Altra Footwear made a splash in 2011 as they brought to market a handful of shoes designed to accommodate a natural running style — shoes that were neutral from heel-to-toe—zero-drop—with an anatomically correct design and a foot friendly toe box (Fun-fact: Altra's founders coined the term "zero-drop"). This included offerings like the Altra Instinct (just reviewed) and the beefed up, trail-ready (ultra-ready) Altra Lone Peak. And while the Instinct and Lone Peak have a decent amount of cushion to their soles, not all of Altra's line is so plush: a few weeks back I reviewed Altra Footwear's Adam, a super minimalist shoe that is almost like a pair of KSO FiveFingers without the individual toe pockets.
Fast forward to today and we see Altra Footwear is expanding their more minimal line-up further with the release of the Altra Samson. If I had to characterize the Samson in rapid fashion, I'd say it's almost like a cross between the Altra Instinct and the Altra Adam. The Samson has traditional shoe features like laces and it also has a sewn-in-place midsole with the 3.4 mm rubber outsole of the Adam. It's styled more traditionally (and a bit retro, which is in step with the overarching look of the Instinct and Lone Peak).
Let's dive into a bit more detailed overview and full-on actual comparison to the Adam, including a little video goodness after the jump!
Overview of the Samson
As previously noted, the Altra Samson is almost like a hybrid between the ultra-minimal Altra Adam and the less minimal Altra Instinct. The Samson has laces and a more traditional shoe upper; however, it's sole is built on the 3.4 mm rubber sole — the same sole used with the Altra Adam — with a little extra. The Samson also has a 3.5 mm EVA (foam) midsole that is sewn-in place. One of the features of Altra's shoes is they come with different removable insoles to customize the feel and fit to your foot's needs (more or less support, basically). Assuming you're down to the most minimal removable insole a.k.a. the "Strengthen Footbed," you're basically looking at about 10mm total stack height.
I'll save a few thousand words with a few pictures:
It's worth noting that the upper of the Samson isn't made of much — it's essentially one base fabric (the "quick dry" mesh) with painted on bits that reinforce and protect the shoe. The only other part of the shoe upper is this built up, plastic that comes up from either side of the heel to the top of the laces. The plastic is also at the back of the shoes (below the Achilles tendon at the heel). This seems to lend the Samson a bit more structure (and no doubt, weight). Also, the tongue of the shoe seems to be a little thicker, which provides a bit of comfort beneath the laces.
The shape of the shoe is friendly to the foot; there's pretty adequate space within the toe box for your toes to wiggle about and splay. That and the neutral platform from heel-to-toe (the zero-dropping) make up the solid one-two punch you're looking for in a good minimalist running shoe.
About the Sole
The sole of the Altra Samson is comprised of two non-negotiabe parts as well as a removable insole. I mentioned these above, but to save you from scrolling, the outsole is a razor-siped 3.4 mm rubber (that's .1 mm less than the original FiveFingers sole) and there's a sewn-in 3.5 mm EVA foam midsole. The "strengthen" footbed, while sounding sorta orthotic-ish, is just more foam. Add all this up and you get about 10mm of thickness as measured by my (somewhat) trusty skinfold calipers.
The sole is "zero-drop," meaning that it's the same thickness at the heel as at the forefoot; a critical feature of any foot friendly shoe as high differentials between the heel and forefoot degrade your natural biomechanics for walking, running, or whatever. All the Altra shoes are "zero-drop," as this is a defining aspect of their brand.
You can wear the Samson with or without that insole; I'm not sure which I liked better, but I could see keeping it in there if you were going to hit the trails and didn't want quite as much ground feel. Since the insole adds 3mm or so to the total stack height, it ends up diminishing ground feel substantially. More on this in a minute. The addition of the insole also reduces the amount of vertical space within the shoe, so I found my toes ever so much more often "rubbing" the upper fabric of the Samson, which is a little coarse.
Without the insole, I found my foot didn't breath quite as well, feeling a little sweaty against the more "raw" sole (seen in this picture here). So in short, insole in made for a bit more breath-ability for my foot but less ground feel and less room inside the shoes; insole out I got a little more ground feel but less breath-ability. Capiche?
Barefoot Feel, Function
Ground feel. The Samson provides decent ground feel — better than the more foam-reliant but similarly thick NB Minimus Zeros or Merrell Barefoot Bare Access shoes. That said, I found ground feel to be fairly muted as compared to its closest cousin, the Altra Adam. I'll speak to this specifically below.
The Samson's sole is quite flexible. Rolling the shoes up you can tuck the front into the back and they won't fly back open (as per the picture at the right). One interesting thing about the Samson sole is that, while it's evocative of a foot when looked at from above, where the sole starts to go upward on the sides, it does so at a fairly hard angle. The result is that the edges of your foot — say at your forefoot — can feel a rubber "wall" on either side. Contrast this with the more rounded out sole of a pair of FiveFingers and you can start to imagine how this might change the feel and function of the soles. Basically, if your foot is so wide as to push on these walls, you start noting pressure. It's nothing too annoying, but it's noticeable and actually makes you realize how what seems like a little thing, having a flexible, rubber sole that gradually wraps the edges of your foot as you get with a pair of KSO FiveFingers, better accommodates the variable width of feet than having a similarly thick rubber sole that uses harder angles at the edges. I'd like to see Altra's Adam/Samson sole reloaded here.
Laces work as expected to lock on the shoes. There's not a ton more to say than that; the Samson has laces and they do a good job of providing a customized fit that keeps your foot in place.
