Friday, January 2, 2015

Interview with Golden Harper, founder of Altra running shoes

I've been very excited to post this, but with the holidays, it took longer than I thought... Enjoy!


Today's post is a first for me: an interview! There are several running products out there that I love, and when I discover something like that, I like to share it on my blog. I'm not an ambassador for, nor do I work side-by-side with, any companies, because I like to be able to give my very honest, genuine opinion. 

I can honestly say that I've never been so excited about running equipment that I've wanted to interview the person who developed it... until now. I've also never been a big "shoe" person when it comes to running--I was fitted in Brooks Adrenalines in 2010, and I'd been wearing them for four years. I tried a few others, just because I was tired of the colors of the Adrenlines, but kept going to back to the old faithful. (I have wide feet, and there aren't many selections for wide feet)

So when I learned that we bloggers would be listening to a presentation by Altra, a running shoe company, in Bethlehem at the Runner's World Half, let's just say it wasn't the most anticipated part of our itinerary for me ;) We were introduced to Golden Harper, founder of Altra, and within moments, I was completely caught up in the story behind the company. It's fascinating! By the end of the presentation, I was completely sold. (Fun fact: Golden ran 5 marathons between ages 10 and 14. At age 12, he ran a 2:45 finish time--a world best, which still holds today!)




You can read the complete story of how Altra was born here on their website. But for the sake of length, I'll try and write it in a nutshell here:

Golden's family owns a running store, and for years, runners would come in complaining of the common running injuries: shin splints, knee pain, recurring foot pain, etc. Golden, an Exercise Science major in college, studied running technique and running injuries, and was determined to get to the cause of the problem. His college research, as well as video analysis of people running on a treadmill at the store, showed that the design of traditional running shoes promoted poor form and excessive impact (due to the pointy toe boxes and heels that were twice as thick and heavy as the forefoot). 

Golden started using his toaster oven to melt the outsoles of traditional running shoes and remove excess heel elevation for his customers, causing the heel to be the same distance from the ground as the forefoot (which he gave the term "Zero Drop"). The modified shoes worked so well at preventing injuries that the store had nearly 1,000 people buy and modify their shoes to be "Zero Drop" that first year. Golden (quite literally) ran with the idea, and a couple of years later, Altra shoes were born. Instead of modifying existing traditional shoes, the Zero Drop™ Altra was a brand of its own. 




At the Runner's World presentation, Golden went on to explain the reasoning behind the Zero Drop™ shoe platform, as well as Altra's "Footshape™ Toe-box" (a toe box that is shaped like a foot, rather than the traditional tapered box). In listening to his explanations and research, the whole idea made so much sense to me! Altra's shoes allow your feet to be as natural as possible, but they still give you the cushion of a traditional running shoe. 



The first pair I tried was the One2, and it was definitely not the right shoe for me. It was comfortable for a couple of miles, but I couldn't see myself running long distances in them. It wasn't until I met Golden, and asked his opinion, that I learned I should have been in something much more cushioned, like the Paradigm. He allowed me to swap them out, and what a difference! The first few runs with the Paradigms weren't mind-blowing; but the more I ran in them, the more I liked them. And eventually, I was talking to all my friends and family about these shoes. I even bought a pair of Altras for each of my kids, and Jerry bought a pair as well. 

My younger brother, Nathan, was a self-proclaimed heel striker. He'd tried so hard to stop heel-striking, but was never able to do it. When he got a pair of Paradigms and took them out for a run, he sent me a text saying: "These shoes are the new loves of my life!" He said it was nearly impossible to heel-strike while wearing them. 

I could go on and on, but I've already made this intro way too long. I am really excited to share Golden's Q&A with you. He explains the science and reasoning behind the shoes.

Q. I've never been a "shoe person", and I really don't understand all the mumbo jumbo that shoe companies use to sell their shoes. Shoes all seem the same to me, aside from a few of the extremes! What makes Altra shoes unique?

A. Altra shoes are very unique in a couple of ways. First off, 99% of shoes have elevated heels and tapered toe boxes, both of which are known to cause foot maladies and other injuries. On the other hand, every Altra shoe features a Footshape™ Toe-box  and a cushioned Zero Drop™ platform. The Footshape™ Toe-box was designed by tracing the shape of healthy runners' feet in socks, and it combines with the Zero Drop™ platform to let an athlete be in his or her natural, healthy, state…feet flat with toes relaxed and spread out. These things let a person’s body be in the position they are born in and helps encourage efficient, low impact running technique and healthy feet. 


Q. Are Altra shoes just for runners? Or can walkers use them also?

A. Altras are great for walkers. In fact, many in the race walking community love and race in our shoes! Any shoe we make works well as a walking shoe, but we do make a couple of walking-specific shoes in the Instinct Everyday and a new supportive shoe called the Paradigm Walk (which releases in a few weeks). Since most people find that the longer they are wearing a shoe, the more of a difference keeping your foot in its natural position makes, wearing Altras is almost more obviously beneficial at first when they’re worn for casual wear.

