Reviewing the Altra Instincts, & One Small Step Along the Trail to Hippie Nut-Job (10.5 miles)

Yesterday was Saturday, so Nat and I went on our regular run to gym class, then headed out on the post-gym class run/nap combo (Nat naps, I run – switching up the roles doesn’t work to well). The weather continued to be indescribably beautiful, but since I had run every day for the last week (Saturday made day 7), I didn’t run too fast or too far. I was also taking my Altra Instincts out for their first “long” run, and didn’t want to overdo things.

I guess I can finally weigh in on the Instincts, now that I’ve put 30+ miles on them. The summary review (for those of you bored by my shoe obsessions) is that they are an awesome shoe made by a great new company. For you shoe wonks out there, I (unsurprisingly) have more to say.

I stumbled across Altra’s website some months ago, back when I was on my quest for a reduced running shoe I could wear. I had already been forced to cross the most obvious candidates off my list (the New Balance Minumus and the Suacony Kinvera) since they were both too narrow. Altra didn’t come in widths, but someone on their design team responded to my e-mail and told me they had an extra-wide toe-box that would accommodate most wide feet, so I had hope. I waited a few months until the shoe was finally released, read the initial reviews, posted a few questions on their facebook page, then finally took the plunge when I found The Natural Running Store.

Before even getting the shoes, the company had won me over on a few points. One simple reason was that they were a small company. I’ve got an innate distrust of large companies and their millions of dollars of advertising, endorsement contracts, and share-holders, be it a big pharmaceutical corporation or Nike. Small businesses can’t coast on reputation and have a personal investment in their products. An actual running reason for liking them was that they didn’t promote their shoe as any sort of magic-bullet, but had a lot of literature on their site about correct running form and transitioning to a reduced shoe.

The two major selling points on the Instinct was it’s shoe-shaped last and zero-drop foot-bed. The first means that it is revolutionary because the shoe is shaped like . . . wait for it . . . your foot. Seriously, look at your shoe, the one you have on now. Is it shaped like your foot? It most likely tapers to a point starting somewhere near the mid-foot area. Does your foot taper to a point? No. The Instinct has a very squared-off toe-box, one that actually follows the contours of the toes. This means your pinkie toe isn’t crushed up against the rest of your toes. Zero-drop means there is no rise from the fore-foot to the heel, which promotes a mid-foot strike and shifts a lot of the weight load form your knees to your calves.

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So I ordered the Instincts from The Natural Running Store, and two days later they were waiting for me at school. You know you’re a running-freak when: you can hardly focus on teaching because you want to test out your new shoes. I slipped them on between classes, and they felt a bit tight in the fore-foot, but when I re-laced them using the technique suggested on Altra’s website, they fit fine. My first run in them was during a torrential, monsoon-like downpour, so I can’t say I got a real read on them at first, but I liked them. After running in them for a few weeks, however, I’ve decided they’re great.

First, the Instinct is NOT a minimal shoe. It may have a zero-drop, but it has a pretty substantial foot-bed, thick enough that you don’t get the “ground-feel” barefootsists are looking for. What I like about it, however, is that it is supportive but quite firm, with none of the marshmellowy “give” that I’m growing to dislike in my Brooks as I drift towards minimalism. The upper on the Instinct is very light, and over-all the shoe feels noticeably lighter than the Adrenaline I normally run in. It did take me a while to get the fit exactly right. During my first two runs, my big-toe felt like it was rubbing against the front of the upper; after e-mailing with Patton from The Natural Running Store (the guys offered to talk with me on Skype – I’m telling you, this place has customer service!), I tried them first without the shoe-liner and then without the liner and with a thinner sock, and now they feel great. The wider, foot-shaped toe-box means your toes can spread out and grip when you push off, and its just a nice, much more natural feeling when you run.

I’ve been working towards running with more a mid-foot strike, but I’ve always felt like I was “working” at it, as my heel wanted to make contact first no matter what. Moving to a zero-drop shoe meant that suddenly I was landing mid-foot without even trying, as there was no heel in the way. Its still a transition, but when it falls into place everything feels fast and light and easy, just the way running is supposed to feel.

