Sunday, March 25, 2012

Minimalist Shoe Review: Altra Adam

Ah, yes. Tasty minimalist goodness!
Let me just start by saying this review has been a long time a-comin'. I first heard about Altra on Runner's World Barefoot Running subforum at least two years ago. They were calling themselves "Altegra" or "Ultegra" or something equally as preeminent-sounding back then. Their concept art for their first, as-yet-unnamed shoe looked remarkably like a Vibram Fivefingers KSO model with one extremely important (to many runners) exception: no individual toe pockets. Keep in mind that at the time, minimalist shoe options were very few and far between. The choice was essentially either $85 VFFs if you could stand looking ridiculous or $160 VIVOBAREFOOT Evos. The excitement level was quite high for the shoe that would eventually be called the Altra Adam, so I was super stoked when I got an email response from Altra offering to allow me a pair for review!

Although I just received the Adams a little over three weeks ago, I have worn them to work and on runs pretty much every day including one run of 14 miles just to put them through their paces. I can say that the results are exactly what I was expecting. Keep reading for an explanation.

At first blush, the Adam definitely looks a lot like a water shoe or boat shoe. The straps add to the effect. There is something just a bit jarring about a shoe that doesn't have laces; our minds just register it as "that's not normal." I am totally down with "not normal," but the reality is you aren't going to win any fashion contests wearing these puppies with your blue jeans. The black/grey color scheme is understated, but it cannot hide the shoe's true minimalist intentions. If you are someone who prefers a more under-the-radar shoe, (a seriously minimalist shoe that looks like a normal shoe), I can't say the Adams should be your first choice.

"These shoes have velcro straps," is a statement that strikes fear into the heart of many who use their feet for activities other than ambulating from the couch to the fridge. But, as if you didn't already know, I'm a bit weird even for a barefoot and minimalist runner. I like velcro and really hate laces. I mean HATE! I can never get laces to stay tied unless I double knot them, and if I do that I can never get them off! Not to mention, I have a touch of OCD when it comes to the tightness of my shoes; this often requires a few re-adjustment when I first get my shoes on. So needless to say, the idea of velcro straps on the Adams were not nearly as of a problem for me as it was for others.
Top and bottom. When I ran across a frost-covered bridge in the Adams, I left prints that looked exactly like a bare foot. Brilliant!
Comfy ankle collar. Despite the visible seams, the footbed is quite comfy as well.
Very clever pulls placed fore and aft of the foot opening for easier ingress and egress. I wish all my shoes had these
Putting on the Adam for the first time was fantastic! I have yearned for a truly minimal VFF alternative for a long time, and these duders are perfectly foot-shaped. The toe box has a ton of room for toe wiggle and splay. I had no problem getting the perfect tightness with the upper strap, and my heel stayed locked down on all my runs.
Pretty seamless. The wide mouth is much easier to get into than Vibram's KSO.
The fit was not all roses and sunshine, however. The forefoot of the shoe has a second strap that crosses over the foot twice: once about midway up the foot and once across the very top knuckles of my freakishly long toes. This proved to be a bit of a challenge for a couple reasons: it's tough getting the tightness just right (a personal pet peeve), and the plastic "stay" on the outside of the foot can rub because of where it lies on the foot. Don't take this as a deal breaker; I love the fit of this shoe, but the forefoot strap and adjustment took some getting used to.  The long-and-short of the Adam fit is that the forefoot strap placement is not ideal, and that is a significant limiting factor in how well the shoe functions on downhills and during high-intensity activities where you are changing direction a lot.

One factor that sets the Altra Adam apart from the many current and upcoming minimalist models on the market is its removable insole or "footbed." For whatever reason, minimalist shoe makers like to build in their insoles. I am not sure if this is a cost-saving measure or if it has something to do with perceived comfort or function in the shoe. Whatever the case, Altra's takes a very different route. The two insoles included with the Adam allow for three very different configurations to adapt fit and purpose. Obviously, the shoe can be worn without the insole for maximum ground feel and minimal protection. I ordered the Adam "true to size," which for me was an 11.5 US.

Without an insole, the shoe feels a bit a bit loose unless I cinch it down, which can be uncomfortable; however, the shoe wasn't overly clumsy or awkward with the insole removed like some other reviewers have noted. I was honestly not expecting to like either insole, but I find myself switching them around in the shoe for a couple reasons: (1), If I'm wearing a shoe at all, it's because I need protection of some kind on my feet; otherwise, I'd be barefoot, and (2) The cushy footbed is comfy for standing on my feet all day and actually provides the best fit - placing my foot at the right location in the shoe. I like comfort. If you don't, I'm not sure what to say.
I tried to capture an image that showed the difference in thickness between the two insoles. The "Strengthen" footbed is in the foreground; the "Support" footbed is behind it. 
The "Support" footbed on the left has an obvious scallop at the heel and arch, but there really is no actual support provided by the thin, cushy foam. I find it quite comfy, though. The "Strengthen" footbed on the right is completely flat and much more dense, although they seemed to have developed impressions from my foot. I guess I wore the label off, too.
Ground Feel
I cannot rave enough about the excellent ground feel offered by the Adam - a quality I have determined to be a function of a shoe's sole thickness, flexibility, and overall design. The obvious comparison for this shoe is the VFF KSO/Sprint/Class (all the same footbed and outsole), and that is for good reason. However, there are important differences in the two shoes. The removable insoles that I mentioned above really set the Adams apart from other minimalist offerings on the market, and the concept really is brilliant. Users can customize the amont of cushion vs. the level of ground feel: an idea built upon the "transition" philosophy. I don't personally ascribe to the idea that gradually integrating minimalism into your runs, but I understand what Altra was trying to do here. These shoes should appeal to a range of runners: from those wanting an "as close to barefoot as possible from the get-go" experience to the "I want to move slowly and gradually" folks. I actually found the insoles to be quite useful for adjusting fit and comfort. No other minimalist shoe offers such customizability.