Q. What is the problem with "traditional" running shoes?

A. Well, there are a few problems with traditional running shoes: First, they were designed with an elevated heel to let people comfortably over-stride to improve performance---something that has now been proven not to work. Unfortunately, there was no thought of injury ramifications when these were designed and these heavy, elevated heels actually encourage a runner to run inefficiently and with more impact.

Second, the first and most popular running shoes were designed specifically for a particular athlete with a very long second toe, and are therefore tapered, or pointy, in nature. The tapered toe box does not match the shape of the foot and therefore inhibits natural impact absorption, stability, and push off. Many also believe the tapered toe box to be responsible for a majority of foot problems from Bunions and Neuromas, to Metatarsalgia and Plantar Fasciosis.

Third, modern running shoes are “prescribed” based on a Pronation paradigm that has zero scientific backing. In fact, about half of runners are sold a shoe to “stabilize” their pronation, even though there is next to no scientific research linking pronation with injuries or problems of any kind. Additionally, there is no way to quantify how much pronation is too much and a decade of data by the Running Injury Clinic in Canada shows that 87% of people should not be using a “Stability” shoe. Stability shoes also push up more in the arch and don’t break down there, weakening the feet over time and causing a dependency cycle, essentially keeping them addicted to the shoe.  

Q. If someone is used to a traditional shoe, and has not experienced injury or any other problems with it, is there a reason to switch to Altras?

There are lots of reasons! With that said, I’m a big advocate of “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it!” I originally created this kind of shoe to help the hopeless, broken runner. However, if you have no problems with your current shoes, but want to experience the freedom of the Footshape™ Toe-box or the efficiency of a Zero Drop™ platform, then I recommend just slowly phasing them in to your routine and rotate them with your other shoes for as long as you would like. Rotating different types of shoes is done by most elites and is a good way to help prevent injury.

As for the reasons, here are a few:
-Keeping your foot in its natural position is crazy comfortable, and your feet will get stronger over time!
-The longer you’re out running, the more your feet will appreciate not being moved out of their natural position (this is why Altras are one of the top 2 brands seen at 100-mile races). 
-If you want to improve your running form, Altras are kind of like a cheater way to improve! (In addition to the Zero Drop™ midsoles, the shoes are weight balanced front to back as well.)
-If you have a healthy shaped foot (like a paddle), and your feet always feel a bit claustrophobic or ache a bit when you take your shoes off, you’ll likely enjoy them.
-If your feet have been tapered from hand-me-down shoes as a child, or from years of wearing tapered toe box shoes, then you can start to reverse the effects before your tapered feet cause major problems at an older age.
-They’re the only cushioned athletic shoes that fit with Correct Toes™, which many people use to help bunions, neuromas, Plantar Fasciitis, etc.
-Many people have found relief in their lower back, hips, or knees, which have been hurt due to alignment issues from wearing elevated heels.  


Q. If someone who has been using traditional running shoes is interested in trying Altras, how should they decide which model is best?

A. The best way is probably for them to call our customer support line and let them know all about their feet, injury history, and running shoes they have had success with. Additionally, I will try and answer any comments here with answers as well.

Q. Are there any instances/feet that the Zero Drop™is NOT good for? (For example, someone with high arches or flat feet?)

A. Not really. People are born Zero Drop! We have been brainwashed to believe that high arches and flat feet are bad things when, in actuality, they are usually just an excuse for someone to make a lot of money off of an expensive orthotic, etc. Most problems are actually due to weak feet, regardless of arches, etc. In fact, most world-record setting distance runners have strong but FLAT feet! As long as the shoes are phased in properly, there are very few people they won’t work for. As an example though, someone with a lower calf or Achilles injuries should phase the shoes in VERY slowly to allow that area to slowly lengthen, strengthen, and heal over time. Often the long-term solution can also be a short-term irritant if done too much.

Q. What is the best way to transition into the Zero Drop™ shoes for someone who is used to traditional running shoes?

A. It generally depends on the level of cushioning. I give the same advice as I always did when selling someone any new shoe at my running store: rotate them off and on with your old shoes for the first few weeks. Start with easy runs week 1, then do moderate runs week 2, and finally add harder or longer runs week 3, as long as everything is feeling good. Our research shows that transition time is more related to the amount of cushioning in a shoe than the amount of drop from heel to forefoot.  For example, a shoe with a very thin forefoot and a large 15mm drop would still have a very long transition time---likely months.  However, a very cushioned shoe Zero Drop™ shoe like the Altra Paradigm™ has very little transition time for most people---a couple days to a couple of weeks typically. (Here is specific transition advice from the Altra website)

Q. Based on your experience with customers, what kind of improvements can runners expect to see when switching to Altras? (Better form? Less injuries?)

