Altra Instinct Running Shoe Review: Zero Drop, Foot Shaped, and Cushioned

Munson-X-Ray3The human foot is not to be regarded, as seems almost to be the idea with many, as an incoordinating mass of flesh, bone and gristle which may with impunity be crowded into almost any sort of protective covering to form a fleshy peg, more or less similar to a horse’s hoof, on which to walk. It is, on the contrary, one of the most intricate anatomical structures of the human body.”

-Edward Lyman Munson, The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe, 1912. Picture at left is from this book.

I start my review of the Altra Instinct running shoe by paying homage to Edward Lyman Munson, who back in 1912 recognized that our shoes rarely match the actual anatomical shape of our feet. Munson’s concern was with producing a military boot that would not damage the feet of soldiers by shoving them into narrow, pointed spaces that were designed more for fashion than functionality (see image above). Fast forward nearly 100 years, and a small start-up named Altra Running is attempting the same feat with the modern running shoe.

IMG_2033Walk into any running store, and you will find innumerable shoes that end in a pointed toe – a simple glance at your foot reveals that this is not the way your foot is shaped. While a tapered toebox design can work if it’s wide enough (or your foot narrow enough), most runners have probably dealt with the effects of shoes that are too confining in the forefoot – blisters and black toenails are all too common results of ill fitting shoes. With long-term use, confining shoes can actually mold your toes into contorted, bent positions – Munson’s book provides ample photographic evidence of this (again, from 100 years ago!). Sadly, options for anatomically shaped shoes are few and far between – Crocs and Birkenstocks are two that come to mind that most closely fit the bill. Altra seeks to change that, so with that as an intro, here is my initial review of the Altra Instinct.

Construction/Styling

The Altra Instinct is a shoe that deviates from tradition by actually having a foot-shaped last (see photo at above right). Among my rather large collection of running shoes, the Instinct easily has the widest forefoot, and it’s one of the few shoes I own that provides ample space for my pinky toe. It’s kind of an odd looking shoe, if only because I’m not used to wearing a sneaker-style running shoe that is actually foot shaped (gasp!). I’m not including the Vibram Fivefingers here – hard to get more foot-shaped than those, but the VFFs are definitely not sneaker-style running shoes. 

Altra Instinct Side

Altra Instinct – note the uniform thickness of the sole

In addition to its anatomical shape, the Instinct is also a true zero-drop shoe, meaning the sole is the same thickness at the heel and forefoot (see photo above). The Instinct is not unique in being zero drop (Vibram Fivefingers, Merrell Barefoot, and a few others also meet this standard), but it is one of the only zero drop shoes that is also amply cushioned (GoLite makes a few shoes that are as well, as does Somnio, and Saucony will soon release the zero drop Hattori). For the Instinct, I measure the sole + insole thickness combined as 20mm at both the heel and under the ball of the foot. Weight is 9.5oz in size 10.

From an appearance standpoint, I’d call the Instinct fairly conservative. Since Altra is a small company, they likely don’t have the resources yet to put out shoes in multiple colors, but my preference would be for a bit more flair when it comes to aesthetic design (I’m generally not a white shoe kind of guy). A bit more prominent usage of the red Altra logo could also help spice the shoe up a bit.

Altra Instinct Medial

Performance

Altra sent me a trial pair of the Instinct a few months ago, but because of the nasty winter we’ve had here in New Hampshire, I wasn’t able to run in them much until recently (not enough traction for snow/ice). I’ve now put in about 30 miles, and my preliminary feelings are very positive. The fit is roomy and comfortable, as one would expect of a foot-shaped shoe, and the cushioning is ample but not soft. I’d call it a fairly firm shoe underfoot. Given the fact that it is cushioned, if you’re looking to try a zero drop shoe but aren’t ready to go ultraminimal, the Instinct is a great place to start. It has enough cushion to be forgiving, but because it’s true zero drop it allows for easy maintenance of natural running form. It also seems to be easier on the calves than a shoe like the Vibram Fivefingers, perhaps because the presence of cushion allows me to be a bit sloppier in my stride (less forefoot, more midfoot and mild heel).

