By Missy Berkel
Introduction: Why I chose to switch to a high-cushion shoe:
I was originally introduced to the Hoka Mafate (the original Hoka shoe) in January of 2011, when I was going through an IT band tendonitis injury. The increased cushion of the shoe absolutely helped me to recover from my injury more quickly and allowed me to participate in active recovery without furthering my injury. As 2011 went on, I continued to train in the Hoka shoe and realized that I had much less leg fatigue after longer runs than I had ever experienced with other shoes in the past. The high stack height of the mid-sole allowed for this. In September of 2011 I completed my first 100-mile race, the Wasatch 100, and owed much of my success to the shoes which allowed me to heal effectively from previous injury, train with less leg fatigue, and recover more quickly after long runs.
Subsequently, I finished my second and third 100s, the Bear 100 in 2012 and the Bighorn 100 in 2013, as well as the Trans Rockies Run stage race in 2012 (120 miles over 6 days). In the Fall of 2012 I had heard good things about a new, local company called “Altra” and decided to give their shoes a try. The shoes were much more minimal than I was used to running in, but the Hokas that I liked (the original Mafate and the original Stinson) were wearing out and the newer versions had changed quite a bit as far as the upper was concerned. The new Hokas just weren’t as comfortable as my previous Hokas and I was no longer in love with the brand. The Hoka uppers seemed over-built and stiff, and many people (myself included) were having trouble with the low-profile toe box.
In January of 2013 I tried on the Altra Torin, a road shoe with a larger stack height than the trail series shoes, the Lone Peak and the Superior, and I was in love. The comfort of the Altra upper along with the wider toe box and the cushion of the midsole quickly made this the favorite shoe in my quiver. Running more than 30 miles in the Lone Peaks, I was experiencing foot fatigue and ankle pain, and knew that I needed a shoe with a thicker midsole: more cushion and a higher stack height, to get me through my next 100 mile race. The Torins were a good alternative as far as cushion was concerned, but didn’t have the tread that I needed while running on the trails.
Enter the Altra Olympus, March 2014. The women’s shoe release was a bit behind the men’s shoe, and I had already heard good things about the men’s version from several friends of mine who were running in it. I’ve personally only done about 50 miles in the shoes, but from what I have experienced so far, I will tell you that I plan in running in them a lot (almost exclusively) this coming season.
I can tell you that for the following reasons, I prefer the Altra Olympus over the Hoka:
1) Upper/toebox: the problems that I experienced with the newer versions of the Hoka are nonexistent with the Altra Olympus: the Altra upper is of a lighter-weight, more breathable material, but plenty durable. The Hokas seem to have become “over-built” and tended to cause a lot of rubbing and restriction of the toes. The toe box in the Hokas is absolutely too restrictive. Altra has gotten things right: a wider toe box means absolutely no blisters experienced. No rubbing, no chafing. Each time I put the Olympuses (or any of the Altra shoe line) on my feet, I marvel at the comfort that is imparted on my feet and toes.
2) Midsole: the Altra Olympus’s midsole is similar to the Hoka, but with a little less “flair” making it a bit less wide and cumbersome. The amount of cushion is comparable, however, and the Altra midsole seems to be a bit more energetic and “springy”. I feel like less energy is lost with each step. This translates into less effort being put into each step and my pace (per min-mi) is faster in the Altra. (Specifications: Hoka Mafate 3: Stack height 29 (toe) to 33mm (heel), and the Altra Olympus is 36mm, zero-drop.)
3) Outsole/tread: another win for the Altra Olympus. The more aggressive tread of the Olympus (although not knobby) simply grips better on all surfaces. I feel more confident, especially on the downhills, and feel less likely to “slip out” than with the Hokas.
4) Toe rocker: when standing on a hard, flat surface in the Altra Olympuses, the toe rocker is very noticeable and feels a bit odd underfoot. I can tell you that once you get out on the trail, this sensation is nearly imperceptible. The Hoka has a rocker as well, and is less noticeable when standing on a hard, flat surface. The Altra Olympus might dominate a little bit as far as function, giving the runner the feeling that he or she is pushing off with a bit more ease.
5) Zero-drop factor: Altras are a Zero-drop shoe, meaning that there is no difference between the height of the heel and the height of the toe when measured from the ground. Transitioning from a 4-5mm shoe like the Hoka to the zero drop of the Altra took me all of 3 months to do. Transitioning from a higher drop (like 7mm or 9mm as some shoes are) might take a little bit longer, in an effort to avoid Achilles tendon stretch and over-use of the lower leg muscles. However, as I have learned from Altra representatives, the more cushion there is in the zero-drop shoe that you transition to, the more forgiving that shoe will be. You will likely experience an easier transition to the Olympus than, say, to the Superior which has a very minimal stack height of 12mm. Another thing that I love about the Zero-drop factor, is that my running stance is much improved. My running partner has told me that over the past year of running in Altras, I have gone from a “slumped” stance, with my butt down and plodding along (in the Hokas) to a more active, taller, “forward lean” stance. I have definitely noticed that my alignment (shoulders, hips, knees, feet) seems better and my running requires less effort than before. I’m running faster on the whole with my new, more efficient running posture.
Considerations when buying a high-cushion shoe:
The handling or “cornering” ability of my Altra Olympuses is definitely not as good as the Lone Peak or the Superior (more minimal trail shoes in the Altra line), but I feel that this is not a fault of the shoe, rather something that must be considered when buying any high-cushion shoe. Hokas have the same flaw. You just don’t feel that “connection” with the ground that you do on lower-profile shoes. I’m willing to give up a little handling-ability in the name of saving my quads over the course of a 100-mile run as I previously mentioned in the introduction. As time goes on running in a high-profile shoe, the midsole actually compacts some and your foot “settles” into the midsole a bit more. More miles on this type of shoe means that they will actually get better with time (no matter if they are Hoka, Altra, or some other brand of high-profile shoe).I also feel that adding some cosmetic application to the mid-foot of the upper (a strapping-type system, first pioneered by Adidas with the “three stripes” logo) might help to anchor the foot better into the Altra Olympus. This could be something to consider for future, updated models. This system is in place in the Superior 1.0s and functions very well. “Ankle-roll” factor is something that many people consider when buying a high cushion shoe. I personally have never had a problem with it. I roll my ankles every once in a while no matter what kind of shoe I am in. I think if you roll your ankle in any high-cushion shoe, you are going to notice it more. If you are a typical ankle roller, this type of shoe may not be for you. For me, I’m willing to risk it, given the many positives that a high-cushion shoe imparts.
Conclusion: When buying a high-cushion shoe, there are many factors to consider. Transitioning to any new type of shoe will take some time. I have been very pleased with my performance in high-cushion shoes, and feel that with the recent addition of the Altra Olympus to the high-cushion shoe options, my running will continue to improve. The shoes will allow me to attain the goals of high-mileage running with less leg fatigue, faster recovery times, and fewer foot chafing issues than any shoe prior to it.
Here’s how a few of the Altra shoes compare:
Full specifications can be found at: