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Monday, July 18, 2011

Altra Instinct Guest Review

It was bound to happen sooner or later citizens.  My real job duties have called, and it looks like I'll be in trial all week.  That usually means that I'll be dead to the world until the trial is over.  Trials have the uncanny ability to suck you into an all-consuming vortex and spit you out a much more tired, stressed-out, and frazzled person.  So I thought this would be a good time to roll out the first in my series of guest reviews.

 I know you might want to see my thoughts on this shoe.  Frankly, for this product you're out of luck.  I have no intention of reviewing them, because just by the stats I know I'll hate them.  It's a 9.0oz shoe with a 20mm sole and a fair amount of cushioning.  I'd rather strap some plywood on my feet and review that.  But I know that there is an ever-growing market of folks that aren't quite comfortable with making the drastic change from their boat anchors to Vibram Fivefingers or a similar shoe.  And I think that's just fine.  My motto is always to buy the least amount of shoe necessary for the task.   

So instead, today's review is actually a combination of opinions from a few newer bloggers on the interwebs.  I chose them to write my Altra Instinct review because that's the audience I think Altra intended to reach with this shoe.  So to help me out, I cobbled together the thoughts of fellow Run Smiley Collective member Chris Van Dyke, and Obessive Runner.  I hacked their original reviews beyond recognition, but their original thoughts are on their website.  My comments are in bold.  Enjoy! 

One thing that seems abundantly clear from both reviews, and as I explained above, is that this shoe is less of a so-called "minimalist" shoe and more of a transitional shoe akin to the Saucony Kinvara.  Here's what both reviewers had to say on that point.

Obsessive Runner

Warning: This is not a minimalist shoe (but I still dig them)!

As someone who has recently switched to minimalist shoes, and natural running form, I have been looking for a shoe that would allow me to keep running long distances but also a shoe that maintains many characteristics that are important to me in a minimalist shoe. All of the minimalist shoes that I own are zero drop, light weight, have a wide toe box, and are super flexible. However, they also have very little cushioning. This is normally a good thing as less cushioning means more ground feel. However, running long distances on pavement can put a lot of stress on the muscles, tendons, and bones in your feet. Transitioning to minimalist foot wear takes a lot of time and patience. Two things that I am often short on. I didn't take enough time or patience and ending up with a stress fracture in my left foot after running a half marathon in Vibram Five Fingers Komodo Sports (review coming soon). Therefore, I needed a shoe that would allow me to run long distances while my feet continue to strengthen. This is where the Altra Instincts come into play.

The Instinct from Altra Running is in a shoe in a class all to it's own. It has many of the features of a minimalist shoe with out being minimalist.

Chris Van Dyke

First, the Instinct is NOT a minimal shoe. It may have a zero-drop, but it has a pretty substantial foot-bed, thick enough that you don’t get the “ground-feel” barefootsists are looking for.

So both authors agree that the Altra Instinct doesn't quite fit the mold of the "minimialist" shoe.  It has some of the characteristics of a good minimal shoe.  But at the same time, it doesn't share all of those characteristics.  Here are some of those characteristics that they liked:

Obsessive Runner

First and foremost the Instincts are zero drop.  They are built completely flat from heel to toe.  Having a zero drop shoe makes it extremely easy to maintain a natural running form.  The Instincts have by far the widest toe box I have ever seen in a shoe.  The shoe looks a bit different because it is actually foot shaped.  What a weird concept! 

Because of the shape of the shoe, the Instincts for me, run a half size shorter than my normal running shoe.  The ultra wide toe box gives your toes room to splay completely with out any constraints.  With a wide toe box, comes the possibility that the shoe will feel sloppy. The Instinct locks the foot in place nicely via asymmetrical lacing, Altra's heel claw, and A-Wrap .

Altra does a nice job of making the shoe customizable with two different insoles.  Altra provides a "support" insole that has a bit more cushioning and small amount of arch support.  They also provide a "strengthening" insole that is completely flat and very thin.  The shoe can also be worn without the insole to provide more room in the shoe with less cushioning and more of a minimalist feel.  The Instinct can be worn sock-less with or without the insoles.  I have not encountered any rubbing or blistering to this point.