Altra Instinct OutsoleNaturally, adding cushion tends to decrease flexibility – the Instinct isn’t a stiff shoe, but it’s not as flexible as a shoe like the Nike Free, Vibram Fivefingers, or Merrell Trail Glove. I’d compare it to the New Balance Minimus Road in this regard – in fact, I’d say the Minimus Road is overall the most similar comparator to the Instinct among shoes I own. It works well out on the road, and once again the fact that it is zero drop is what sets it apart from the Minimus. I could easily see myself using this shoe for just about any distance – it’s pretty versatile. My max so far in the Instinct was a slow 11 miles on the treadmill – hard to say much about a shoe from a treadmill run, but the simple fact that I survived running 1.5 hours in them in my basement has to count for something! This week I’ve done a few shorter runs at about 7:30 pace, and they handled the quicker pace just fine.

Conclusion

I have to get more miles on these shoes before I make any definitive conclusions, but so far I like them quite a bit. As I said above, if you want a zero drop shoe but are wary of going to something with little more than a thin layer of rubber between your foot and the road, the Altra Instinct would be an excellent choice. For anyone who has trouble stuffing their foot into a narrow toebox (like Munson’s pegs of flesh, bone, and gristle), the Instinct might just be the shoe you have been waiting for. It’s odd to think that a foot-shaped shoe might be considered an innovation, but Altra has done something unique with this shoe. The anatomist in me approves, and I’ll be curious to hear if you do as well!

I’ve been informed that by Jeremy at Altra that the Instinct is en route to stores as we speak. It will be carried at my advertising partner, Running Warehouse, as well as specialty running stores across the country. To find a store near you, visit: http://altrarunning.com/

Running Warehouse: Great prices on closeout shoes! View men's and women's selections.
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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. Spyros1976 says:

    Pete any news about a Lone Peak review?

  2. Based on the bulk of positive comments, I’m wondering if I’m the only one having the following problem with my Instincts, which I recently bought direct from Altra (a very positive customer service experience by the way). The problem I’m having: after running just an easy 6 miles, I started getting a pain in the bottom outer edge of my foot, like a bruising feeling. I tried 8 miles a couple days later and the problem arose again, leaving my foot feeling bruised. I haven’t worn them since, trying to get rid of the bruise first so i can determine for sure if the shoe is at fault. What seems to be causing it: when i feel with my hands inside the shoe, it feels like there’s an elevated bump — or maybe just a stiffer section that isn’t “giving” as much when I press — in the inside right where the bottom is sewn to the sidewall. Right shoe only. If you look at the shoe from the outside, it’s directly under the LT in the ALTRA logo.

    I’m bummed about it, as I was so looking forward to trying on such a praised shoe. But it ain’t working for me, yet anyway. I’m still in my first 30 days with the shoe, so I’ll test it again after the bruise goes away to verify if the shoe is at fault, and then return it if is a design or workmanship issue.

    I know it’s not a zero-drop adjustment period issue — I frequently run in a gamut of shoes from zero (VFFs) to 3mm drop.

    So, is it just me??

  3. I bought a pair of Altra instinct yesterday.  I ran in them this morning.  They feel great.  They provide audio feedback on my form.  I like that better than the pain feedback from minimal shoes.  They have what I was looking for, a wide forefoot with a locked in heel and good forefoot protection.

  4. Hannah Franklin says:

    This review compelled me to order a pair of the Intuitions. Just received them in the mail and popped them on for a quick 3 mile run… Extremely comfortable! I was nervous that the toe box would be too wide and result in blisters, but it was actually very pleasant, mainly because I felt like I could really use the front of my foot. In general, action through the foot felt much improved and a midfoot/forefoot stride very natural. I’m also digging the narrow heel. Thanks for bringing these to my attention!

  5. Laura Jackson says:

    I am a woman with big feet, and the Intuition doesn’t seem to come in a size large enough for me. I have worn men’s running shoes before for this reason; would I be able to do this with the Instinct? People tell me it doesn’t matter, but then why are there separate shoes for men and women?

  6. Pete,
    Just curious to see if you ever had a chance to follow up on your initial review of the Altra instincts.
    Thanks.

