Friday, October 21, 2011

Altra Instinct Review: The amazing influence of logic on a running shoe design

Altra Instinct...a uniquely logical solution
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The Altra Instinct is one unusual shoe in that it defies traditional running shoe design in favor of logic. Think about it….if shoes were never invented, and all the historical baggage of shoe styles and fashions over the past few millennia were not incorporated into today’s footwear…what would a shoe designed for running on modern surfaces look like? For instance, elevated heels in dress shoes and boots may have served a purpose if you were stepping into a horse saddle stirrup, but they serve next to no purpose for walking or running. Mostly, elevated heels have evolved as a fashion, not for function. Or take the way we design toeboxes…pointed toes on a dress shoe are there for aesthetic purposes, not function (whose foot is shaped like a torpedo, anyway?)

What a zero-drop shoe looks like
While I may not be a scholar on shoe design and the history of fashion, it is clear that many traditional shoe design characteristics are holdovers from a distant past. While they may not all translate into the features of conventional modern running shoes, you can see where I am coming from (I hope). The jury on elevated heels is still out (they do allow for a lot of pillowy cushion if you are a heel striker), but as I have pointed out before, support for a more level platform is really gaining steam in the research community. So much so that big shoe companies like Brooks and Saucony have introduced major lines (Brooks Pure, Saucony Kinvara, etc.) that cut the traditional 10-12 mm heel-toe ramp down to 0-4 mm. This lower heel allows the foot to come down less acutely on the heel and encourages a midfoot strike, which has been shown by researchers at Harvard to reduce load rates (the impact of foot-to-ground). Reduced load could equal reduced injury. In my case it has.

No, if we had to suddenly design shoes with no tradition or baggage, we’d start by looking at the foot. I am sure we would have very quick consensus that the shoe should be roughly shaped like our feet. Logic. Then, we’d look at how we stand barefoot (presumably how we would have been getting around given that shoes haven’t been invented in this scenario). Since the ground is flat, so would the soles. No heel elevation.  We’d probably add a little cushion, make sure our feet didn’t get too hot or sweaty, and design a decent upper that would keep our foot comfortably centered without restricting it too much. Logic.

You can see the Altra insole poking out...
much wider in the forefoot
Guess what? Altra did it that way. They started unbound by tradition and came up with what they feel is the right way to build a modern running shoe. Make no mistake, Altra is a startup shoe company. It is just getting off the ground so their construction, design, and aesthetics don’t yet have that branded level of refinement that only comes with maturity, and with the kind of economies of scale that allow for widespread, automated construction. That isn’t to say these are not good looking shoes or that they are shoddy in construction…they are very sturdy. However, they have a unique nearly-handmade aesthetic quality to them that you can recognize when you hold or wear them. It is earthy, and I dig it.

The Altra Instinct (I bought these retail at Elite Feet in Brighton earlier this summer) are a cushioned, flat (zero-drop) trainer that I have been using as a long-run road shoe most of this season. They are very rounded and open in the toe box, employ unique materials, and feel very comfortable and secure on the foot. The Instinct was the first Altra shoe to hit the market, but a trail version known as the Lone Peak is on its way, and a more minimal, laceless shoe known as the Adam is also available. There are also women’s versions, which do not adopt the “shrink it and pink it” philosophy of many modern women’s shoes.  Instead, the women’s versions of these shoes (known as the Intuition and Eve) actually employ a unique female last with female-specific features.

Full rubber outsole
I like the Instinct. I have been an adapted zero-drop runner for a while (Merrell Barefoot and Vibram Five Fingers are also zero-drop in my collection, and I am dying to try the Skora Running lineup, which is also level). The Instinct offers something that other zero-drop shoes don’t however…cushion. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your style and needs, but this is certainly a new option. The cushioning in the Instinct is firm, and not too intrusive. It does rob you of ground feel, as you would expect, but that is not what this shoe is about. It is about allowing and encouraging a natural midfoot-landed running gait in a more traditional trainer. The wide toebox is extreme, plenty of room for your forefoot and toes to spread on impact as they should. The heel and midfoot can be snugged up firmly to support the foot.

