Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Altra Zero Drop

Back Story
I first heard about Altra Zero Drop on Twitter and DailyMile through the usual sources of fellow runners that had their hands on a pair of their shoes before the rest of us normal folks. While I envy these people for getting so many products to review, I don't envy the work that goes into reviewing them. It's taken me months just to craft this one post.

Anyway, I heard about the company and wasn't terribly impressed. After all, I've long been a Saucony snob and doubted I would ever convert to something different. I had finally boarded the minimalist bandwagon and was really enjoying my Kinvaras and Peregrines. Then I started reading more and more about the Altra toe box and how much larger it was. This caught my interest because I've had issues with my toes in the past and the prospect of eliminating those issues was oh so tempting.

So I finally broke under the weight of my own self-induced peer pressure and bought a pair of the Instincts from a friend who happened to work out a deal to become a distributor. I was hesitant to buy shoes from such a new company but that temptation of healthy toes just wouldn't go away. I'm sure anyone out there that's had a black toenail can attest to how annoying and gross they can be.

After wearing the Instincts long enough (more on them in a second), I opted to try their Lone Peak trail shoes. These were the ones I was most excited about since most of my toe issues stem from trail runs, especially the long ones. I feel that I've now worn both shoes long enough to write a respectable review of each.

The Instinct

I have the grey pair (or "gray" if you're an American like me but doesn't use the English spelling). I call them my "space shoes" or my "Spaceman Spiff Shoes" depending on how I feel. I do not like the looks of the black ones and really wish they'd get some bright orange ones. I'd even settle for lime green. Mine are size 10.5, the same size I wear in my Saucony Kinvaras. I could give you the nitty gritty on weight, length, etc. but I'm sure somebody else has done that so I'll skip it. In the box, you get two pair of insoles. I immediately went with the thinnest pair. I also opted to use the "modified" lacing they have on their site but only the top portion. I didn't do the funny stuff where you skip crossing over. These shoes also have 75 miles on them currently.

They fit like nothing I've ever worn before. But when you think about it, that's pretty obvious. How many shoes out there have an oversize toe box? None that I know of. But I will say my toes were happy. They had plenty of room to party and weren't cramped. There were no toenail issues and only one very minor blister on the end of my toe after running the Richmond Marathon. The top of the shoe is tight. The alternate lacing appears to help some of that but I've found it's more of a technique to get them laced than other shoes. It's almost like there's little to no give in the laces and the upper. So too loose and your foot slops around. Too tight and your foot falls asleep (or it feels like a giant is standing on your foot). The alternate lacing at the top appears to alleviate some of that pain.

Joint Test:
As a zero-drop shoe, there's obviously not going to be much cushion underneath them. So after longer runs, my knees and hips were hurting. But I'm notoriously a heel-striker so I'm not too surprised they hurt. I've tried to adjust my stride and cadence but when I stop thinking about it, I fall back into old habits. Generally around the 10 to 15 mile mark is when things really start to be noticeable, but that's about the same as my Kinvaras that have 150 miles on them. I'm sure if you're used to a minimalist shoe or have a proper foot strike pattern, you won't notice much difference.

Toe Box:
As I mentioned before, the toe box is the real selling point with these shoes. I started running in Saucony Rides, size 10 wide. After some black toenails, I upped it to a size 10.5 regular and have been fine since. But my longer runs, especially on trails, would see those black toenails crop up again. Not so with the wide toe box. The best analogy I can think of is the regular shoes out there are like ballet slippers while the Altras are like bedroom slippers. One is very constricting while the other is roomy. This is the make-or-break feature for me. If Altra was a conventional shoe with a conventional toe box, I wouldn't buy them.

Buy them. There are some things I don't like but they are overshadowed by the things I love. I'm not a fan of their colors. The top of the shoe fits tight. The heel is a little loose sometimes. But I love the large toe box. I love the overall feel of the shoe (lightweight and breathable). And I love how engaged the company is in their customers.