  7. Stylensass says:

    I have to wear a lift insert in one shoe since I have scoliosis/one leg longer than the other.  Is this something I can wear in this shoe and still reap the benefits of the shoe?

  8. 1 month with this shoe and so far i am very satisfied. The widetoebox really helps the toes to splay,and my feet feel more “free” than with conventional shoes. 2 things that could be improved. 1)The logo over the big toe restricts the big toe from splaying as much as it can. 2) I tried tor un sockless and  the back of the shoe was rubbing my achilles tendon. Since the Lone Peak will be available later this year, i decided to run with the Instinct in trails. They are more comfortable than my trail shoes but they lack traction in mud while descending. Looking forward for the Lone Peak.

    • G @ ALTRA says:

      Spyros,  Thanks for the feedback!  We’re aware of the logo over the big toe and have fixed this issue for the firmer version of The Instinct coming out at the first of the year (The Provision).  Also, the back of the shoe issue was only on the first shipment and was a mistake by the factory—the liner in the back of the shoe in all subsequent versions of the shoe are the same barefoot friendly dri-lex liner used in many triathlon racing shoes.  Lone Peak is likely due to hit in time for the holidays and we should have an official release date very soon.  

  9. kleinruns says:

    How would you compare their flexibility to the Saucony Kinvara?

    • Pete Larson says:

      I don’t think of either as being very flexible shoes.

      • G @ ALTRA says:

        One thing on The Instinct—it is built to be significantly more flexible after the first 30-50 miles or so.  Every foot flexes different and we feel the shoe should to—therefore there are not artificial flex grooves in the shoe, meaning it will be much stiffer out of the box than it is after it LEARNS to flex where your foot flexes.  We think this is a big deal for those with forefoot pain and the shoe becomes much more flexible as it is worn.  

  10. I’ve had the Intuitions for a couple of weeks now, and the problem is that I don’t wanna use any other trainers anymore… The toebox is like made for my feet and I love the zero drop cushioning because I don’t enjoy running on hard surfaces with minimal shoes.

    I don’t like the thicker “support” footbeds though, they make my soles numb and almost aching for some reason. I’ve had the same problem with some other shoes with thick and soft insoles. Even if the thin footbed is supposed to strenghen your feet and the thick one should be more supportive, I feel my feet are working harder with the soft one and getting exhausted.

  11. Joshuagu3 says:

    Ever try custom Orthotics for foot pain? I am thinking about purchasing some…

  12. Glad to see you liked Munson’s book! :)

  13. Sam Hunter says:

    Is anyone else experiencing blisters on the second metatarsal when wearing the Instincts? I have moderate Morton’s toe, and even though I sized up from my normal size of 10.5 to 11 for the Instincts, I have a nasty blood blister on my (slightly larger) right foot, and a regular small blister in the same place on my left foot. Interestingly enough I don’t really feel my toes hitting the end of the shoe at all, so I am not sure a larger size would help. I like these shoes enough to keep the 11′s for every day and buy some 11.5s for running though if it will help.

  14. Michael says:

    I just picked up a pair of these today, and I, for one, am loving them. I’m not a huge runner (maybe 10 miles in a week because I do tri training), so I would at least recommend them for short and mid-distance runners. I did a 3 mile run tonight, and they were very comfortable without having to sacrifice forefoot running form. They also didn’t feel too high off the ground or “clunky.”

    I’ve been running in Vibram FF KSOs, and even after having them for a couple of years I was having trouble with posterior shin splints, so that’s why I gave these a try. Thus far I am very pleased, and I think they’ll be great for my tri training. They were the first I tried on in the running store, and even after 10 other pairs, I still came back to these.

  15. Irish0325 says:

    Does anybody know the specs of the cushioning thickness? How would the cushioning compare to say the Saucony Mirage or Fastwitch…  Thanks in advance…

  16. I bought a pair of Altra Intuition (for women) and loved it at first, logging many miles. It helped with my ankle pain (inside just above the ankle bone) and the zero drop worked great. I did not get the knee pain I experienced with other shoes. However, now I am getting a different kind of pain on the inside of my leg about 2 inches above my ankle (not the one that was hurting before – the other ankle) parallel to my shin. This pain is worse than anything I have ever had and I not sure what is the cause since I have been using the Altra for a few months now.
    I have high arches and very flexible and unstable feet which makes it almost impossible to find shoes. I have been professionally fitted with no avail – still having problems with either foot, ankle, knee or hip pain. Using the Altra’s have eliminated my knee and hip pain but made my foot pain worse. Do you have any suggestions….

