If you’re looking for a foot-shaped, near-zero-drop running shoe, you’ve likely come across two brands. Altra and Topo Athletics. Both sport much wider toe boxes than the rest of the industry, and both have a heritage in the minimal running scene, but things have drastically changed for both companies.
So, which brand is for you?
Altra with their true-to-brand, fully zero-drop range?
Or the halfway house of Topo Athletics with “transition” shoes ranging up to 5mm of difference between the heel and forefoot. (They do still have zero-drop options too).
Likely, both options could work for you, but it’s all in the details of the choices, so let’s dig into this comparison and pull those details into the open!
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When comparing running shoes, I always like to start with the fit. Because if the shoe doesn’t fit, you’ll never run in it!
The most noticeable feature of both of the brands is the toebox. That’s likely why you’re looking at these shoes, after all!
They both have nice wide toe boxes!
In my experience, I’ve found Topo to have extra room in the big toe area and, more importantly, a little more depth in the toe box.
Having depth in the toe box lets you wiggle your toes a little. Some people love this; others don’t care; it’s a personal preference.
The next aspect of either brand jumps out when you slip the shoes on and lace them up.
Apart from the Lone Peak, there isn’t much depth in the Altra range. Sometimes it’s been so shallow that I switch out the thick insoles to give my feet extra room.
I’ve never had that issue with Topo. I’m not saying their shoes are deep, but I wouldn’t have to think about switching out the insoles! 🙂
Now it’s time to call out what I deem the worst point of some Topo shoes.
Some Topo shoes have support! Coming from a minimal shoe background, the brand is expected to make shoes that get out of the way of your running.
I don’t expect stability features, let alone the arch support I felt in the Topo ST-4.
I was so disappointed that I sent the shoe back, even though I felt the cushion and the flexibility were awesome.
You could argue that Altra is moving towards a “stability” style shoe with the Paradigm and the Provision, but I find these much less intrusive than Topo’s design.
And considering the ST-4 is the most minimal shoe in the Topo range, I’d expect zero stability features to capture the minimal market.
Which Altra Shoe is for you?
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It’s hard to say that all of one brand “feels” a certain way. But it’s possible to pull out some common features.
Most Topo shoes fall on the softer side, with some, like the new Cyclone 2, even opting for multiple mid-sole foams to give that plush feel while maintaining a responsive ride.
Compare that to Altra; we’re looking at much firmer, more responsive shoes.
The new Via Olympus is a testament to this. You’d expect a maximal shoe to have a bit of squish, but noooo, it’s firm all the way through!
The Superior and the Lone Peak are shoes in the Altra range, holding out with a nice squishy feel. You can flex the shoe reasonably easily and get a ton of ground feel in the Superior.
Sadly, throughout the years, most road shoes from Altra have become firmer and firmer, pushing some consumers to brands like Topo.
Both brands are moving towards plush, silky smooth inner liners.
Whether it’s the super smooth tongue on the new Altra Rivera 3 or the interesting use of a neoprene-like material on the ST-4. The word is out that silky materials are the in thing right now.
Personally, I don’t think it makes a huge difference, apart from when you slip the shoes on and off. But it does give an air of quality to both brands.
Rockered soles are present on both sides but only in some shoes.
Altra has generally moved towards a minimal rocker close to the toes on all models.
We’re not talking about Hoka-style rockers, but as shoes like the Rivera become stiffer, the forward propulsion from a minor rocker is becoming more obvious as these shoes evolve.
I even feel a small rocker in the Escalante 3! Something I thought I’d never say.
Topo, on the other hand, is varied.
Shoes like the Fly-Lite 4 and the ST-4 are flexible enough in the toe you don’t feel much of a role through.
Whereas the new Cyclone 2 looks like it has a very aggressive rocker and even a little toe spring (where your toes angle upwards in the shoe rather than sitting flat).
You may prefer this feel if you’re coming from brands like Hoka. But as a minimal runner, I’d rather let my foot do the job most of the time.
Topo steals the win in the durability department.
Although Altra has improved drastically from the original Lone Peaks, they still have lessons to learn regarding a +500km trail shoe.
Take the Altra Timp 4, for example. My wife’s pair hardly hit 400km before the outsole looked absolutely spent! And the upper started to show heavy wear!
The Altra Olympus 5 can buck the trend for Altra. And that might be due to the strategic use of a Vibram outsole.
Talking about Vibram.
Many Topo shoes sport Vibram outsoles, even on the cheaper models!
This is a huge plus point when it comes to outsole longevity. I don’t like buying into brands too much, but I’ve always seen great results with Vibram outsoles on nearly any shoes.
As for the uppers on Topo, it’s a mixed bag.
Some more durable models, such as Ultraventure and the MTN Racer, have perfectly placed overlays, sturdy toe boxes, and sport-aggressive Vibram outsoles.
The one area Altra excels is the midsole foam.
For the most part, moving towards firmer rides has also meant that the midsoles last much longer.
It’s still not true for all models, though. Again the Timp ended up with deep compressions around the toes, and the Superior can run a little flat after 500km.
But if we’re looking at the Olympus, the Escalante, and what I guess the Rivera will continue to feel like, it won’t be the midsole that’ll fail.
On the roadshoe side, Altra does have a slight edge.
The new rubber on the Escalante and Rivera is solid, with no signs of wear for me.
And, as I said, I don’t think it’s the midsole that’ll fail first, either.
If anything, I think the upper will fail first, but I’m not expecting that for a long time.
Here’s another area where Altra generally loses.
Some of their shoes have become ridiculous in price, whereas Topo still has some reasonably priced options.
Generally, you’re looking at a $10-30 difference between comparable models. Considering I’m giving the durability edge to most Topo shoes, it doesn’t look pretty for Altra.
Here are a few examples. And some ridiculous options from Altra too…. Are carbon plates worth it? I’m not convinced.
|Altra Escalante 3||$140||Topo ST-5||$115|
|Altra Lone Peak 7||$150||Topo MTN Racer 3||$150|
|Altra Olympus 5||$180||Topo Ultraventure 3||$150|
|Altra Torin 7||$150||Topo Magnifly 4||$140|
|Altra Superior 6||$130||Topo MT-4||$125|
|Altra Vanish Carbon||$240||Topo Specter (No Plate)||$160|
After reading through the post, what is my favorite brand?
You may have guessed wrong…. I’m still a big Altra fan….
It’s all about feeling for me. I still want a shoe to get out of the way and let my body do the work.
And whereas Topo Athletics has mostly succeeded in the fit, they still feel a bit “manipulative” to me.
But that may be different for you!
You can’t go wrong with either brand if you want to transition into an actual foot-shaped shoe. It’s just a case of finding that feel you’re looking for!