“The 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.
Walk 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.
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 – 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 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).
Naturally, 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.
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/