A. People will likely see better form right out of the gate. When we video people, it’s usually pretty dramatic within about 4 minutes of running.  With that said, I definitely recommend people check out www.AltraRunBetter.com to learn how to run better, regardless of what shoes they choose to wear. 

I sure hope people continue to have less injuries or I have totally failed in my whole reason for creating these shoes!  I get emails, Facebook posts, texts, etc., every day telling me about how Altra shoes and the Altra philosophy have helped people get rid of injuries that have plagued them.  There is nothing more gratifying than hearing this! A quick check of our shoe reviews on our website or our Facebook page usually reveals some awesome stories. 



Golden graduated with a degree in Exercise Science and did his collegiate studies on running technique and running injuries. He grew up working in his family’s running store, was an All-American Cross-Country runner, and holds a world-best for a 12-year old in the marathon at 2:45:34.





Thank you, Golden! Katie here again :) When Golden told us bloggers to phase the shoes into our rotation slowly, I assumed it was just to avoid being sore for a couple of days; but it's important to do it slowly to avoid injury, as well. From what I understand from Golden, your feet need a little time to strengthen and get used to running in a natural position after wearing traditional shoes (and being reliant on them for support) for so long. My calves felt a little sore after the first run or two with the Altras, but not bad at all. Golden warned us to expect that.

Also, Golden highly recommends reading about Altra's healthy running philosophy (regardless of what type of shoes you wear). I found the information incredibly useful, and was especially interested in the "Repetitive stress and muscle imbalances". I am going to start finding some uneven terrain to train on in order to strengthen my feet and avoid future injuries. I've also started rotating my shoes: Altra Paradigm, Altra Torin, and Brooks Adrenaline. Rotating shoes is almost like "cross-training" for your feet, because you're using different muscles in different ways each time you run. I'd never thought of it that way before.

My Altra Torins--finally, shoes with cool colors for my feet! ;)

If you're like to try out Altra shoes for yourself, here's a great opportunity: Golden very generously offered to give away a pair of Altra shoes to a lucky Runs for Cookies reader! I'll do a random drawing, and the winner (U.S. only--sorry International friends!) will receive a pair of Altra shoes of his/her choice.

To enter the giveaway, just fill out the form below. I'll close entries and choose a winner on Friday, January 10th, 2015 at 10:00 AM EST. (I'll email the winner, who will have 48 hours to get back to me--otherwise I'll choose someone else). One entry per person, please. Good luck!



37 comments:

  1. The shoes look awesome! Good luck to all the US readers! I wish it was open to Canadians, I'd love to try them. I've been suffering from tendinitis in my foot and it keeps coming back. :(

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  2. I received a pair of altras for Christmas and I love them already!

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  3. I am definitely interested. I am on my 3rd pair of Adrenalines with each pair going up a 1/2 size. I am currently in a boot for a stress issue on the top of my foot. I think my already pretty flat feet have spread out?

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    1. That's possible. It's time to do some foot strengthening exercises!:
      1) Stand on one foot while waiting in line at the store, etc. Then try at home barefoot with the eyes closed. Work your way up until you can go 1 minute without too much wobble.
      2) Walk barefoot on soft surfaces. After a few weeks, try running a short distance.
      3) Pull a towel in with your toes while reading or watching TV.
      Start slow and work your way up!

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  4. These sound very cool indeed! I am in dire need of new shoes for everyday as well as walking/running. I just looked at the website and am excited to see they have an everyday shoe as well. Where I am on my feet all day, I need comfort. Can't wait to go try these on at my local running store!

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  5. I also have wide feet and have been looking for a new shoe ever since I had my foot surgeries.

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  6. I've been having some ankle issues. I currently run in Nike Lunarglides but I'm ready for new shoes (I think that might even be part of my problem). I have scrawny feet and I think my ankles are weak. Which Altra would be right for me?

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    1. Based on your previous shoes, you would likely be best in a Paradigm. :)

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  7. Thanks for the interview. I just went to the Altra website and read more about good running form--very informative!

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  8. This was fascinating! I never thought of the heel elevation, but that certainly makes sense. I have enjoyed my New Balance Running shoes, but thinking perhaps that is causing my shin issues...will have to look into these. Thanks for the interview!

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    1. There's definitely a strong connection between overstriding (which is encouraged by elevated heels) and shin splints. We call our shoes "Shin Splint Killers!" But it's really mostly that they encourage good form! Also, run less far but more often.

