to adapt back to their natural state.
The first week of running in the Altra Torins my calves blew up and I really felt the road with every step I made. I have to admit, when I first ran in them, I hated the way they felt. A little too much pounding on the feet. I stopped using them for a month and went back to my old shoes. I came back and gave them a serious try and 6 months later I now have four pairs; two Torins, one Superior and one Lone Peak. It took a while to get used to the way they made me feel. Remember I discussed the need for getting conditioned to a minimal type of shoe? Some of it is the shoe, and some of it is the conditioning you have to go through with incremental use required for training sustainability. What you’re getting is maximum responsive energy return from the design of the sole. Slowly you’ll build up and feel great. Minimal shoes are relatively new to the market and are continually going through redesigns to appease those looking for something that looks and feels different. Certain factors like age, weight, work-loads and other factors can help determine whether a minimal shoe like the Altra is best suited for you.
The first generation of Altra shoes lacked flexible grooves and this contributed to some of the stiffer sensation when running in them. Some runners have noted that in the past Altra were a bit too firm or inflexible. I would agree with that. But let’s give Altra a break. They are a young company, and even with a talented team, they are just beginning to figure out what changes need to be made. Nike has had a long, good run designing shoes for 40 plus years. Altra has recently come out with a more cushioned shoe, such as the Lone Peak and the Altra Paradigm road shoe which is similar in concept to the Hoka One One brand of running shoes with a thicker sole. They are very soft!
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The Altra has a foot shaped last and has a heel that is the same thickness as the forefoot, thus the name Zerodrop. There are many zero drop shoes (such as the Vibram Fivefingers or the Merrell Barefoot) however the Altra is a bit more cushioned. I definitely like this. It’s a good compromise between a regular shoe and the extreme minimal shoe such as the Adidas Running adiPure Adapt. It has enough cushioning for pounding required by running and still stays within the minimal category. Runs of 30-35 miles a week and single distances of 10-15 miles are no problem.
- Heel and forefoot are the same distance from the ground
- Promotes proper form to reduce initial impact by 3–5 times.
- Natural Achilles loading for better propulsion
- 1-to-1 ratio naturally aligns feet, back and body posture
- Encourages better running technique
- Weight-balanced from front to back
- Keeps big toe straight for greater stability and a more powerful toe-off
- Allows toes to relax and spread out naturally
- Allows foot to naturally stabilize excess pronation
What you’re getting from the Altras really is a light, fast and slightly-cushioned shoe. The outsole (the bottom of the shoe) maps the bones of the foot and this allows for a natural flex. Generally speaking, the shoes are useful both as training shoes and for racing.
One of the things I like about the Zero Drop is that I can use them when I’m doing Crossfit. The flat surface of the shoe allows me to squat or do push presses in the gym, and then run out to the street for distance runs when I’m done with a circuit. Any of their shoes are great for this; even the trail shoes such as the Superiors. I can lift weights, run hill repeats along the trails by my house and cycle through without problem.
All of their shoes do well on the street and are fine for non-technical trails with pebbles and small rocks (not scree) and can endure light shock from the minimal padding of the sole. For those who love the outdoors and want to get good, strong runs in with a survival/outdoor shoe try the Lone Peak or the Superior. You’re going to need a more substantial shoe that gives traction if you run snow or uphill in mud; with these two models you get more protection against trail debris and rock, especially going downhill! I ran in the snow with my Torins and slid a good way downhill and then landed on my chest and face. Thankfully I was only wet and not hurt. Your feet are going to feel like twisted celery without a good protective foot plate.
The Altra comes in a lot of great colors and styles. I particularly like the fact the shoe has a more padded upper than most minimally designed shoes. There are a lot of similar choices shoes on the market, such as the Skechers Go Run Bionic or the New Balance MT101. Altras has its own place in the shoe world. As they become a company with better resources we’ll be able to choose from a wider selection of shoes. So far what I’ve seen on the market is pretty cool. Altra shoes look great for casual wear too.
Is there an ideal drop for shoes? There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence of runners transitioning from standard shoes to a zero drop type of shoe. They say this is the only way to go. I disagree. It’s a good option. I think you need to find what works best for you. I love the Altra and many swear by them. Does one size fit all? I mean, should we all transition away from the standard shoe? Probably not but try out an Altra anyhow to see if it’s something you like.