Sunday, October 11, 2015

Altra Instinct 3.0 Review (sparing the needle, spoil the runner)

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. - Lao Tzu

Last summer, I was riding pretty high.  I had successfully run my first two 50Ks, a 20 miler, and was looking forward to my first 6 hour run.  Apart from a flare up of IT band problems from a muddy race, I was peeling off 30-40 miles + week after week with no foot issues. 

I had been mostly running in Skechers GO Run Ride 3s, to great success.  However, because the shoe has such a light and soft upper, I would slide around quite a bit especially on downhills, leading to black toenails on an ongoing basis.

I started to experiment with other shoes, and found the Saucony Ride 7 to work very well.  It had ample (or so I thought) toe room, but locked down my foot enough.

My running went great for about a month.  Then, I developed what looked like a cyst on the outside of my foot right under the ball.

[Warning: foot picture.  Please leave this page if you are faint of heart.]

Ha, its not so bad looking, I'm sure you've seen worse on the interwebs.  But you can see the raised spot near the ball, almost like a pea under the skin.  It started off not hurting, but progressively developed pain that was about a 2 of 10, and radiated over and under and through my big toe.

I went back to the old shoes, but the cyst didn't disappear.  I experimented with everything from Hoka's (Cliftons and Challengers) to Pearl Izumi Road N1s.  Saucony Triumph, Breakthru, Zealot.  The Zealot ended up being the best of the bunch, but the pain never completely vanished (except for about three weeks when I got a baby cortisone shot into the area around the cyst, after the podiatrist gave his best shot in trying to aspirate the little sucker, unsuccessfully).

I accepted my lot as long as I could run.  Because after all, my podiatrist said if it isn't interfering with gait, try and either experiment with shoes to find something more comfortable or get over it in so many words.

I felt like I was at the end of the shoe experimentation, having not found anything much better than the Zealot.  Then I heard this podcast from Trail Runner Nation interviewing Golden Harper, founder of Altra Running.

I always thought Altras were nothing more than a marketing gimmick, preying on the deformed of foot.  But after listening to the podcast, I was convinced there was real consideration and thought given through both trial and error as well as Golden's formal schooling about proper form and footwear.

I know I prefer 4mm drop shoes, so the idea of trying Altra zero drop shoes was a lot less intimidating than when I was running in 8mm plus shoes.  It seemed unlikely I would suffer from exploding achilles (this doesn't really happen, but you never know) with the transition from 4 to 0.

And voila - almost instantaneously -- upon trying the Instinct 3.0s -- the foot discomfort I had for the better part of 14 months vanished.  I now have 70 miles on the shoes, and they seem like the real deal.

My thoughts on why they work for me:

- Big toe box.  Giving my toes room to fully splay is doing the ticket.  I think they were able to do this with the Skechers, and all other shoes, despite their considerable benefits, squeezed my toes together too much.  

- Moderately inflexible.  The podiatrist noted that my ball joint on my foot looked a little pre-arthritic, and often folks with this can benefit from a stiffer shoe.  I do think that not having a completely bendable shoe is helpful to me.   It's not as stiff as the Breakthru, but definitely less give than the Zealot.
- Padded heel collar and tongue.  My foot likes soft in these areas.
- Nice flexible mesh upper so no hot spots.
- Excellent lacing system.  You can make them tight without putting excess pressure on any one spot on top of your foot.
- Nice hard rubber on the heel and forefoot.  Good traction and a firmer feel are pluses for me.
- Light weight (8.1 oz).  Much heavier than this, I start to do the shuffle.

I would highly recommend for someone suffering similar foot pain, but please follow the directions in the box and online for transitioning from higher drop shoes.

I was shocked at this morning's long run how a few committed runners had never heard of the brand. I have seen and talked to others about Altra before, so assumed knowledge was widespread.  But, I think it may be more of a trail thing and the roadies don't know as much about the line.  As long as they continue to work, I will try and spread the good news along with my toes.

I'm at 70 miles right now, and plan on running two marathons in these guys in the next 7 weeks. I hope I continue to enjoy them as much as I have so far.