I first heard about Altra and the Adam (their minimal offering to the market) about a year or so ago. I made contact with them through email and then had the opportunity to meet in person back in November at the Running Event in Austin. I was impressed both with the men of Altra as well as the product they were presenting. As a minimalist runner I was very interested in seeing the Adam, but due to the pains that had developed in my heel I also wanted to see the Instinct. I was brought right in and given the info on all the models they had, and I was very impressed. They have gone the extra distance to create great products that meet the various needs of runners, which is possibly the most impressive aspect of Altra as a company. I was lucky enough to leave the Running Event with a pair of Instincts to enjoy, and they have been on my feet almost daily since then.
One of the great things about Altra is that they have entered into the minimal market with a great product, but they also understand that not every runner out there wants to drop their soles to the ground. In fact the vast majority of runners are not entirely on board with the whole minimal idea.
Enter the Instinct.
What most runners do want is comfort. They want to log the miles comfortably without pain or fear of injury. Do running shoes cause pains and injuries? The jury is still working on that one, but the science is leaning towards yes with, I’m sure, a lot of exceptions. What Altra promotes more than anything is natural running. What is that? Simply put, it means running the way we are designed to by getting us on the forefoot and putting the heel on a level platform or, to use a phrase I believe they coined, “Zero Drop.” Studies have shown negative effects on the joints and muscles when the heel is in a raised position through walking and running motions. The Instinct takes care of that problem in a great way.
The sole is 12mm thick and level so there is no difference in heel and toe thickness. I personally would like a six or eight millimeter thickness on the sole, but the twelve they have employed offers a great positive for the conventional runner by making the shoe feel like nearly any other. The shoe is by far thinner in the heel than most conventional shoes, but it still feels like it has as much under the foot as other shoes on the market. I find this to be a great bonus as it offers runners the best of both worlds. The flat sole eliminates issues that go with a raised heel, but the cushion and ride is still there to enjoy. The shoe also weighs in a fairly light 9 ounces. The outsole is made of durable but flexible rubber so the shoe can move with the foot and last for a long time. I have been wearing these daily for over four months, and they show zero signs of wear. One of the most interesting aspects of the sole is its material – something called A-Bound, which is a pretty cool material. According to the Altra site:
A-Bound is an environmentally friendly energy return compound with incredible resilience and protection. This unique compound sits directly under your foot to return energy back and dampen hard surfaces while still maintaining fantastic ground feedback. A-Bound also retains only a 10% compression set (compared to 70-90% with traditional running shoe foam) so it won’t deform over time. Recycled.
The energy return from the sole is noticeable in a good way; I feel like I’m working less than when I run in minimal shoes. For some that will be less appealing, but if you normally run in a conventional shoe this feeling will be a great pleasure to you. It is also molded with durable Out Pods to mimic the bone structure of the foot, and it too offers a great feel. When I got the shoes I worried that they were too big, but I was assured they were perfect as the pods on the sole lined up perfectly with my actual bone structure. My concerns about sizing disappeared after taking only a few steps in them.
There is no arch support in this shoe unless you want it. The foot bed is flat to allow the arch to flex and move as it pleases, which will offer the foot a chance to strengthen as you wear the shoe. The shoe is shaped like the foot so you won’t find any pointed toe on these. There is plenty of room for the foot to do what it wants within the shoe, and it is designed to be worn in any of three different ways with different insole options. There is a stiffer Support insole for those of you who enjoy support, a more flexible Strengthen insole for more foot freedom, or you can go sans insole altogether for a roomy and free ride. I have used all three options and usually go with either the thinner insole or none. The stiffer one was not my cup of tea as it has typical arch support built in, but if you typically enjoy some support in your shoes then this insole should give you the feeling you like.
The upper is comfortable and breaths well. It is supportive in that it does a good job of holding the shoe to the foot without inhibiting movement. It has a minimal number of inner seams and does well as a sockless shoe for both walking and running, but I will admit that I had to break it in a bit before the inside felt comfortable for going bare in them. I never got any blisters, but the few seams inside the shoe were more noticeable at first, where now I feel nothing and really enjoy leaving the socks at home. There are numerous technologies added to the upper including asymmetrical lacing, a heel claw, and A-Wrap for a great fit. The lacing is comfortable and does not restrict the foot, which is a very nice touch. The A wrap is also something nice as it hugs the mid foot but allows the toes plenty of room to splay. I think the brightest design aspect of the upper is the heel claw. I personally could care less if a shoe hugs my heel, and most times I do not want the heel to be very tight. I like my foot to be able to move around either with or without the shoe as long as the movement is natural, which makes most conventional shoes uncomfortable for me as they are designed to really hug the heel. I still cannot figure out when runners decided the heels of their shoes should strangle their feet, but this seems to be prevalent in typical shoe reviews. The heel claw in the Instinct does a great job of wrapping the heel for support but not doing it in an uncomfortable way.
For running and walking this is an outstanding shoe. I cannot say enough positive things about the Instinct, and it is comfortable enough to have been my shoe of choice for long days of walking at Disney World. Is this a minimal shoe? Not really. Is this a conventional shoe? Not really. So what is it? I’m going to say it’s a nice marriage of the two, which is really saying something. It will get a conventional runner closer to the ground without feeling like he has gone bare, and it will give the minimal runner a chance to let his foot relax from time to time. All in all, this could be the best of both worlds.