    • Sounds like posterior tibialis shin splints to me. Im a PT almost 29 yrs and runner for 40. Conditioning the calf/achilles/foot complex, which would include the post. tib is key to successful forefoot running. I have seen too many people just buy this type of shoe and take off. It took me a good 4 montha to condition the complex as noted above to take the new workload. I have greatly reduced to no knee pain now, but as I strenthened my feet, I wore a 30 lb backpack and walkedfor up to an bour, concentrating on toe/ankle pushoff fo build things up. Picking up a golf ball with toes working up to 60 reps also part of the program. Good luck with it!! It does work!

    • Diane, Sounds like possibly posterior shin splints?  I dealt with a similar pain a while back–which was never definitively diagnosed–and just experimented with leg exercises and several different shoes until I found a few pairs that didn’t seem to bother me.  (I still haven’t decided whether small amounts of barefoot training (5-10% of mileage per week) helped or hurt, or neither.)

      My one piece of advice though would be do not try to run through the pain.  I tried that and at least in my case it only got worse and eventually sidelined me for about a month while I worked with doctors, PTs and a masseuse to try to diagnose/fix it.  When I started back, I took it easy and slowly built my mileage back up.  Even many months later now I still feel a twinge in the lower leg and fear it may be creeping back.  Whatever it is, I’d rank it up there with sesamoiditis (surprisingly not a made up ailment) as one of the most frustrating running injuries I’ve had.  Whereas I’ve been able to address and avoid other injuries with relatively simple fixes, these two issues often seem to have eluded me…

  17. Pete – Any more follow-up thoughts on the Altra Instinct? 

    Trey

    P.S.  Love your site.  Very informative (for a shoe geek like me). 

  18. The_Huffer says:

    I’ll be especially interested to hear your opinion after you’ve taken a long road run in these. I’m worried that the wider forefoot, if too stiff, will accelerate pronation and bother the knees.

    • G @ ALTRA says:

      Huffer, out biggest supporters are actually Ultra Marathoners.  We have tested these shoes over and over on long runs and firmly believe things are quite dialed in regards to pronation.  The zero drop + the foot shaped forefoot aligns the foot to it’s most effective position for natural pronation and unlike other shoes, actually allows the big toe to engage and act as a natural stabilizer and anti-overpronation device.  Hopefully this helps!

  19. Eric Villanueva says:

    At first I was turned off by the amount of cushion these have, but I’ve been having second thoughts since that cushion could make longer runs a bit more bearable. I’m waiting till our local store gets them in this month to try them on.

  20. How do these rung size wise? Say I wear an 8.5 mens in minimus trails what would I order in these?

    • Pete Larson says:

      True to size I’d guess given the width of the forefoot. Mine are pre-release samples and so are not my actual size, so I can’t say for sure though.

    • Peter Faletto says:

      I usually wear a 8 or 8.5 and I ended up with a 9.5

  21. I got a pair of these a few months ago and really liked them a lot.  They feel less “squishy” than Kinvaras to me (which I tried out for awhile), and the wide toe box is awesome.  The only issue is that I tend to supinate heavily with cushioned shoes, and I noticed during a recent half marathon that I was shredding up the outside of the shoes.  I think the cushioning was allowing my form to break down, but I’d highly recommend these for people with better natural form.

  22. Dougs Back says:

    After spinal surgery I just got the green light from the Doc to start running again.  I worked back into it, via walks, yoga, treadmill.  I bought a pair of the Altra Instincts.  Really struggling with them.  My left calf starts cramping very bad at about 1 mile.  Getting very frustrated that I can’t log any serious miles.  Any thoughts???     

    • Peter Faletto says:

      as Pete says, the transition is important…stretching your leg, working your “core”, hydrating properly with electrolytes, and getting some professional advice are all good ideas.

