May 11, 2011

Altra Instinct Review.

I've had my eye on this new offering from Altra for some time now, and was delighted when they finally became available in April.  I was eyeballing this particular shoe for its minimalist qualities, slight cushioning and traditional appearance. The folks at Altra seem to have spent unusual amounts of time studying the barefoot market, listening and learning, and the Instinct is an excellent opening salvo for what many hope will be the first in a lineup of great minimalist offerings.

Along with the Instinct (primarily for road running), Altra is also introducing the Adam, designed especially for barefooters and minimalists; those who prefer something more akin to the Vibram Five Fingers, yet without the attention-grabbing "toes". I've only run in the Instincts four times so far, so this review is my experience after just a couple of long runs, some interval training and a few sprints, exclusively on the road. So let's get with it.

Appearance:  Right out of the box, this shoe should satisfy those seeking a more traditional, less flamboyant running shoe.  Arguably boring, the Instinct is clearly designed to be functional, not flashy.  There are no color choices (at least not now), so what you see is what you get. If your goal is simply to get out there and run without the stares, this is right up your alley.

Feel & Fit:  Immediately upon lacing up the Instincts, you begin to realize just how well these shoes are made. A cursory review of the exterior reveals solid construction at every seam, superior materials in all the right spots. The toe box supplies more than enough room to allow your toes to splay.  In fact, I tested the toe box while running and was able to wiggle my toes freely without touching any part of the box. Sizing note here: I went with my standard shoe size and have found it to be just fine.

The interior of the shoe is equally crafted with an eye to the natural runner/barefooter.  While the Instinct comes with two different inserts (one with a slight arch support and one that is just plain flat), the shoe is designed to be worn without insoles all together, if you wish.  This is how I prefer them.  Being a huge fan and user of Vibram shoes, I like getting as close to the ground as possible.  To be clear, however, the Instinct allows nowhere near the ground feel of Vibram FF.  But in Altra's defense, I don't believe the shoe is intended to compete head to head with Vibram.  Rather, I see the Instinct as more of a transitional shoe for those just getting started with minimalist running, or for those already well on their way who prefer a slight bit of cushioning for road running.

Cushioning:  Although the shoe is definitely Zero Drop, there is a solid bed of cushion from toe to heel.  For some purists, this will be unacceptable.  But for those who prefer (or need) a slightly softer ride, the Instinct will fit the bill nicely.  I recently put about an hour of hard road running on them and was pleasantly surprised to find my feet relatively rested within a short period.  If your running is primarily limited to the street (as mine is), the Instinct will not disappoint.

On The Road: As I suspected, the Instincts were very comfortable. I was concerned, after wearing Vibram exclusively for the past two years, that any new shoe was going to take some getting used to.  I prefer to run sockless, so I expected to get a few blisters or hot spots the first few times out.  To my surprise, such was not the case. I did get a slight rubbing on my right achilles when walking, but that soon went away.  I believe as I break in the shoes they will become even more comfortable and flexible.  Compared to Vibramm FF, they are a bit stiff, as you might imagine.

For those who have made the switch to minimalist running (or thinking about it), the Altra Instinct is definitely worth checking out. While not a shoe that feels anything near the Vibram FF, it is a great transition shoe to begin the journey from "heavy heel strike" to Zero Drop.

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