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  9. I am so glad to see a positive post on zero drop shoes! I was practically crippled from foot injuries in "normal" running shoes and was told my a doctor that I should never run again. I switched to Vibrams after being inspired by "Born To Run" and then eventually switched to my zero drop New Balance shoes with a nice comfy toe box for workouts. Within a few months my foot pain was almost all gone, and almost 2 years after the doctor told me to not run again, I ran a marathon. I'm always disappointed to read blurbs from doctors who are very closed minded towards minimalist shoes, and act as though it's a given that you'll be injured if you wear them. The key is to not overdo it when you first start wearing them, and to really pay attention to form. I'll have to check out the Altras!

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  10. I will have to do some more research. I'm very intrigued by these shoes, just for walking for me. But I'm curious as to how much they cost and where you can buy them. Great interview Katie. You are a really good writer!

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  11. I have issues with the outsides of my feet with my current shoes. Plus I've had issues with plantar fasciitis. I don't run, at this point anyway, but I am working on walking more and definitely want to check out these shoes!

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    1. Check this out for your PF!: https://goldenharper.wordpress.com/plantar-fasciosis-fasciitis-for-runners/

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  12. This is great! Love this interview. And those black Torins are my favorite! I'm an Altra elite team athlete and I just cannot say enough great things about the shoes. Enjoy them! ~Susie Duke

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  13. Awesome interview! Very informative. I love learning more about shoes!

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  14. Isn't it funny how if you care about something enough, you become fascinated by the science and details of it?! Thanks for the opportunity to enter the giveaway!

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  15. St├ęphanie from BelgiumJanuary 4, 2015 at 3:15 AM

    I've always run with minimalist shoes, I was wondering which Altra Shoes could compare to the Sketchers Go Bionics (that are super light and super flexible) ? I will soon need to replace mine.

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    1. Stephanie, the One Squared will be similar cush and slightly lighter than the Bionics and the Intuition 3 will be slightly firmer/more responsive but otherwise pretty similar. Hope that helps!

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    2. Stephanie From BelgiumJanuary 9, 2015 at 4:14 AM

      Thank you very much !

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  16. I've been having pain on the outside of my left ft and I just thought it was because of the injury to my right knee... must investigate...

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    1. Definitely possible. Try running only on grass or dirt for a couple weeks and you'll get your answer (& possibly get healed) in a hurry!

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  17. I got my first pair of Altra Paradigms in November and I've been running in them ever since (though I alternate with my latest pair of Hoka Bondis). Before then I was in another brand and getting ankle aches. Better shaped shoes with more cushion seemed to be what I needed, though I'm still getting used to the zero drop.

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  18. I have been looking into these for a bit. With my neuromas my feet always hurt and I really just want relief. I need to call them to find out which ones to try. That is always my problem.

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    1. Candy, a lot of the features in our shoes were built specifically with Neuromas in mind! Our customer support team can definitely help guide you to the right shoe!

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  19. I really really want to try these shoes! I've struggled with foot issues when running, but nothing that has crippled or stopped me for any time. I do get regular massages and my chiropractor does some painful stuff to my feet to keep me going. I'm most intrigued by the toe box. I'm a horse rider and I've struggled with the toe box on paddock boots for years. Some brands have one model with a more square toe box, but my favorite brand quit making paddock boots all together. I can't stand pointy toe boxes. Maybe trying Altra shoes would help me find my running mojo again! *fingers crossed* that I win :)

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  20. I am a new runner. A podiatrist diagnosed heel spurs in both heels and plantar fasciitis in both as well (though my left is worse than my right). Despite orthotics, I still get foot cramps everytime I run or walk for extended periods. Is zero drop OK to do with these kinds of foot problems?

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    1. I suffer from plantar fasciitis and since running in my Altras I haven't had the problems I had before. I tend to run on trails and that helps too. Golden Harper has some very interesting information on foot issues. Good luck!

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    2. Unfortunately, orthotics have never been proven to help solve injury issues. In fact, they make feet weaker and often cause more problems down the road. Zero Drop isn't just ok for these kinds of foot problems, it's ideal. Foot problems are generally caused by deforming the foot out of its natural position (i.e. raising the heel, pushing up in the arch, crowding the toes, etc.) Here's a little something for your PF: https://goldenharper.wordpress.com/plantar-fasciosis-fasciitis-for-runners/

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    3. Anonymous, this was EXACTLY what I was going to type! I tore my plantar fascia playing softball in June and it still hasn't healed. I also have heel spurs. I will definitely be checking out the website you recommended, Golden!

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    4. Thank you so much for answering! I'll check out your post and I'm seeing where I can get fitted for Altras.

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  21. Great interview! Thank you!

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  22. Great post! On my third pair of Altra and haven't looked back.

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I'd love to hear from you! I read all of my comments, and if you have a question, I do my best to respond; sometimes, however, I get busy and forget to go back to reply, so if it's important, just email me! :)