    • Pete Larson says:

      As they are a totally flat shoe, you may require a slow transition into them. The lack of a heel lift requires that your calf work harder, so calf soreness is not uncommon at first. Try running in a shoe with a bit of heel raise and see if the issue does not happen, then slowly work in the Altra shoe.

  23. LeonBerton says:

    The wide toe box is great. Do you think the Instincts will give a secure fit on folks with B width feet, given it is only available (for now, at least) in a D?

    • Sam Hunter says:

      Hello Leon, I am a B width in my left and a C width in my right foot. I was also hesitant due to all the comments about these shoes being wide, but after trying some on locally I was sold. These support whatever lace up system you need to lock your foot down where you need it. My only issue is with the logo over the big toe, as I can feel it when I curl my toes up, but the problem disappears when you start running.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Hard to say, best bet would be to try in store if you have one nearby that
      carries them, or order from a place that does free returns.

  24. I have hammertoes.  Would this be a good shoe for me to try?

  25. i just have a sizing question, how do they fit compared to the original kirvara’s?

  26. Bearsifford says:

    Pete, how would you compare the flexibility and arch of the Instinct to the Kinvara?  I’m currently in the Kinvara, but the curved last hits my outer toes and the arch has given me issues off and on.  I’m tempted to try the Instinct as my next shoe.

  27. Pete,
    Would you say the Instinct runs true to size?  Thinking of ordering a pair and wasn’t sure if, because of the really wide toe box, maybe I should get a 1/2 size down (as I had to do with the merrell trail glove).
    Thanks.

    • Pete Larson says:

      I think mine are at least a half size down. They are early production models, so can’t find the exact sizing in them.

      Pete

  28. briderdt says:

    I’ve already got my road trip planned to try these on at the Bellevue, WA, Born to Run store… What are your impressions on the sizing relative to the Merrell Trail Glove?

  29. Heath Thurston says:

    Altra Instincts are the best shoes I’ve ever had to date.  The fit the feel and way they run is just amazing.  The cushioning isn’t too much and its definitely not too little.  I would highly recommend this shoe for anyone wanting to get into the more minimalist shoe market without going down to a VFF or something.  What’s great about Altra is they have a barefoot shoe as well if thats what you like and it’s also just shaped like the foot and has no separated toes, so it will fit more people, they are amazing as well.

    Heath  

  30. Pete,
    I am currently wearing the NB MT 101. I love them. I pretty much wear them everywhere. I am looking for a shoe with a little bit more support to where at work though. I am a Physical Therapy tech, so I am on my feet all day. It would be nice to have a shoe that I can use to run/work out in as well. Basically do everything in. I tried on the Pearl Izumi Streak II and the fit felt great. I like the way it hugged my foot, with more of a forefoot strike promotion. I don’t like the look, though. another shoe I have considered is the altra instinct. I have a pretty normal foot with a low to medium arch. Any suggestions would be appreciated…

    • Pete Larson says:

      Have you tried Saucony? Something like the Mirage might fit the bill. The
      New Balance Minimus Road is another option with a wide forefoot like the
      MT101, but it’s much firmer. The Altras are also a good choice, but are zero
      drop, so they may take a bit of adjusting. Finally, the Inov-8 Road-X line
      is worth looking at. Lots of options, but hard to tell you which will be
      best on your foot.

      Pete

      • Thanks Pete. I just ordered the Saucony Mirage. Excited about them. Thanks for the suggestions! I look forward to trying them out. The reviews look great!

  31. Johny_alb says:

    I bought a pair of Instinct in June 2011,first impression was great .After using for about 2 weeks just walking 10 miles a day it started to hurt my foot and knees .It felt so unnatural walking on those shoes .I think the problem is  that those shoes have too much cushioning , it felt like the foot is sinking in the shoe and does not maintain the zero drop position of the foot from the ground .I have tried many barefoot shoes (Terra plana Neo,Evo, VFF speed ,VFF treksport ,New balance minimus trail mt20 2E. Except VFF speed ,none of these shoes feels natural walking or running in them ,have too many problems .Spend over 600 $ and still i have  nothing to wear for every day use or running (lost my VFF speed).I haven’t tried yet Stem shoes, Saucony Hattori,Golite .Has  anyone tried a good shoe for every day use and running ?? I  can afford to try anymore shoes for now .