I’m still working on building up my distance in the Instinct; yesterday I did 10.5 miles, and today my calves were really sore. Not “crap, I injured myself” sore, but more “wow, I really am still building up calf-strength” sore, which is the good kind of sore. The “I’m getting stronger” sore. So the Instincts is everything I had hoped it would be, and I’m looking forward to running in it more frequently and further.


However, the title of this post doesn’t have anything to do with the Instincts, but rather a short interlude in Prospect Park in the middle of my run.  Just around 8 miles into the run, I decided to take off my shoes and socks and run fully barefoot. I’ve run in my Vibrams before, and I’ve run 3 miles on the track barefoot, but I’ve never actually done a run barefoot.  All the barefootists say you need to run actually barefoot, and that Vibrams don’t count, but I usually dismissed that as hogwash. I mean, please – Vibrams are super thin and just like running barefoot.

Turns out . . . running fully barefoot it nothing, nothing like running in Vibrams. It isn’t that Vibrams are 80% barefoot and 20% shoe, more the other way around; running in them turns out to be much more like running in a shoe than not. I thought I’d do 3 miles to end my run barefoot, since that’s what I’ve done on the track, but I only made it a mile. True, I’d already run over 8, and that had been the longest I’d run in my zero-drop Instincts, but I found myself shifting from a mid-foot strike to a fore-foot strike, and that was working entirely new muscle groups. Also, my soles weren’t quite toughened up enough to take much more than a mile.

It went pretty well, all things considered, as I think my bare-foot track work and running in the Instincts had my legs ready for the challenge, but I felt a bit castigated none-the-less: I thought I’d been building up towards barefoot running, but it turns out I’m still on square-one. Ah, well – that just means I have a new challenge to work at.  I loved the feeling of the rough asphalt under my toes, and after passing a dozen people realized no one was looking at me and no one cared (or noticed) I wasn’t wearing shoes (though I’m sure if I try this in Bed-Stuy, there will be comments every block).

At this point I don’t know how much I’ll ever run barefoot, and I don’t have any plans to do it full time, but I like the aesthetics of it, the pure physicality of it, the simplicity of stripping running down to the bare essentials of mere body in motion. Besides, more and more of the runners I am meeting on-line through blogging run bare-foot, at least the one’s I admire and draw inspiration from. And in a way, it’s a return to my roots: going barefoot in the summer back in Gold Beach, wandering around without shoes during my summer-writing camp at Lewis & Clark. Maybe I’m just a hippie nut-job at heart. We will see.

Distance: 10.5 miles          Time: 1:38:49


About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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6 Responses to Reviewing the Altra Instincts, & One Small Step Along the Trail to Hippie Nut-Job (10.5 miles)

  1. Hope says:

    I saw at least one completely barefoot runner (also minus a shirt, so I guess a true minimalist) at the 5K on Saturday. Considering how hot it was already at 8 AM, I am not sure I would want to test my soles on the hot pavement, but since he was going at least 3x faster than me, I am probably not the best judge of what works 🙂

  2. So glad that you found us and that between us and Natural Running Store we were able to help you gain a great experience with a great shoe! Fantastic run and look forward to many more and getting the longer mileage in The Instinct as well!

    • Chris Van Dyke says:

      so glad I found you! I think its a pretty exciting time to be a thoughtful runner, because there are so many small start up companies out there now (you, naturalrunningstore, achiva energy, etc.) who are making products out of the love of the sport. Looking forward to trying some of your other shoes eventually!

  3. runfat says:

    I have a pair in for trial now…I wish they fit me (I have really wide feet). Sadly, they press on my bunions….close but not quite….they are going back and I’m really frustrated I can’t find a wide shoe that is zero drop. Alas!

    • Chris Van Dyke says:

      Sorry to hear that — you must have really wide fee if these don’t fit you, since I normally wear a 2E or even 3E depending on the company. There is almost no selection out there in the minimalist/zero-drop world for us wide-footers. NB says the MInimus will be available in widths in the Fall; not that’s it zero-drop, but a 4mm drop is a step in the right direction. Good luck in the wide zero-drop hunt!

  4. runfat says:

    Thanks….I never thought my feet were that wide…apparently I was mistaken…

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