Arch curves in the Brooks Pure insole vs 
the Altra support insole
The shoe even comes with two different insoles; one is a more traditional curved insole with an arch “support,” the other is flat, very thin insole that has absolutely no arch support. Even the “support” footbed has relatively little arch curve. You can see in my photo that when compared to a more traditional curved insole like that in a Brooks shoe, it is very low-slung. A lack of arch support is something you must adapt to if you have not already done so…too quick a transition and you may hurt yourself. Once you transition, though, I can tell you from experience that it feels great and your foot’s natural impact system is more fully employed. 

Top view..wide toebox
The upper material is very breathable. The shoes overall are very light. The heel counter is stiff, but very low on the ankle so it does not get in your way or irritate in any way. The outsole is pretty rigid rubber.  In fact, the outsole material is one of my only gripes about the shoe. I feel like it is a bit harder than I would like, and the outsole is a little stiffer than I would like. It isn’t really a problem, but it just makes the shoe kind of stiff at first and makes a sort of louder clip clop on the roads than I would prefer. The durability of these soles, though, is very apparent.  I suspect they will last longer than just about any shoe I own. Over a hundred miles in and they look like they did when I bought them.

The only other thing I would change a bit about my pair of Altras is a few things about the looks. Not to say they have not grown on me, and honestly they are so functional and logical they were bound to look a little unusual. I find their looks endearing…they are unique and simple and very straightforward. I usually gravitate towards brighter colorways, though...I like flashy kicks. The Altras wear their hearts on their sleeve. I have seen a few photos floating around on the internet of new black colorways that are coming out and that makes a huge difference in the looks department. They sort of go from the NASA look of mine to what I referred to as “Darth Vader’s Running Shoe” when I first saw the black design. All I am trying to say is that if you see them in person and their looks throw you a bit…just remember, those looks mean they are a unique shoe.

Very breathable simple upper design
At the end of the day, these shoes work. They provide a stable platform without interfering with your natural foot function. The provide cushioning without being marshmallows. They provide forefoot space without feeling sloppy. They allow a natural midfoot landing without compromise.  They offer running shoe comfort in a very lightweight package. I like them quite a bit and I am looking forward to getting my hands on the Lone Peak trail shoe. It has all these characteristics, but provides deep lugs and a few new unique features that should make it an immediate competitor for the Saucony Peregrines I ran the Stumpjump 50k in a few weeks ago. 

So congrats to Altra for bucking the system. They came up with a shoe design that trusts the human form and does everything you need it to and nothing you don’t. 


Ben said...

I'm bummed they don't sell these at any of the stores in Atlanta! You got me excited, but I've learned my lesson on buying shoes before trying them on.

Zak said...

Sorry you can't find them locally, they are a great shoe! Very unique, though, so definitely try on if you can. I woudl suggest looking at Natural Running Store online, Patton and his gang do a great job, I think they even do free shipping and probably take returns as well if they don't work for you. You can also go directly to the source and I thin Altra has a return policy. Anyway, good luck!

Coach Mc said...

I got a pair from Free 2-day shipping, free return shipping if you don't like them. I am either a 13.5 or a 13 Wide, and the Altra 14's fit me well. They have a wide toebox, but aren't overly long...just food for thought.

Thanks for a great review.

Anonymous said...

I have a pair of Altra Adams. I took out the insole and love, love, love them at work. Flat and firm feels so good to my feet, legs, and back. I sometimes commute via train, and on those return trips home caltrain comes up short and I will wear these shoes running home. No problem for 3-4 miles and I can do 9, but would rather have a softer ride like my Bikilas.

I am open minded about shoes and currently trialing the Brooks Connect. 7oz is about all I am willing to put up with so I stayed away from this fine specimen from Altra. Plus, it's so retro I just don't think I could wear it.

I do hope they will come out with a pair that is lighter and flashier. That I will try.