    • Peter Faletto says:

      Johny, you likely have issues that need to be addressed if none of these shoes are working for you. Get help from a competent Physical Therapist, Podiatrist, Pedorthotist or other healthcare professional.

    • Walking requires a different shoe than running because humans
      walk with a heel strike and run with a fore to mid strike.

  32. Erlend Tyrmi says:

    I have a theory that narrow shoes originated from horse riding. To avoid getting your foot locked into the stirrup, it’s handy to have a slim boot, also the raised heel makes sure you don’t slide through the stirrup. Modern formal boots and shoes are descendants of the 18th century riding boot. Of course this is just hobby science on my part, but still, it makes sense.

    BTW thanks for a great blog.

  33. If i am already efficient in the kinvara for up to 65 mile weeks would i be able to quickly transition to the altra or is there a significant difference

    • Pete Larson says:

      The Altras are firmer and zero drop, so they may take a bit of getting used to. I always recommend being careful when changing shoes, but you are a step further along than someone starting with a traditional running shoe.

  34. Doug Phillips says:

    I have been waiting a long time for these shoes and they did not disappoint. I am a Pose runner from way back. I have run primarily in the Puma H Street, Inov8 X-Talon 212s, and Brooks Mach 8, but needed a wider, more protective, truly zero drop shoe. The fit is great, but I had to move up 1/2 size. the heel and mid-foot hold your foot securely, while the wide toe box gives you plenty of room to splay. The shoes provide great proprioception (not great ground feel, which is actually something different). The firm flat mid-sole provides excellent, but not excessive, protection, and promotes a mid-foot gait. I am looking forward to the Adam and Lone Peak. Thanks for your excellent blog, Pete.

  35. Hydrosapien says:

    I bought a pair of Instincts in June 2011 and fell in love with them after growing disenchanted with the Nike Free line.  In the 3 weeks the Instincts lasted I logged 161 miles mostly on hard pack trails.  The longest run I did in them was 16 miles along an asphalt service road.  A couple of weeks ago I ran 10 miles round-trip along a semi-technical trail using the Instincts.  The trail  involved several river crossings where the shoes were submerged when I lost my balance once as I hopped rocks across.  The shoes drained well and didn’t chafe.  However, when I took the shoes off they literally fell apart.  The cloth liner on the insole split off the rubber.  When I cleaned the shoes with Penguin Sneaker Cleaner the stitching on the left shoe became undone. What was most troubling was the customer service. When I attempted to take them to the store to see if I could at least replace the insoles with some that fit the unique toe box, the salesman couldn’t help and asked me to come back when the owner was around.  When I contacted the manufacturer they blew me off.  So as much as I loved these shoes three weeks is an indication of construction issues they haven’t ironed out, and their small shop retailer could probably use more support too.  So I am back to hunting for a minimalist replacement for the Nike Free 3.0 v.2 which lasted me at least 600 miles…given that Nike has abandoned its niche with its later generation Frees.

    • G @ ALTRA says:

      Hydro,
          So sorry to hear you got a lemon shoe!  These things happen in mass production.  Please email orders at altrafootwear.com or call 406-96ALTRA and you will be sent a new pair of shoes if the retailer hasn’t swapped them out for you already.  Please let us know what shop you bought from so we can further educate them on our no hassle defect return policy—they should have given you a new pair on the spot and had them returned to us.  We want you to be taken care of!  Thanks,  
      -G with ALTRA

      • Hydrosapien says:

        I tried logging on to your website to do as you instructed and it is down for maintenance, thus I left a phone message.  Thanks!

        • Hydrosapien says:

          Problem solved!  As things are apt to happen there was an oversight and I should be getting my replacement soon from the manufacturer. Turns out that there was a batch of them that came out like this and they have taken care of the problem.  The shoes are great.  I’ve missed running in them and can’t wait to run the St. George Marathon in them Oct. 1.  

  36. Fig_skater2000 says:

    I have falt feet so need to use my orthodics. Can I wear them comfortably with these shoes?

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