Many years ago now, I had the opportunity to test out Altra shoes during a Runner’s World event. It was the first time, the zero drop running shoes burst on to the scene, partly as a result of the Born to Run barefoot running phenomenon.
Except this creator, wasn’t satisfied with running skin to pavement (me either!)
It all started when founder Golden Harper ran a 3:08 marathon at age 10.
Yup, you read that correctly! This might smell like another Paul Ryan “I ran a sub 3 hour marathon” story, but it just so happens to be true.
It should come as no surprise that a boy who runs that fast was raised in a family that owned a running shoe store. Or that they would tinker with shoes at home in the toaster oven…hmm sound familiar, remember that whole waffle iron story and Nike?? It seems all shoes start in someone’s kitchen.
What is a Zero Drop Running Shoe?
Altra Zero Drop as named is a zero drop shoe, but is NOT a minimalist shoe. Wait how is that possible?
A minimalist shoe would be something like the Vibram Five Fingers which literally provides only a layer of rubber to protect your foot and no cushion or support.
As you can see here the Altra on top provides that desired cushion, but with a consistency to the shoe that removes the thicker heel. A thicker heel will naturally hit the ground first when you stride, thus turning you in to a heel striker whether you meant to or not!
- Wearing a stability shoe actually weakens your arch. Overtime you consistently need more support.
- Wearing a thicker heel changes your stride (see below)
- No scientific studies actually show that a stability or motion control shoe prevents injury…but many show they cause injury.
And oh yes, I’m giving you photos from 5 years ago when I first tried them because I like it! And well their shoes are still relatively the same.
Jennifer of The Fit Fork shared this:
“The zero drop foundation (same elevation between toes and heel) encouraged me to run more naturally and I appreciated that they had models of all cushion level – because back then, many brands were just bare-bones minimal, making my high-arch, middle-aged feet really take a beating.
The models I am currently wearing are the Escalante for road running and King MT for obstacle course racing.”
Who Should Wear Zero Drop Running Shoes?
I will never say there is one BEST shoe for every single runner. Though proponents of minimalist and zero drop, would make the argument that they are great for everyone.
You should NOT use them if you have:
- Achilles Pain
- Ankle Pain while running
- Possibly if you have Plantar Fasciitis
- You aren’t willing to ease in to them
- You aren’t willing to work on your running form
The reason I note these is because a higher heel height in those cases will shorten the amount your tendons need to stretch with each foot fall and it can help reduce pain. Ideally, you’d work on those issues and hopefully be able to continue working to a slightly lower heel drop.
Zero drop shoes can be good if:
- You already land under your body with most foot falls
- You like feeling more connected to the ground
- You don’t need as much cushion – which usually means they’re lighter
- Lower heel to toe drop can help improve things like IT Band Syndrome
There are a number of different zero drop running brands, but in general I’ve really found Altra to be at the top of the game and that’s why I’ve focused more on them in this review.
What are Altra Running Shoes?
ALTER + ULTRArunning = Altra.
The name came to be from a crazy path of Golden altering regular shoes to create a zero drop with cushion…it slowly became a bit of a black market thing. People would literally buy a shoe from the running store owned by his family and then ask him to rip it up and remake it as a zero drop!
Suddenly he realized they were doing this for nearly a 1,000 people. Maybe making a shoe would just be easier.And yes all of this happened before the barefoot craze that was popularized by Born To Run and one of my running crushes Scott Jurek.
What’s the big deal about this shoe compared to things like Vibrams? “this shoe delivers many of the benefits of barefoot running with the comfort, cushioning and support that distance runners love.”
This was the predominate shoe used by Ultramarathon runners (until Hoka One One came on the scene, now it’s split), which makes me think it’s got to be great for those of us doing the measly little marathon in comparison right??
Plus you can get up to 1,000 miles on a pair of shoes because they don’t compress.
What Makes Altra Different?
They have three key features that set them apart from other brands.
- Zero drop
- Larger toebox
- Gender specific
Beyond the fact that it is NOT a minimal shoe, let’s emphasize that again. Minimal shoes have no cushion and are designed for your foot to really feel the ground, they are mostly a covering.
Why You want a Foot Shaped Toebox?
This may sound a little odd when you first hear that they make a foot shaped shoe, but once you see it things begin to click. I don’t know about you, but my toes aren’t shaped like the image on the left.
This design allows your toes to spread out, which provides you with the ability to get more power from each stride.
Why We Need Gender Specific Running Shoes?
Having been inside places like the New Balance technology area, I know that MOST company’s makes a male and female last to produce each shoe model. (A last is the mold that is used to form shoes.)
But Altra has taken it even further with their last, making changes that truly account for the differences in a woman’s foot:
- Narrower heal
- Longer arch
- Different upper for our foot shape — ever notice how women often get pain on the top of our foot and then need to do some fancy trickery with our laces to relieve pressure?? Yup it’s because shoes aren’t made for that.
Note the above pictures are not to discredit any brand, but to help provide an example of how these are different.
Running In Zero Drop Shoes
Since I’ve been running in the low profile Kinvara for almost 10 years, I’m already a super fan of low profile shoes.
Barefoot running didn’t work for me because I felt without any cushion my feet simply hurt or my joints didn’t feel right.
I tested out a few different Altras on short runs and the first thing I noticed was that I didn’t have any calf soreness which often occurs when people transition to a more minimal shoe.
While I thought they were a good shoe, I didn’t fall in love with them and pretty quickly transitioned back to using my other favorite running shoes. This is one of the keys to running shoes for me, there are a lot of great options out there, but we all have something that feels slightly better for us and you’ve got to test to figure it out!
HOWEVER, I have friends like ultra runner Jenny who swears by them: “I’ve been wearing them exclusively for 5+ years now and they are so comfortable. The foot shaped toe box is probably my favorite part. It means that your toes get to splay naturally in the shoe almost like you are barefoot.
The zero drop did take a little bit to get used to when I first started wearing Altras but now I can’t imagine wearing anything else.
My favorite shoes are Superior for trail, Escalante for road training & Escalante Racer for racing. All of them are on Altras more minimal side.”
Looking for more running shoe reviews? We’ve got them on our running gear reviews page!
Have you ever tried these shoes?
What do you think of all the talk about shoes changing our natural stride?
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