Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Altra Instinct Zero Drop Shoes - Product Review

Altra Instincts

Anybody who runs with me knows that I am a complete shoe junky.  At first running was attractive to me because it was simple.  All you need is a pair of shoes and a pair of shorts. But when I started running longer distances I discovered that different types of shoes worked for different conditions.  At the very least I needed an off road shoe and a road shoe.  Looking at my equipment list on my running journal I can count 36 different pairs of shoes.  That's just in the last 3 years.  That means on average I buy a pair of shoes per month.  Recently I did a post called "Shoe Fetish" of the current shoes that I am using the most and I revealed that I regularly use 5 different pairs of shoes.

Preparing for my Potential Le'Painful Summer 500 (+)  (5 one hundred mile races in 5 months) has had me pondering what shoes I should use.  When running a 100 mile race I have a number of concerns when it comes to my feet.   I have never run a 100 without suffering from blisters.  Blisters slow me down and make me miserable.  They usually get bad around the 80 mile mark get worse from there, depending on the conditions.  I read about people bragging of doing a 100 without any blisters and I am green with envy.  They would be so much more enjoyable without them.  The other thing I'm looking for in a shoe is protection.  Your feet get sore running 100 miles!! 

As I have changed my running style and form I have found that I love the feel of minimal shoes.  I have three pairs of Five Fingers.  I have a pair of Inov-8 flite 230's that I love (except for the pointy toe box).  I have a pair of the new Merrell Trail Gloves which have zero drop and fit great.  I love to run in these shoes, but I would not even consider using any of them for a 100 mile race.  For the last 6 months I've been searching for a shoe that is flexible,  has less than a 4mm difference between the heel and forefoot, has a great toe-box that won't pinch my toes and has enough cushioning to let me run for 20 hours or so in all types of conditions.

I ran across a post on my friend Pete's blog, Runblogger, about Altra Shoes.  They appeared to be exactly what I've been looking for.  Unfortunately they weren't available yet.  I emailed one of the three owners, Brian Beckstead and asked if there was any way I could get my hands on a pair.  After a few emails back and forth explaining why I'm doing the 5 hundred milers he said that Altra would be interested in sponsoring me by providing the shoes. 

Brian and Jeremy

I was honored, but I was also hesitant.  I change my shoes like most people change their underwear.  If I accepted shoes and they didn't work I would feel obligated to use them.  The last thing I need is to wear shoes that are not correct.  I told Brian that if I got a pair, which I was willing to pay for, and I liked them then I would gladly wear Altras on my runs.  Brian told me that the Lone Peak wouldn't be available for a while, but he felt that I could easily run my first race, the Western States 100, in the road shoes (Instinct).

After meeting Brian at the Boston Marathon Expo I finally got my pair of Instincts.  Today I did my first run in them and I was not nice to them.  If I am going to run an off road race in road shoes I want to know that they can really take it.  I visited my old stomping grounds, the power lines up the street from me, for the first time this year.  I usually don't go up there this early, as it is brutally muddy, rocky and wet.  So much so it's hard to run there until it dries out.  Perfect test for the Altras!

The last time they will ever be clean

The first time I put on the shoes I couldn't help compare the fit to the Merrell Trail Gloves.  Until this point, the Merrells have been the best fitting shoes I've ever used so we were off to a great start.  Being sensitive to flexibility, I then tested to see if they were stiff.  I have read from some barefoot fanatics that they felt that the Instincts are stiff.  They are not.  No, they aren't like five fingers, but they easily move when you flex your foot.  They feel like normal running shoes as far as protection goes, but without the bulky heel.  The best part of the shoes is the toe-box.  Your toes have plenty of room to splay, but the rest of the shoe doesn't feel sloppy or loose.  They were instantly comfortable. 

Heading out to the trail I have about a mile of pavement.  I was able to run like I was barefoot, but had a nice level of cushioning underfoot.  As I turned onto the trail I almost hesitated to go further and ruin the shoes.  The trail was a mess!!

First mud!
I was thinking, I hope I got the right size because I'll never be able to exchange them after this!  And away I went.  What I wanted to test was their ability to drain, how the toe-box felt on descents (if my foot slipped to the front and hammered my toes) and the traction.  The traction was a concern because of the minimal tread pattern.  I was shocked to discover that they had more than enough traction.  Some of that is due to the short stride that I've developed, but on rocks and in the wet they were great.  Way better than I expected. 

I decided to throw caution to the wind and just barrel through everything in my way.  I was very curious to see how the shoes would handle rocks, as there is no rock plate in the soles.  That's one of the major differences between the Instincts and the Lone Peaks.  The shoes were great.  I could land right on the rocks and they had more than enough protection to keep me happy.

Steep with lots of baby heads

Next up, hill repeats.  There is a steep half mile hill that as you can see above is pretty rocky.  I sprinted up and immediately back down three times, with a short rest in between sets.  Running downhill was awesome.  I was able to keep a forefoot striking stride, but didn't have to pussy foot it like I normally do in minimal shoes.  The extra thickness of the soles of the Altras was perfect.  Even better, my foot stayed in place and my toes stayed nice and relaxed.  Most shoes have me curling my toes, or pulling them in away from the front of the shoe trying not get mashed.

After my repeats I just enjoyed the rest of the miles at a nice pace.  There was lots of mud!

What I did to these shoes on this first run was totally unfair.  These are their road shoes!!!  During the run I just kept thinking about how much I loved the shoes.  I ran 14 miles.  2 miles were pavement and the rest were off road.  I can't wait to put a ton more miles on them.  At this point I can honestly say that for the first time I have one pair of shoes that I can use for everything.  Obviously I need to put a lot more miles on them to get the complete story, but for now I'm smitten.  And I can't wait to put them on tomorrow and go for another run.  Thank you Altra!

As a side note, Altra has experienced an overwhelming response for their shoes.  The first batch of shoes that landed in the stores have been selling at a months worth of supply in a week.  You can buy the shoes directly online at  You can also check to see if your local running store carries them. Altra is looking for more distribution so if you know of a good running store who understands the benefit of running without a bulky raised heel send Altra an email or tell the store to give them a call.


Unknown said...

great review Nate on a very interesting shoe, also awesome to hear that these shoes have some traction to them! side note to go a 1/2 size up from what I hear, great stuff!

jun said...

Great review. I've had my pair for a couple of weeks now and can honestly say they are the best shoe I've ever put on my feet. My first run in them was a rocky, muddy, steep trailfest. My feet felt great after.
Jeffrey, I wouldn't go that far. I sized them like every other shoe and they are perfect. Because of the way the toe box is shaped you don't need to go the extra half size because your foot is held in place around the heel and your toes spread instead of mash. Trust me, size them how you would a normal shoe and you should be fine.

Janice {Run Far} said...

My hubby has these as well and is loving them. I am thinking I need to get some for myself.

kar jar said...

Likewise, I feel super stable in my Altra Instincts off road. It's incredible how good they are on trails.

Jeffrey - on the fit, it depends on what insole you want to use. If you want the thick cushy insole most of the time, you might want to go 1/2 size bigger, but if you want to use the thin insole, which I think is perfect, I'd say stick with your regular running shoe size.

Jeremy said...

Great review! Hope your still loving them! You, among others, have put them to some tough tests! Keep up the great work!