Have Altra lost their way with the FWD Experience 4mm shoe? – Should we always run zero drop

When I saw the rumors about a 4mm Altra shoe earlier in the year, I thought it was a joke. 

But gradually, as we inched closer and closer to a prospective release date, I started to worry. 

Altra has been promoting their zero-drop platform and barefoot-style shoes all this time. How could they throw all this away now and admit they were wrong? 

Because…. Maybe they’re not wrong. 

Secretly, we may have been running in Altra shoes that had a drop all this time. More on that later.

But truthfully, it’s more likely that there is a section of the market that Altra has overlooked in the past, and really, their lineup just was not complete until they had a shoe with a high heel in it. 

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Why a 4mm drop shoe? 

First, let’s try and speculate why Altra threw out the zero drop dogma and introduced a 4mm shoe.

Think back to the first time you tried on an Altra. It felt weird, right? 

Part of that will have been the zero drop. (The same cushion level under the heel as it is in the forefoot)

Now, think about your first run in your Altras. For most of us, our calves were screaming! 

Jumping from a potential 12mm in a Mizuno down to a 0mm drop is a massive shift. And one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. 

The general advice given out was to slowly transition into Altra shoes, using them for one or two weekly runs and building from there. 

But all this time, we needed a potential second method of transitioning into zero drop: simply reduce the heel drop slowly over time. 

Moving from an 8mm to 4mm, then finally into a 0mm drop over time, could reduce injury risk when making our way onto the zero-drop realm.

Enter the Altra FWD Experience. A perfect transition shoe. 

If the rumors are true, the original Altra founders wanted an option like this from the start. 

And that seems true considering Golden Harper, one of the founders, developed a “transition insole,” the bridge sole, with a ~3-4mm drop.

The cynical viewpoint 

They’re just after the money.

How do they compete with Hoka when most people can’t even transition into traditional, zero-drop Altra shoes?

With that point of view, it’s only logical that they expand their customer reach and make a shoe that’s more similar to those consumers are used to. 

After all, they’re a business and need to make a profit.

It’s a little hard to stomach, especially when you’ve been a die-hard Altra fan since day One (Altra One…. get it…). But money is money, and that’s the way things go sometimes. 

It was never about the drop

Some would argue that zero drop wasn’t the main selling point of the Altra brand. It was the footshaped toe box. 

And while we’ve seen some models move away from wide fits (or what they call slim fit). Indeed, zero drop is not what it’s made out to be. 

Sounds weird coming from a minimal runner, doesn’t it? It’s not about zero drop?

I say this because we’ve seen Altra shoes with a drop in the past! But we just never knew it. 

In manufacturing, there are tolerances. And often, slight tolerances can affect the sizing and shape of a shoe. 

Shoe designers often mention that the drop can be +/- 2mm off the stated value. 

And I’ve even speculated that the Rivera had a slight drop in the past.

So that zero drop Lone Peak could, in fact, be a 2mm drop. Even worse, it could be -2mm! A negative drop. 

Foams compress when you run

When you put force through a shoe during running, the foam will compress. For heel strikers, this will mean you’re compressing the rear of the shoe more, creating a huge negative drop.

So maybe you should have a 4mm drop so that when you heel strike, it evens out to a 0mm drop—confusing, eh?

Cough…. We could also move away from a heel strike.

With all this said, these figures will all depend on your running gait and the tolerances of the shoe in manufacturing. But it tells us that 4mm may not be a huge difference in the end. Just give it a try and see how it feels to you. 

Or better yet, drop down in stack height and use a barefoot shoe so you’re using your feet in the most natural way you can (without going completely barefoot, that is), which brings me to my next point. 

Where have the minimal shoes gone?

We’re talking about the drop, but to me, the elephant in the room is the slow disappearance of minimal options in the Altra lineup. 

Looking back to early models, we had options like the Altra One coming in at 18mm and the original Lone Peaks starting at 17mm! 

Now we have Via Olympus 2 at 33m, and the thinnest model (often hard to get hold of), the Escalante Racer coming in at 22mm. 

Across the board, Altra shoes are taller and less flexible than they used to be. That’s not bad because it means more durable shoes and it has opened them up to a broader audience. 

But it does move away from the original aim of the brand, to improve one’s running form with a more natural barefoot gait.

This move alienates many old-school Altra fans and leaves the market open for other brands to take up the mantel of the “barefoot with cushion” market. But we have yet to see a brand take hold. 

Where does Altra go next?

I don’t know. 

What I wish for is a revamp of the Escalante Racer line. And a focus on the minimal aspect that has been lost in the recent models.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love running in Altra’s. 

They have their place when running faster, longer, and harder. 

But it doesn’t mean that the brand should lose sight of what made the brand unique in the first place. 

With many other brands innovating heavily, whether foams, weight, outsoles, or uppers, Altra seems to be waning slightly. 

I can only hope that 2024 brings something new and exciting to push Altra into the forefront of the sport once again.

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Nick is a UESCA-certified ultramarathon coach and avid barefoot runner, having over 5 years of experience in barefoot training and has competed in multiple ultra marathons wearing barefoot shoes. Starting his journey in the running industry over 10 years ago in New Zealand, Nick evolved from a running shoe salesperson to a passionate advocate for the transformative power of barefoot running. He believes in its potential to enhance running experiences for all and combines his unique insights from both personal achievements and professional coaching to guide and inspire the running community."

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