By Brian Metzler
First things first, Altra’s new (but perhaps oddly named) AltraFWD Experience shoe is a really good everyday training model for a variety of running workouts and paces. But that’s not the biggest thing there is to know about this shoe.
In case you missed it, Altra recently shocked the running world by releasing its first shoe that doesn’t conform to its classic “zero-drop” platform geometry. (The AltraFWD Experience, which includes a 4mm heel-toe drop, officially launched at stores and online sites on Tuesday of this week.) Zero-drop refers to the level platform of cushioning the foot sits on, meaning there is no heel-toe drop or differential between the stack height of the outsole and midsole under the heel and the forefoot. It’s been a unique characteristic of the Altra brand (along with a foot-shaped toe box) since it launched in 2010. Founders Golden Harper, Brian Beckstead and Jeremy Howlett believed the level platform produced a more natural running gait that is less injury-inducing than the stride patterns that result from shoes with a forward-sloping geometry. (Most running shoes have a heel-toe drop of 4mm to 8mm – a feature originally implemented into running shoes by Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman because he believed it helped a runner optimize forward propulsion.) Each of the dozens of models of shoes Altra has produced over the past decade has had a zero-drop geometry. Until this one.
So why did Altra break its own mold after all these years? Well, to sell more shoes, of course! And, after five years under the control of parent company VF Corp, I’m frankly surprised it took as long as it did. In fact, I had asked Harper and Beckstead in 2012 about the possibility of creating a low-drop shoe to entice runners into their other Altra models. Not saying it was all my idea, but that turned out to be one of the biggest factors behind the new AltraFWD Experience. While attracting new customers who have concerns over zero-drop shoes, Altra is also giving its current customers a way to expand their shoe quiver a bit. It’s kind of a gateway shoe – a way to help runners adapt to the sensation of running in zero-drop shoes, since it takes some time to get used to having your heel sit slightly lower to the ground depending on what you’ve been running in.
What’s New: The neutral-oriented AltraFWD Experience is an entirely new shoe, but the biggest thing that’s new about it is the geometry. Its 4mm heel-toe offset (32mm/28mm for men; 30mm/26mm for women) is slight and barely noticeable, but it does provide a little bit of heel lift. The other thing that’s new is the compression-molded EVA midsole foam and the pliable and comfortable one-piece engineered mesh upper.
Fit/Feel/Ride: The AltraFWD Experience fits true to size with a medium-volume interior in the heel and midfoot areas but a more spacious feeling in the forefoot. (What did you expect? It’s still an Altra shoe, although it’s important to note that it’s only available in Altra’s standard “Footshape Fit,” which is in between its wider Original and narrower Slim profiles.) The step-in feeling is smooth, seamless, and moderately soft, with a wide, padded tongue and extra padding in the heel collar. The one-piece engineered mesh upper and semi-rigid interior heel counter helped cinch my feet down to the chassis without any issues.
The ride of the AltraFWD Experience surprised me a bit. I’ve run in the shoe about 10 times for about 70 miles and have found the ride to be light, very stable and mildly vibrant, but not exceptionally energetic. The compression-molded EVA midsole foam doesn’t create a bouncy or propulsive sensation, although I did feel a touch of liveliness in every stride. It’s not a supercritical midsole material like some modern everyday training shoes, but instead a low-gravity, high-durometer foam that alternately felt somewhere between semi-firm and semi-soft depending on the pace I was running.
Why It’s Great: I think it’s great because it’s a really smartly built lightweight shoe that’s durable, protective and stable. It has a wide forefoot footprint that contributes to an inherently stable ride without inhibiting the ability to run at faster paces. The asymmetrically-beveled heel and moderately-rockered outsole accommodate a variety of footstrike positions and allow for quick heel-toe transitions through the gait cycle. To be honest, I found it to be a nice break from the super-soft or excessively bouncy shoes I’ve been running in so much recently.
Weights: 7.1 oz. (women’s 8); 8.5 oz. (men’s 9)
Heel-Toe Offset: 4mm (men’s: 32mm in the heel, 28mm in the forefoot; women’s: 30mm in the heel, 26mm in the forefoot)
Why You’ll Love it: The AltraFWD Experience is a lightweight and versatile low-drop everyday training shoe that can handle a wide range of training applications. I have run the AltraFWD Experience at a variety of paces, ranging from semi-long runs (12 miles or so) to recovery runs and a few up-tempo efforts with fartlek-style repeats. I’d consider it a do-everything shoe for novice-to-intermediate runners or those who prefer to have one shoe in their quiver. I’ve found that it’s a great shoe to pack on work trips and short vacations, too, especially when daily training maintenance is the goal (and not high-performance workouts).
Pro: This is a great shoe for transitioning to lower-drop shoes with zero to 4mm in heel-toe offsets. I could barely sense the heel lift, but it’s there and it seems like it’s enough to reduce Achilles soreness that sometimes comes from going from a shoe with a shoe with a 5-8mm drop to a zero-drop or level platform.
Con: The compression-molded EVA midsole offers a tiny semblance of liveliness, but it doesn’t compare at all Altra’s softer, high-rebound Altra Ego, Altra Ego Max, and Altra Ego Pro midsole materials found in its most popular road and trail shoes or any of the competing brand’s highly responsive midsole foams.