Altra refers to the outsole as their FootPod outsole. The outsole of the shoe seems to be extremely durable and that seems to be very common amongst minimalist shoes.  I would expect to get at least 500 miles out of this shoe if not many more. 

Chris Van Dyke

The two major selling points on the Instinct was it’s shoe-shaped last and zero-drop foot-bed. The first means that it is revolutionary because the shoe is shaped like . . . wait for it . . . your foot.  Seriously, look at your shoe, the one you have on now.  Is it shaped like your foot?  It most likely tapers to a point starting somewhere near the mid-foot area.  Does your foot taper to a point?  No.  The Instinct has a very squared-off toe-box, one that actually follows the contours of the toes.  This means your pinkie toe isn’t crushed up against the rest of your toes. 

Second, the shoe is zero-drop.  Zero-drop means there is no rise from the fore-foot to the heel, which promotes a mid-foot strike and shifts a lot of the weight load form your knees to your calves.

So the Instinct provides a zero-drop shoe along with a substantial toe box for your feet.  Two great features that are essential on any minimal shoe, and ones that both authors report allow them to run without any interference from the shoe on their biomechanics.  Here's what the authors didn't like so much:

Obsessive Runner

The Instinct while having many minimalist characteristics it also shares some characteristics of "regular" trainers.  The Instinct is by no means a heavy shoe.  It comes in right around 9 oz in a size 9.  This is much less than most shoes with comparable amount of cushioning but also weighs more than true minimalist shoes.  However, this is not a deal breaker for me because this shoe will not be a short distance race shoe or a tempo shoe for me.  I don't believe the shoe was designed as an up tempo trainer even though it would perform just fine in fast pace run.

The Instinct also has more cushioning than your typical minimalist shoe.  The negative of this amount of cushioning is that there is very little ground feel.  Ground feel is important to make sure that when running you do not land too hard or land on improperly (on your heel).  However, because this is zero drop, landing on the heel is not a problem. I seem to land  lightly with this shoe.  The advantage of some cushioning is that it provides protection against long runs on unforgiving pavement. 

The other disadvantage is that shoes with cushioning aren't usually flexible.  The Instinct is actually a little more flexible than I expected.  It is by no means as flexible as other minimalist shoes but it definitely flexes enough for me.

Chris Van Dyke

It has a pretty substantial foot-bed, thick enough that you don’t get the “ground-feel” barefootsists are looking for. What I like about it, however, is that it is supportive but quite firm, with none of the marshmellowy “give” that I’m growing to dislike in my Brooks as I drift towards minimalism.

So on the negative side, the Instinct has poor ground-feel becaue of a thick sole, a bit of cushion, and a somewhat inflexible sole.  It is also pretty heavy.  Though not as heavy as the VIVOBAREFOOT Neo, it is certainly ranks among the heaviest of all zero-drop shoes on the market. 

The lack of groundfeel and flexibility would be a deal breaker for me.  But I'm a barefoot hippie purist.  On the other hand, for someone who doesn't put in a lot of barefoot miles (like a newbie) this doesn't seem to be so much of an issue.  In fact, it seems to be outweighed by the zero-drop aspect of the shoe because of the immediate impact it has on your running form.  I'll let Chris explain:

Chris Van Dyke

I’ve been working towards running with more a mid-foot strike, but I’ve always felt like I was “working” at it, as my heel wanted to make contact first no matter what. Moving to a zero-drop shoe meant that suddenly I was landing mid-foot without even trying, as there was no heel in the way. Its still a transition, but when it falls into place everything feels fast and light and easy, just the way running is supposed to feel.

It's not surprising to me that a zero-drop in a shoe would make such a big difference.  Studies show that people tend to heel strike even when wearing shoes with very little heel lift.  Both authors indicate that these shoes helped them achieve a more midfoot strike and a softer landing.  Though you'd probably be better off with a thinner-soled shoe to really see better biomechanics, if your toes are still too tender to fully commit then these probably represent your best option. 

So where do these shoes fit into the minimalist spectrum?  I think that's evidenced by the way both authors intend to us them:

Obessive Runner

The Instinct works great for long runs and my feet have never been happier after putting in long miles.  The Altra Instinct will be my shoe of choice for all my long runs and probably my marathon in late September (tough to give a bigger compliment than that).