Obviously, the interchangeable footbeds have a significant impact on the Adam's ground feel, but it wasn't as pronounced as one might think. Even with the "Support" footbed in place, I felt a significant degree of connection with the running surface. Like I stated above, if I have shoes on at all, it's because there is something preventing me from going completely barefoot (debris, excessive heat or cold, etc.). I do not mind trading off a little ground feel for a bit of protection. In the case of the Adam, I really did not have to sacrifice much with either insole in place. My ideal running configuration became the "Strengthen" footbed which I find provides similar ground feel to my Vibram Fivefingers Sprints.
The visible siping on sole does little other than allow a bit of extra flexibility. Ground feel in the Adams is unparalleled and customizable.
If the golden standard of minimalist shoe flexibility is the Vibram KSO/Classic/Sprint, the Adam meets or exceeds the golden standard. The thin, siped outsole allows for impressive flex, and the detached insole options really makes for a fantastically malleable footbed. With no insole, the Adam rolls up almost as tightly as my Invisibleshoe FeelTrue huarache footbed. Impressive.

What I found quite remarkable was just how much flexibility the Adam maintained even with the insoles inserted. I believe this a result of Altra choosing to not build in a footbed because the insole can move independently of the outsole.
I could ball the Adam up into a pretty tight little cinnamon roll with very little effort, and this is with the "Strengthen" footbed INSIDE the shoe! You can clearly see the razor siping (ala Vibram) that further strengthens the Adam's flexibility.
Not much to this shoe when it comes right down to it. This pic was taken without an insole in the shoe.
With no insole, my Adams weighed in at right at six ounces on my kitchen scale. That is a bit surprising since Running Warehouse has the men's size 9 at 6.2 oz. Maybe my scale is off a bit, but even if it's 1/2 oz. off, that's still less than seven ounces. Most Impressive.

This is one category where the Adam has some inherent limitations. On slippery, wet rocks or wet pavement where the siped soles can engage, the Adam feels sticky. On anything involving loose dirt, rocks, or mud? Forget it.
Detail of the razor siping featured on the Adam. It does its job beautifully on smooth dry or wet surfaces. I wouldn't consider hitting any rocky, root-y mountain trails in them, though. 

Seeing as how I've had these shoes for less than a month, it's a bit silly to even give them a durability rating. The sole shows no visible signs of wear, which is good - expected, but good. However, I did note a bit of an issue with the stitching on the heel collar on the inside ankle. I was able to quickly and easily "repair" the fraying portions (limit it from happening further) with a lighter, but still. This may be an anomaly, but it certainly is a bit of a knock on a brand new shoe. Overall, the quality of construction appears equal to that of Vibram and certainly far superior to the Wal-Mart water shoes I see some guys wearing around in the cold months.
A couple of stitches holding the strap stay that locks a wearer's foot into place started unraveling after about a week. Since my "repair," I haven't had any other issues here. 
This is a category where the Adam really stumbles. If shoes are tools, the Adam is not exactly a Leatherman: i.e. it's a one-trick pony. Of course, that "one trick" is where I spend the majority of my time and effort in this hobby: road running. As such, the Adams are a wise investment and allows for the widest range of customization of running experience within that specific category. Maybe the best metaphor would be a multi-bladed pocket knife: three different blades, but no screw driver or tooth pick....

On light gravel, I appreciated the "Strengthen" footbed as it dampened the jagged variations in the smallish pebbles. I headed out off the beaten pavement path once in the Adams, and quickly headed back. Keep in mind that roots and nasty rocks are plentiful on local trails, so anything without a rock plate would have been woefully inadequate. Still, the Adam was quite out of its element. No corkscrew on this Swiss Army knife.

Fashionistas that desire anything other than the "I-just-got-back-from-canoeing-and/or-flippin'-rocks-and-catching-crawdads-and-the-creek" look are likely to search elsewhere for their daily wear. No tweezers on this Swiss Army knife.

I honestly loved wearing these shoes to work because I'm on my feet literally all day. I felt fantastic at the end of the day - quite the opposite of what is typical of my experience with even the least constrictive dress shoes I own. Of course, my professionalism takes a bit of a knock. Boat shoes with a tie is not exactly smiled upon by people who have a critical eye for such things. No file on this Swiss Army knife, either.