The Lone Peak

In almost every aspect the Lone Peaks are just like the Instincts. The primary differences are the lugs on the bottom, the little "rudder" on the heel, and the lack of a second pair of insoles. With that said, I opted for a size 11 in these just to give myself an extra little bit of room for my toes. I'm not sure if this was wise as my foot slides sometimes. Kind of a mixed bag right now but I'm thinking my next pair will be size 10.5 and I'll compare them to see which is best. Who knows, maybe the size 11 will work well later in my ultras when my feet are swollen. This pair has 25 miles on them.

Like the Instincts, they fit tight on the top of the foot and have plenty of party room in the toe box. I tried the alternate lacing I mentioned above but for today's run I went traditional and it felt a little better. I'll try switching my Instincts to see if it improves but overall it doesn't appear to impact performance in any way.

Shit Hits Fan:
I've thrown everything I can at this shoe except ice and snow. Mud, small rocks, large rocks, sand, water, dirt, branches, leaves, roots, and then some. Nothing has slowed these shoes down. My trail running consists of two primary types of trails; single track dirt and old railroad beds. On the single track trails the shoe offers great grip and doesn't cling to the mud. The lugs are wide enough apart to let the mud come off and the sole is large enough to give you plenty of traction. On the railroad bed I'm faced with ballast that varies from soft pine needles to large pointy rocks. The rock plate in the sole kept my feet happy through short and long runs. It easily out-performed the Saucony Peregrines in my shoe rotation. In the sand it gripped easily but didn't kick up as much sand as I expected. In the water, I was impressed. More impressed than I am with the grip of the shoe. I took a giant leap across a small creek and managed to look like an idiot by landing in the middle of said creek. Knee deep in cold water, I slogged out and was impressed by how quickly the shoes drained. Within minutes, portions of the outer were drying. In the next mile to mile and a half, a good 85% of the water had drained from inside the shoe. The only thing that felt wet was my sock. I only had a quarter mile of the lead-shoe-syndrome after taking a full soaking. After that, things drained and dried pretty fast. Faster than I expected.

Time for the bad news. The areas where this shoe could be made better. First, the "rudder" on the end of the heel. I have no idea what purpose it serves but it feels like a waste. Maybe over time I'll change my mind and since trimming it off would take more time than it's worth, I'm not going to mess with it. Second, the top of the shoe could use some padding. Again, this is a bit of a grey area. Too much padding means too much water retention or too much weight. But a tad bit more would help protect your feet (or even your toes) from those sneaky sticks that try to stab you on the trail. Third, gaiters. Most trail runners I know wear them. This shoe isn't designed for them. At least not the Dirty Girl Gaiters I use. I applied the Velcro to the heel and it lasted about 5 miles. Plus there's no d-ring loop on the toe to hook your hook. While I know I can hook my hook to the laces, it doesn't hold as well. This is the only clear advantage my Saucony Peregrines have over the Lone Peaks. Finally, color. Yes, again with the color scheme. I know this is a new company but these colors are blah and drab. And when I run in the woods, I don't want to blend into my surroundings, especially during deer season. Bright colors could save my life. Plus they look cool and have no impact on performance.

Final Analysis
Buy a pair of these. Either type or both. I'm not paid to endorse these shoes or this company. In fact, I paid them for the shoes. And I'm going to do it again. These guys pay attention to the small details other companies don't bother with. The box itself is a wealth of information and is built like a brick shit house. No flim flam here, these are solid shoes with a big toe box.

The Instincts are like the Kinvaras I'm used to but with that large toe box and less cushion. The Lone Peaks are like the Peregrines but with better traction and more toe room. So all in all, they're the best shoe I've got in my rotation right now. I'm not saying that they're perfect by any means. There is certainly room for some improvement. But this is a young company and I'm sure there will be changes down the road. But in the end, they're the best I've got right now.


Mike said...

Thanks for the review. I am really intrigued by the instincts and have been toying with getting a pair. I have been a kinvara runner for the last year and have enjoyed them immensely, but I want to try a zero drop and the allure of a nice and roomy toe box doesn't hurt either. Thanks for taking the time to post this.

TK42ONE said...

@Mike - I have big feet and used to wear wide shoes so the roomy toe box made things so much easier. They pinch a bit on the top of the foot but if you don't lace them up super tight, they should work just fine. I highly recommend them but I'll admit I was nervous about trying a new brand without being able to try them on in a store first.