Chris Van Dyke

I’m still working on building up my distance in the Instinct; yesterday I did 10.5 miles, and today my calves were really sore. Not “crap, I injured myself” sore, but more “wow, I really am still building up calf-strength” sore, which is the good kind of sore. The “I’m getting stronger” sore. So the Instincts is everything I had hoped it would be, and I’m looking forward to running in it more frequently and further.

So the Instinct seems to be allowing newer minimalist runners to run further than they could have in a shoe like the Vibram Fivefingers.  The cushion protects them from injuries from repetitive pounding and debris.  At the same time, the foot-shape last allow the foot to function somewhat normally within the shoe.  And the lightweight, zero-drop design provides for better biomechanics and improves running efficiency. 

What I just described to you is a trade-off.  And I think this is essentially what I think folks are looking for when the go for a transitional shoe.  They want some of the benefits of minimalism, but aren't ready for others.  Usually, they want something that allows them to run with a forefoot or midfoot strike, but they don't want to bang up their feet.   

Okay...that's fine as long as you are using the shoe as a training tool as Chris and Obessive Runner are doing.  They are looking to occasionally put in some higher mileages than they otherwise could in more minimal shoes. 

But this isn't fine if you're not willing to make the more important trade-off.  That is, if you're looking to get all of the benefits of transitioning to minimal running without actually transitioning.  You're guilty of this if you want to keep your current mileages or increase your mileages faster than most minimal shoes will allow.  Usually that means that you're running in minimal shoes, and then switching to a transitional shoe before your muscles have time to recover.    

I don't condone using a shoe for that purpose, because I think it just leads to overuse injuries.  All of those new muscles that you are recruiting to run with a new forefoot or midfoot style get torched.  And instead of listening to them and giving them some rest, you're going back to your old habits and covering up the problem with a cushy pair of trainers.  That's why I don't generally recommend that people incorporate a transitional shoe into their arsenal if they plan to end up in a minimal shoe. 

But I also know that runners aren't known for their ability to listen to good advice.  So if you're going to get a transitional shoe, you might as well get a good one.  This shoe one-ups the transitional shoe marketplace in my opinion because it offers many more characteristics of a minimal shoes. Normally transitional shoes are essentially lighter traditional trainers.  They don't give you a lot of reduction in heel lift or cushioning, and they tend to have a toe box similar to traditional trainers.   

If all you're worried about is banging up your feet, you shouldn't sacrifice other great minimal features for the sake of protection.  This shoe gives you much more of the best of the minimalist world.  I think if folks are looking for a transitional shoe, these should be at the top of your list. 



  1. Great review! I've thought of trying these on. We have one local store that sells them. But by "local" I mean "30+ minute drive from me" so I haven't gotten down there. I think they would be nice when for whatever reason I need a bit of cushion.

  2. Cool! This is like three reviews in one. Nice format idea.

  3. Love the way my review ended up as a "panel discussion." Though in case people want to find the original post or my blog, the address is: http://whenitalkaboutrunning.wordpress.com, not blogspot. Also, I think since all three of us point out that the Instinct is not minimalist, its fair to emphasize that Altra does NOT market their shoe as such. A lot of companies are pushing "minimalist" shoes that aren't really minimal, but ALtra isn't one of them. They are very clear what their shoe is. They are also have a truly minimalist shoe, the "Adam/Eve" but I haven't tried that.

  4. Glad you were okay with it Chris. I just took the idea and ran with it. You both were saying such similar things. It was pretty crazy how similar your reviews were. So putting them together gave more credibility to both of you.

  5. I'd actually read Obsessive Runner's review after writing mine, and found he definitely agreed with me in almost every extent. Part of it is that you and I are at different places when it comes to where barefoot running coming into our lives-- its not so much that I'm using it as a transitional shoes, as I'm not sure yet whether I'm really going to be a "barefoot runner." Its something I do sometime, but it might just be that the Instinct will be my standard everyday shoe. I might go full minimalist and then phase out the instinct, but currently that isn't my intent. We'll see where it all ends up. Glad my review could find a new home.

  6. What a refreshing blog. I have to buy a pair of Luna Sandals after reading this. =)



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