Function. I've done my typical workouts in the Samsons and walked in them aplenty; they're great for these purposes as they ground you and don't interfere with your natural biomechanics.
Self-explanatory — enjoy a little video goodness (hopefully it's decent) of the Altra Samson!
Samson vs. Adam
What's going to come as a surprise is that the Samson just feels markedly stiffer soled than the Adam. That's even when I take the removable insole from the Samson and compare it to the Adam with the removable insole of the Adam in place. In other words, when I do a close-to apples to apples comparison of the soles on the Samson and the Adam, the Samson still feels stiffer and less flexible. It's almost like the sewn-in midsole of the Samson combines with the rubber outsole in a reinforcing way that reduces flexiblity — as compared to a free-floating insole in the Adam and the same rubber outsole. Overall, ground feel or "barefoot" feel is, thus, markedly better with the Adams (insole or no) than the Samsons.
Where the Samson shines over the Adam is that the laces just work considerably better than the criss-crossing straps of the Adam. Those straps on the Adam tend to rub you the wrong way if you let them (socks help). The Samson's laced upper just doesn't have that problem.
On the other hand, the Samson's upper is a bit more substantial than the Adam, making it more noticeably "there" nad a little less breathable (but a bit warmer, too, in cooler weather). But that also makes it sturdier and look a little more shoe-like and a little less water-shoe, as with the Adam. I'll also say the the Samson just looks all-around more refined and better built than the Adam, which has a lot of seams and stitches built into it's design.
There are pros and cons to each when you get down to it. If I had to choose between the two, I'd probably go with the Adams if I wanted something a bit more barefoot-like and take the Samsons if I wanted a foot friendly shoe that feels a little more locked on to your foot; for running, I'd likely go Samson over Adam for this reason. Perhaps if the Adam is analogous to the KSO; the Samson is analogous to the Bikila. Something like that.
Samson vs. Everything Else
What about other shoes that compare to the Samson? So glad you asked. The Samson could easily be compared to the previously mentioned Merrell Bare Access and the NB Minimus Zero Road or Trail but it could also be compared to the Merrell Road Glove, too. All are similarly thick in the soles (Note: comparing the Samson to these with the Strengthen Footbed in place, which puts it at around 10mm stack height).
So if you look at all these shoes, how do you decide which to get? Here's my view. I'd say go Samson over Zero Roads and Bare Access if you want more ground feel and a more "technical" shoe. The Road Glove is also a bit too stiff in the sole, but strangely enough, seems to transmit only a little less ground feel than the Samson. In the end, I think you're going to have more fun running in the Samsons than the Merrells or New Balances because you're going to be paying more attention to your steps.
If you're a little less interested in ground feel but want a more minimalist shoe overall, I'd actually recommend the New Balance Minimus Zero Trail (MT00), which is feather light and features a really amazing combination of materials and design for its sole and upper. It's use of foam makes the sole very flexible but also diminishes ground feel a bit. The one catch on the Minimus Zero Trails is that it's unique features — particularly the upper material — make it pretty unusual. You may love it or you may hate it.
As part of trying to compare all these shoes, I decided to do what I'm calling a "bend test." It's hardly scientific, but what I did was take a number of minimalist shoes I had lying around and compressed them single-handedly at the forefoot and took photos of each. What you see below are photos me bending from left to right and top to bottom, ordered by most bendable at the forefoot to least bendable at the forefoot are the Invisible Shoes (huaraches), Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS, Altra Adam, New Balance Minimus Trail Zero (MTOO), Altra Samson, New Balance Minimus Road Zero (MROO) in 2E, Merrell Bare Access, and Merrell Road Glove. I included the Invisible Shoes and Bikila LS (and the Adam, too) to show that the ultra-minimalist shoes compress/bend at the forefoot extremely easily. In contrast, the Road Glove really took some effort to flex, as did the Bare Access; not pictured is the Altra Instinct, which I couldn't bend at all single-handedly at the forefoot.
Check it out:
I like the Altra Samsons; they're a solid contender against the Adam and I think it's a tough call on which to get between the two. Between the two, you can't really go wrong. Looking at all the other options in this range, well, good luck! Personally, I'd probably go Samson or Minimus Zero Trail, but they are very different shoes.
As for sizing, I wore a size 10.5 in the Samsons as well as the Adams and my typical, regular shoe size is, you guessed it, 10.5. Though FiveFingers sizing is not directly comparable to shoe size, some of you will ask anyway, so I'll tell you: I'm a 43 in Vibrams.
You can get the Altra Samson from Altra's website for about $100, which includes free shipping both ways and a 30 day guarantee. If buying local is more your cup of tea, check your local specialty running shoe store and see if they're carrying the Altra line.
Share this post and you just might win a pair.
Here's the deal. Altra has agreed to give away a free pair of Samsons in support of their release! How can you score a pair? You gotta share this post somehow — you can hop over to the BirthdayShoes Facebook page and share this review via the post on the BirthdayShoes facebook wall (it might take a couple hours to show up there for you to share; be patient!) — just make sure you share it publicly (Note a "share" is not a "like") or I won't see that you did it at all; alternatively, tweet a link to this post with the hashtag #Altra and a mention of @bdayshoes; option three: blog about this post (just comment below with your blogpost link so I know you did it). You can do all three and get three chances to win (max). All who do one of the three above (or all three or two) by Monday, March 12 at 5PM EST will be entered to win; one person will be randomly selected to win a pair of the Samson (or the women's version, the Delilah). Good luck!