So the Adam is built for running on smooth surfaces and little else, but what it does, it does with aplomb!
Yeah, I have hairy legs. Don't hate. 
The Adam goes for $80 shipped from Very reasonable.

The Verdict
The Adam is definitely a worthwhile addition to the minimalist shoe market. They're definitely my #1 choice for road running shoes in conditions where bare feet are not an option followed closely by my Invisible Shoe huaraches. (The Adams get the nod in the masculinity department.)

*Disclaimer: These shoes were provided to me for review by Altra. All opinions are my own and unapolagetically exhibit blatant personal bias. If you disagree with me, please post in the comments below, and I will politely explain why you are wrong. Happy running!


  1. Wow.. really nice review. I'm more into trail running, so the traction would be an issue.. but wow they do look comfortable.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. Yeah, the Adam is definitely not the shoe you're looking for on the trail.

      There are tons of options for off-road minimalist running out there. If traction is a high priority, the VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Trail/Breatho Trail (same sole) have it in spades. They are gnarly! Check out my review of them if you are interested.

    2. I have the Neo Trails, and yep the traction is awesome. I did a review on them at the end of last year. They are the perfect snow running shoe... would love to try out the Breatho's as they look great... I've begged Vivo to demo, but alas, no luck as of yet :-)

    3. Yeah, I saw that when I looked at your blog AFTER I commented. You have been at this (the blog thing) quite a bit longer than me. I felt kinda like the guy unwittingly trying to recommend a new suit to Tommy Hilfiger himself or something. :)

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  3. I wanted to like them but they didn't make a size that fit my foot. Nice review though and I'm glad your stoked on them.

    1. Thanks, Patrick! I think that, more than anything, the Adam is a fantastic first effort and great indicator of where Altra is going. I understand how the fit can be tricky for some. The footbeds complicate things, too. Add that to the forefoot strap discomfort, and the shoe is definitely not for everyone. The Samson is already earning solid reviews from others, and I hope Altra gives me a chance to check them out soon - laces or no. :)

  4. They are perfection! I am planning on picking up 2 additional pairs just to hedge the demise of Altra. My only complaint that after a lot of wear, the upper stretches a little leaving the sole under the to hanging a little below the toes. Some strategic staples, in the upper, fixed this. The most sublime sole.

    This is the new benchmark that all others need to beat. I love 'em.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Eric. I am 100% in agreement. The sole definitely the best characteristic of the Adam. These are going to be my choice for my first full marathon upcoming in two weeks.

  6. Nice review!

    I found that unless it's wet or snow these provide adequate traction in most all situations.

    I use the Adams for all-purpose shoes and for that reason just bought a second pair b/c I like them that much. Let's start with limitations. Abrasive environments can wear on these although they are quite durable for what they are. I recommend shoe-gooing/seam sealing the seems if you plan on putting these through rough terrain on the regular. Not their bread and butter. There also seems to be a little stretch in teh top fabric with high use. It's not currently a big deal for me. I don't use the insoles so it should be a quick fix if need be.

    These also are great all around runners but can be quite poor in a combo of muddy/loose/wet/rocky terrain. They have horrible traction in slippery snow which becomes obvious when looking at the treads. One other thing off the top of my head is that foot placement is important especially with no insoles as I like to wear them. Rocks can be quite painful if not careful!

    The only thing I do to wash them is hit the insides with a hose. They're getting to the point where I'll need to take them into the shower and give them a proper rinse. I wouldn't trust washing machines. Sometimes I shake a bit of baking soda in them too.

    The positives: everything. I love most everything about these. The break-in time was about 7-10 days. One of the top straps was a bit abrasive until they broke in. Once they did, they're tits! I use them more for everyday walking around doing anything shoes but I've also climbed 13'ers with them but don't recommend it due to the lack of foot protection on the top of the foot.

    Warning: New minimalist foot wearers, ease your way into these. They'll let you know via pain how easy it is to overdo it when getting started.

    Mileage: 300-500 miles are so. They also make a new shoe that has laces which will give for better control imo. I like the Adams b/c they're not too spendy.Thanks Altra!

    Winter shoe addendum: I'm sure you could spray these with waterproofing and get a half size larger and use neoprene socks or wool socks with bread bags(vapor liner for poor people) but they have poor grip in the slippery snow. I've done a few spring snow runs/wet cold grass/sleet and you get cold quick in the Adams if you're not rocking neoprene or vapor barriers/proper socks. Please note I live in one of the coldest places in the lower 48. I haven't figured out good winter runners yet. I still use Innov-8 gore-tex runners. I've successfully solo night hiked with my innov8 low-tops from Gothic, CO to Conundrum hotsprings with 2.5" snow drifts in places, freezing temps. They worked well but I would like to go with something better.

  7. Wow, awesome feedback, Brother! Thank you some much for contributing. I agree with you 100% on the Adam being an underrated shoe for predictable surfaces.