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Francois Gaudas  •  Running Gear •  20.02.2023 •  8 min read

Altra running shoes: What makes them so unique?

Fun fact: The first Altra running shoes were fashioned from a toaster oven and a belt sander. The brand's motto since day one has been that "shoes need to adapt to your feet, not the other way around" and that is exactly what Altra running shoes do so well.

It all began in a toaster oven

Let's go back a bit further to 1998, in Orem, Utah. Altra founders Golden Harper and Brian Beckstead are in the same high-school and talented track runners. They both share a great interest in running tech and end up working in the shop which Golden's parents owned: the Runner's Corner. Golden's folks were accomplished runners too, with Hawk (Golden's father) having won the St George Marathon in two hours 22 minutes at age 38, and Cheryl (Golden's mother) qualifying for the US Olympic Trials Marathon five times. It was only natural their son followed in their footsteps.

Hawk liked to make all sorts of alterations to his shoes, as there was obviously no engineered mesh nicely wrapped around the foot at the time. He would drill holes into the sides of the midsole and lace his shoes differently to make them more comfortable and balanced.

The birth of zero drop shoes

His son, Golden, would start pushing the process even further when he worked on the first ever Altra prototype in 2009. After deconstructing a pair of running shoes – Inov-8 Roclite 325s  he heated them up in a toaster oven, cutting the midsole out and levelling the cushioning platform so it had zero drop from heel to toe. He and Brian modified numerous existing shoe models using this process, receiving gleaming feedback from runners who tested out their "science experiment" shoes.

Running shoes being heated in a toaster oven

The reason both founders felt compelled to experiment and modify their shoes was because of the pain they experienced while logging long distances or hard sessions. In Brian's case, it was during the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run in Utah, in 2009, that the pain became so unbearable he started working on his own trail shoe prototype. A year later (in 2010), he finished the race in the prototype pain and blister-free and broke into tears on the finish line, knowing at that moment Altra would be successful.

To hear the brand story told by Andy Norman, UK National Sales Manager of Altra, listen back to episode 35 of the Run4It Podcast.

Balanced Cushioning and FootShape™ design

Now that we know more about the brand's history, let's talk about what makes Altra running shoes really unique: their design. In 2009 and still to this day, the design of Altra shoes has remained very much in its own category, with a FootShape™ toe box to allow the feet to spread a lot more than in a pointy or round-shape toe box. They are also based on a 0mm heel-to-toe drop, meaning your feet will land more naturally, as if running without shoes. This is to minimise the risk of injuries and run more efficiently by being in closer contact to the ground, and reducing the load on your muscles and tendons.

Altra Provision 7 running shoe in orange

The highly protective Balanced Cushioning™ platform Altra running shoes are built on, positions your heel and forefoot at an equal distance from the ground, encouraging a natural stride and a low-impact landing.

It is important to know that, the amount of time required to adapt to a 0mm drop shoe can vary from runner to runner. It may take you weeks or even months for your Achilles to get used to that new way of running. Some models in the range will help ease into this different type of running, like the Torin (version 5 and 6). It is a light shoe, designed for any distance and that can also be worn as an every day shoe, the perfect all-rounder to make you feel comfortable in all circumstances.

The Via Olympus is a great option as well. It offers a lot more cushioning and has a rocker-like geometry designed to help you roll though gently between heel strike and toes off, making long runs easier on the legs. Should you need more stability, the Paradigm with its guiderail providing extra medial support will work wonders.

A strong presence in trail running

If you are interested in trail running, Altra is also definitely one of the brands that you want to try. They have designed some of the best trail running shoes of the last few years: the Lone Peak and the Olympus. They are both versatile, grippy and very comfortable. The Lone Peak will work better on technical terrain, if you are heading straight off to the trails, while the Olympus (version number 5 this year) is a maximum cushioned off-road shoe that's great for long distance and door-to-trail runs. The bottom of the midsole is covered with a Vibram Megagrip outsole, delivering industry leading levels of grip and traction on a variety of surfaces. 

Two men running across a burn in the mountains

Altra was bought by VF Corporation in 2018, the group which also owns Vans, Timberland and The North Face, another important name in the trail running community. This move only reinforced their legitimacy in that field, after becoming partners of both the Hardrock 100 and Western States 100, two of the oldest and most difficult ultra races in the world. In a recent interview with French media, Romuald Brun, European Sales & Marketing Manager for Altra, was saying that it's not impossible to see them look into more events as long as "they share the brand's DNA and respect Altra's identity".

If you have any more questions regarding Altra or would like to get fitted for shoes, we strongly advise that you visit your local Run4It running shop. We will then be able to look at your gait and advise the best model to suit your running style, needs and goals, whether it be from Altra or a different brand.

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