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Are you looking at moving away from “traditional” running shoe brands, but you’re confused with the options on the market? Zero-drop shoes provide a perfect alternative to the norm, I will be comparing two zero-drop brands, Altra vs Xero Shoes, and help guide you to choose the right shoes for you. And if you don’t know what zero-drop means, don’t worry, we’ll get to that.
Altra’s and Xero Shoes have many things in common, but they have more things that set them apart. So it’s important to know what features you’re looking for in a running shoe and which ones match your running style.
I’ve run both Altra and Xero shoes over the years. Not to mention, I worked in a running shop back in the day. So I am more than happy to pass on the information to help you make your next running shoe purchase the most informed it can be.
Which minimal running shoe is for you?
Take a quick 5-question quiz to identify the perfect minimal running shoe for your feet! You'll get both road and trail options based on your answers!
Altra has been slowly growing over the last 10 years, bringing its unique take on modern running shoes and trying to shift the traditional market held by New Balance, Nike, Brooks, Asics, and Saucony, etc.
If you jump over to their website altrarunning.com, one of the first things you’ll notice is how “flat” the shoes look. That’s what they call zero-drop, which means that the front of your foot is at the same height as your heel, which is a significant shift away from the traditional shoe market.
The second marketing phrase you’ll often see with Altra is their “foot-shaped” shoe. It sounds a bit ridiculous, right? Aren’t all shoes foot-shaped?
Well, sadly not.
Many shoes are pointed towards the end. Unfortunately, our feet aren’t shaped to match. Toes should be allowed to splay out, similar to spreading out your fingers. This toe splay allows for all-important stability and spreading of load through the whole foot.
With Altra, you have a square-ish-shaped shoe (allowing for this toe splay). Additionally, you have the heel and toes at the same distance from the ground (that zero-drop feature I mentioned). You’ll also see a different range of cushioning throughout the range, but we’ll get to that later.
Xero Shoes are a smaller player on the market, and their background and philosophy differ slightly from Altra.
Rather than taking the current running shoes on the market and cutting them back, Xero Shoes have thrown away modern running options and gone back to the basics.
If you’ve read Born To Run, you’ll know about the barefoot running trend in the early 2010s. In the book, the Tarahumara tribe from Mexico was highlighted for running great distances throughout their lives, and what did they wear to run?
You may be thinking it’s impossible to run in sandals, but with the right design, it’s entirely possible, and I’m here to prove it!
Xero Shoes took this simple sandal design, modified it slightly for a more comfortable fit for a run, and started selling their first sandal kit in 2009.
They serve a complete range from running shoes to casual everyday shoes, which all resemble that original sandal design, with very little to no cushioning and maximum flexibility. They also have other running shoe options that are shoes rather than sandals.
But overall, Xero shoes are as close to barefoot running as you’ll get, with the added protection from sharp objects underfoot.
After reading the origins of both companies, you’ll start to see where the differences come about.
But first, what about the similarities between the two running shoes?
- A vast range from running, trail, to casual shoes
- US founded
And the differences?
- Cushioning level
Yes, that’s about it. You could argue that Altra doesn’t have sandals in their lineup, but that’s splitting hairs.
They’re very similar shoes on the face of it, but with the all-important difference of cushioning. And if you think that’s not a big difference, then you’ve never tried to run barefoot.
After running in both, I can say the fit of both shoe brands is refreshing after squeezing my feet into the likes of Nike, Hoka, and even New Balance.
Does cushioning make that much difference?
Short answer. Yes. But not how you think it does.
If you’ve ever run down the road with no shoes on, you’ll know that you have to tread carefully. But it’s not because of rough terrain; it’s because you’re naturally cushioning your stride with the complicated biomechanics of the foot to make the ride easier on your body.
The foot is a complicated structure comprised of 26 bones, 30 joints, and +100 muscles. And at some point during history, we decided to wrap it in stiff footwear and put a huge sponge under it. Sounds weird, doesn’t it?
By not using our feet to their full potential, we lack the ability to reduce the impact forces shooting through our legs. In effect, pushing the possibility of injuries into upper leg joints.
Now you may be thinking that cushioning will reduce that increased impact. Sadly you’d be wrong. Studies have shown that adding cushioning increases the impact forces, which puts more stress through our joints! Cushioned shoes allow runners to over-stride (your foot lands further in front of your body) and heel strike more often causing a heavier landing.
So is cushioning bad? Maybe not.
If that’s what your body is used to, cushioning probably isn’t harming your body too much, and it could be riskier to change things up too fast. In that case, Altras are an excellent compromise to help put you on the right path.
But now that you’re equipped with the knowledge that cushioning is not all it’s cracked up to be, then it could be time to start the transition to minimal footwear like Xero Shoes or at least take a mixed approach as I do.
How do I Transition to Minimal Shoes?
If you’ve never run in barefoot/minimal footwear, like the shoes sold by Xero Shoes, then I’d advise against making them your only running shoe option, at least in the beginning.
My guess is that you’ve probably been running and walking in traditional shoes for your whole life. So relying solely on your foot strength, as you would in minimal shoes, will likely set you up for injuries.
That’s not to say that going the barefoot/minimal route is bad. On the contrary, if you’re looking for all-around strength and better running resilience (yes, that means fewer injuries, too), I firmly believe that minimal shoes are the way to go. That’s why I have written extensively about going barefoot both in life and in running.
All I’m saying is you need to transition slowly into minimal footwear. It took me 2 years to fully transition! But now I can go out and run wherever and wherever I want in super minimal footwear. And I honestly feel I’m better off for it. If you’d like help transitioning, check out my post on barefoot exercises, or feel free to contact me, and I’ll be happy to help.
- You’ve already made the transition to minimal shoes.
- You’re interested in trying minimal shoes, and you’d like to try them for short runs or everyday walking.
- You’re interested in sandal running.
- You’re looking for casual shoes/sandals which are going to benefit you over the long run.
- You’re looking to transition away from another brand, but you’ve never tried minimal shoes.
- You’re looking to transition to minimal shoes, but you’d like to continue running the distances you already run.
- You’ve got a race soon, and you don’t have time to slow down and transition to a minimal shoe.
Buy both if:
- You eventually want to run in minimal shoes, but you’ve never tried it. That way, you can run the longer distances in Altra’s and begin working in Xero Shoes VERY slowly.
- You run very long distances and your feet/body have not fully adapted to minimal running, or if you feel your feet need a rest in some runs.
Altra Superior 5
My backup trail runner for when the trails get rough, and the rocks get sharp. These are the most minimal Altra trail runners you’ll find with a 21mm stack height. If you’re looking to dial back the cushion.
Xero Shoes Mesa Trail
The Mesa Trails are my everyday trail runner. You get a ton of ground feel, and the flexibility to move your foot how it was designed. If you want to learn more about the Mesa Trail you can head over to my full review. OR…..
Altra Escalante 3.0
My backup road shoes for when my feet are super tired, and I’m working on recovery.