Sunday, January 19, 2014

More on the Altra Zero Drop shoe

In one of my first entries on this blog, I noted how a shoe commercial played a big role in my decision to change the way I run, to turn back to Eastern philosophy as a source for both inspiration and from. That commercial was for Altra Zero Drop shoes: I talked a little about the shoes, but it's a subject worth revisiting in depth.

As big a deal as changing my running form has been, making the change to the Altra shoes, has been--and still is--even bigger in some ways. Because the change in from really has to come first. I can't just switch over to the Altras as if they were just another pair of running shoes, because they most certainly are not. Let's take a closer look at them and see why that is. My particular choice in the Altra famile is the Altra Instinct 1.5, mostly because it provides a small amount of support and I was not prepared to "go ll the way" to shoes with almost no support. Here it is:

 The shoe actually looks kind of goofy, almost like a clown shoe in my opinion. If it's important to you for people to look at your shoes with envy because they look so damn cool, the Altras definitely aren't for you. But regardless, the reason for the odd look of the shoe is the wide toe area. For comparison, look at the bottom of my current shoe, the New Balance 860v3:

See how very different the Altra is from the typical shoe? And when you first try one on, you can really feel this difference. Your foot kind of pops in, as your forefoot and toes find ample room at the front of the show, rather than being constricted in a smaller space. In essence, they have room to breath, to move.

Now look at my 860v3 from the side:

And the Altra, again:

You can see it, can't you? The Altra is far more flush to the ground, and there's no change in level from heel to toe, as opposed to the New Balance shoe. That's the "zero drop": the heel and the forefoot are the same distance from the ground. My New Balance 860v3s feature a 12 mm drop. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it matters when you run, it impacts your form as a matter of course. This doesn't mean it's necessarily bad for you, though. I love my 860v3s; they provide great stability, support, and traction, plus they're lightweight and fit great (no blister issues in these babies). I'll probably buy another pair when the current ones wear down.

So what't the big deal with the zero drop (and the other features of the Altra)? Why am I--and many others--so fixated on the issue?

Because I/we want to run a better way, a more natural way. Other running shoes are built the way they are because we are conditioned to run in shoes, even though the most natural way to run is barefoot. And because they are built that way, they reinforce bad habits. High-end running shoes serve to protect you from yourself. That's why they have the cushioning, the drop, and the shape they have, so your from is less of an issue.

But it is still an issue, it is still what leads to all sorts of injuries, from the nagging to the serious. The beauty of the Altra Zero Drops is that they do the opposite of the other shoes. Rather than reinfircing bad habits, they reinforce the good ones. If you run with bad form in the Altras, you'll feel it, both during and after your run. But as you adjust your form to fit the shoe, you'll reap the rewards, both in the short and long term. Look at this graphic from the Altra website:

Better technique, natural alignment, reduced impact, those are the principle goals in the Altra Zero Drop design. And because of these factors, because running with a more natural, proper form has these benefits, there is no need to restrict the rest of the foot to such a high degree, thus allowing the more expansive area in the front for the toes (and in turn, this is also beneficial for improving form; something of a positive feedback loop). Incidentally, this is also the science behind other minimalist shoe designs, like the so called "toe shoes" (that look like gloves for your feet).

I undertook yesterday's seven mile run with my Altras. And again, it was a great run, both in terms of pace and time and in terms of how I felt during it and afterwards. There was no soreness or pain in my feet or legs at any point. And frankly, the Altras simply feel better, feel right. True enough, I still need to approach the transition with care, but it's obvious that I'm well on my way.

For those interested in Altra shoes, you can find them using Altra's website, or you can buy them online from my Amazon store.