I do not quite remember how I got to hear about the new company, Altra, but this was 2011, and the minimalist craze had just taken the running world by storm. I was emerging from a summer-long layoff after an ill-fated trial of the first iteration of the New Balance Minimus. Something was just off with the right arch and this dealt severe damage to my ankle, as I tried to make the shoe work when it clearly did not. I found the Instincts and they were immediately appealing because they provided a happy medium: zero-drop architecture to promote natural running but still some cushioning to offer protection on hard surfaces. Having been a fore- to mid-foot striker all my running life, regular running shoes have never quite worked because of their unnaturally high heels and overall bulk. The Instincts 1.0 were quite refreshing to see. I first ordered the 12.5 but those were just a tad too small for my feet. At that point, I was getting tired of the endless shoe search. After returning that first pair, it took me a good two months before giving them another shot in January, 2012. I drove for over an hour to the nearest store carrying the Altra brand. I hate shopping, especially for shoes, but I knew that I had to go through with this if I was ever to seriously resume running. It turned out that size 13 worked better for me, and I made it back home with a pair I was satisfied with. I later added a second pair of Instincts later, and after one and a half years of wonderful service, I am excited to share my experience with these shoes.
This was, and certainly still is, the biggest selling point of all Altra shoes (so much so that they renamed their website “altrazerodrop” from “altrarunning”). I do not recall a single year in my running life when I did not twist an ankle. This was a problem I attributed to high heels of most of the running shoes I had, in combination with my slight pronation. High heels also placed unnecessary strain on my Achilles tendon, as my tendency to land naturally was always punctuating by the interfering heels.
Wide Toe Box
After years of forcing my wide forefeet into the narrow toe boxes typical of most Asics shoes, I found a most welcome reprieve in the roomy Instinct toe boxes. I have shovel feet, and the natural form factor of these shoes worked perfectly for me. During long runs, my big toes have wiggle room and my smallest toes do not get pinched—these were problems I had with other pairs. I realized, however, that I had to make sure I laced up properly for adequate control, especially on downhills. But the biggest advantage of the wide toe box is the enhanced relaxation afforded your feet. With the decreased tension, I often forget my feet are even there!
I do think Asics got it right with their asymmetric lacing concept, which was a primary feature of the DS line. My high insteps are responsible for the ease with which my feet are aggravated from shoelace knots. Since the lacing architecture of the Instincts is conventionally straight, I have experimented with relocating the position of the knot to the center of the shoes with good results. The laces are long enough to do whatever I want. In the future, though, I would love to asymmetric lacing as I think it does make a big difference in relieving pressure on the foot.
I do not have much to say about the arch support on the Instincts because it is simply excellent. Two sets of insoles are provided in the box and this provides more than adequate support. There aren’t any annoying bubbles prodding my arch, as has been my experience on other shoes. The shoes are flexible enough to mold into my arch (which is medium-sized). It is just perfect in this regard.
While I am a natural fore- to mid-foot striker, I still had to pay some attention to my running in the Instincts. It is certainly not easy for everyone to get used to the zero-drop experience. Every now and then, I begin or return from a run with a sore heel on either or both feet, reminding me to lay off on the heel-landing. The Instincts truly promote a natural form and with practice, one can achieve the ideal glide from the fore-foot to the lower mid-foot. Sometimes, the jargon can get too technical, and if you are like me, you just want to lace up and get out there. However, I do think Altra has done a good job with their re-education campaign. Each shoebox comes with a simple “How To Run” guide! Ultimately, though, practice makes perfect. One simply has run deliberately, and with time, the desired form is usually achieved. For me, the Instincts did facilitate a true return to my natural form, and I am satisfied with the results.
About this time last year, I did my first 20-mile run in my Instincts, and there were absolutely no issues. I have tendonitis and always train with knee straps, but the Instincts have noticeably reduced the stress I have experienced on my knees from other shoes. I love the minimalist concept, but since I will never be able to fully run on trails all the time, the Instincts provide a wonderful alternative while still enabling me to run naturally.
Altra is easily my top running shoe company right now. I recall the early days when production capacity was still quite low, and it was so hard to lay one’s hands on a pair of Instincts. Now, there are nine offerings available! And each one is specially crafted for men and women. By the way, the Intuition the women’s counterpart of the Instinct.
I apologize if this review has not been technical enough. You can easily find the specs on the website or on other worthy blogs. The latest version, the 1.5s, are out already, anyway and I have not checked those out yet. I will likely keep faith with the original Instincts and if I deem them better than the 1.5s on my next trip to a running store, then I will stockpile a couple pairs in case they eventually go out of production.