When it comes to running shoes, there’s no shortage of opportunity for geekery.
Minimal, maximal, stack height, heel-toe offset, arch structure, weight … to some people, it’s borderline obsession-worthy.
As a blogger who writes about running, I should be a shoe geek. But, alas, I just can’t get into it. I run for the simplicity of the sport — there’s a reason you don’t see me on a bike — and as long as my running shoes feel so good I forget I’m wearing them, I’m pretty happy.
My approach is a simple one, and questions I ask myself before buying a particular running shoe are few, but important:
- Does it feel good?
- Is it neutral and relatively low-drop?
- Is it vegan?
(For those even less geeky than I am, “neutral” in running-shoe lingo means that there’s no extra support built into the inside sole to prevent overpronation; a neutral shoe lets your foot move where it wants to. More on low- and zero-drop in a bit.)
I don’t write about running shoes often. I raved about the Brooks PureDrift and the Hoka One One back in 2013, but in the past few years, that’s really it. Most shoes that I try just aren’t remarkable enough to write about.
Today, though, it’s time to break a two-year shoe drought and tell you about a brand I’m absolutely loving.
I was introduced to Altra at the Runner’s World Half and Festival last year, and since then, they’ve been just about all I wear. Well, as far as shoes go.
I own two pairs — the minimally cushioned One-Squared (since upgraded to the One 2.5), and the maximally cushioned Paradigm — and on 95 percent of my runs, one of these is what I’m wearing.
Before I proceed with the gushing, I should let you know that I have no affiliation with Altra other than receiving these two free pairs for review last year.
3 Things I Love about Altras
So here’s why I’ve fallen in love with Altra. All of their shoes, walking models excepted, are:
And here’s what all that means:
“Foot-shaped” means there’s room for your toes to spread out, the way they would if you ran without shoes. According to Altra founder Golden Harper in his NMA Radio interview, foot problems (like bunions, neuromas, and plantar fasciosis) problems happen at a 73 percent rate in the United States, but at only a 3 percent rate (!) in cultures where people primarily wear sandals or open-toed shoes.
“Zero-drop,” of course, means that regardless of how much cushioning the shoe has (and Altra offers several levels of cushioning) the heel and toe are the same height. Zero-drop was one of the hallmarks of the minimalist movement: many modern running shoes have heels that are 8mm higher, 12mm higher, or more, and this drop in height from heel to toe is (rightfully, I think) blamed for a lot of injuries.
Finally, there’s “vegan-friendly.” Leather isn’t commonly used in running shoes because of its weight, but often the glue that attaches the sole of the shoe to the upper is animal-derived. I’ve found it really tricky to know for certain which shoes are and aren’t vegan-friendly: my understanding is that often a shoe company will have several factories making the same shoe, some of which use synthetic glues and others that use animal-derived glues, so even the manufacturers themselves don’t know which are vegan and which aren’t. But Golden personally told me that all of Altra’s running shoes are 100 percent vegan (not necessarily their walking shoes, though).
Minimal or Maximal … Why Not Both?
I’m often asked which type of shoe is best, and my answer is one that I learned from Jason Fitzgerald at Strength Running: there’s no need to choose. Train in different shoes, and treat the different styles as tools for different purposes.
For example: Even if you can’t run all your miles in minimalist shoes — and I’ve learned that I can’t — this doesn’t mean you should never run in minimalist shoes. How about just on your easy days? Maybe just when you run trails? It’s a different experience, a more sensory one, and the lack of support will work muscles that are neglected by bulkier shoes.
But I’m by no means anti-cushioning: I love the Brooks PureDrift, but found when I was training for my 100 that I couldn’t wear them for more than about three runs or 20 miles per week without developing tightness in my calves. With the Altra One-Squared, which is still minimal but certainly more cushioned than the PureDrift, I can handle more than that much mileage without tightness, so it’s become my almost-everyday shoe. Still, now and then I’ll wear the PureDrift or a very minimal Skora shoe for an easy run when I really want to feel the ground and give my feet a workout.
And maximal shoes? Although I don’t think it’s a good idea to run all your miles in a shoe with a giant sole, I know that after any run of 20 miles or more, I’m drastically less sore if I’ve run it in maximal shoes than when I wear something else. So on long runs, I’m more likely to wear the Paradigm. (Not all the time, unless I’m planning on racing in maximal shoes.)
Of course, there are plenty of shoes that fall between the two extremes. And for some reason, I never wear those shoes. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be right for you.
Is there anything not to like about Altra?
Lest this read like an ad, I do have a few minor complaints.
One, mine don’t stay tied. Whatever the laces are made out of is so slick that even a double-knot won’t hold for the duration of a run, so I need to tuck them into the side of the shoe to avoid that.
Second, sizing has been inconsistent. My wife loves her One-Squared, but when I bought her the same size in the Paradigm as a birthday gift, the fit was totally different and we had to send them back and go a size up. (I should have anticipated this, as my One-Squared and Paradigm are different sizes and both fit me perfectly.)
Finally, the One-Squared that I own is literally the ugliest shoe I’ve ever seen outside of a bowling alley. Thankfully, they’ve improved the looks of the new model, the One 2.5.
For more …
These are minor issues, of course. I’m such a fan that in addition to the pair I bought for my wife’s birthday, I also bought my mom a pair for Mother’s day. And my wife bought her mom a pair, too. Although I don’t write about shoes often, when I started gifting Altras to the women in my life, I realized it was time to write a blog post about them.
For more — and to really be impressed by how much this guy knows about shoes — listen to our podcast episode with Altra’s founder, Golden Harper. And if you like what you hear, go ahead and subscribe: we’ve got an episode coming in the next few weeks that’s all about running form and shoes.