Altra Superior 3.5 Review
Cons: Very little underfoot protection, not as light as it could be, still has durability concerns
Bottom line: The highest performing shoe that features a zero drop between heel and toe
Heel-to-Toe Drop: 0 mm
Stack Height (Heel, Forefoot): 21 mm
The ALTRA Superior 3.5 is the newest iteration of Altra's lowest profile trail running shoe. While it was only minimally updated with some improvements to upper durability and adding a new gaiter attachment system, we were surprised to find that it's far more comfortable than the 3.0 we tested last year. Combining exemplary trail feel with low-to-the-ground stability on Altra's zero drop foot shape platform, we think this is the best and most comfortable zero drop shoe we have run in, which is why we are happy to award it our Top Pick for that purpose. This is a shoe that will appeal to the minimalist runner more than someone who wants extra cushioning or shock absorption and is also better suited to smoother and faster terrain than it is to lots of rocks. It offers better performance than the more heavily cushioned Altra Lone Peak 3.5, so we recommend you check it out first if you are in the zero drop market.
RELATED REVIEW: The Best Trail Running Shoes for Men of 2018
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
All of Altra's shoes are made on a zero-drop platform, meaning that they have the same height in the heel as toebox. This is a feature that tends to take a little while for people's Achilles tendons and calves to adjust to, but once said adjustment is complete, seems to be almost universally loved by all. Speaking for ourselves, we love zero drop and would prefer to run and walk in them exclusively if shoe makers the world over gave us that option. However, as it stands right now, Altra is one of the only companies willing to offer this innovative design, and we roundly applaud them for doing so! Concerning the fit, we found this shoe to be wide from the forefoot, through the mid-foot and all the way back to the heel, which will naturally benefit some runners and be anathema to others.
The Superior 3.5 is probably the best version of a zero drop shoe that we have tested over the past five years, which is why we are happy to award it our Top Pick. It is minimally improved by adding very visible attachment points for Altra's 4-point gaiter (but still works great with a regular, two-attachment point trail gaiter). Additionally, they claimed to improve the durability of the upper once again, but after intense study and comparison to the 3.0, we can't tell you exactly where this took place. The patterning, overlays, materials, design, and construction are virtually the same, as far as we can see. What isn't the same is how much more comfortable we found this shoe to be than the 3.0, which we pointedly panned for its incredible discomfort. Wearing the two versions on opposite feet, they feel like entirely different shoes! The Superior 3.5 now compares very favorably to the most comfortable shoes we tested, such as the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4.
When it comes to foot protection, this shoe ranked near the bottom of our comparative testing, outperforming only the La Sportiva Helios 2.0. Of course, we should point out that it is very sensitive, which we will talk about later, but purchasers of this shoe should not expect to be able to tramp over sharp rocks all day long without feeling it in their feet.
It has an even 21mm of soft, spongy EVA foam throughout the midsole, which gives one more cushioning and impact absorption than it does underfoot protection. This is paired with one of the lightest weight uppers of any shoe in this review. While Altra has added rubberized overlays in places where catastrophic blowout was prevalent in previous versions, these additions do more to protect the shoe material than they do your foot from taking a blow on the front or sides. The shoe also comes with a removable StoneGuard insert, which you can put under the insole, and which helps with the underfoot protection. However, we found that it affects the fit of the shoe so much, and not for the better, that we chose not to run with it in place, and have graded it without as well. If you need more underfoot protection in a zero drop platform, check out the far more heavily cushioned Altra Lone Peak 3.5, although we don't think it is as good a shoe. We gave 3 out of 10 for foot protection.
The Superior 3.5 once again features horizontal rows of moderately deep and aggressive lugs that despite not looking nearly as fearsome as the outsole of say, the Saucony Peregrine 7, proved to be very grippy and sticky. Especially when it came to our comparative tests on both dry and wet rock, we found that these shoes gripped just as well as the stickiest shoes in the review, the Inov-8 Roclite 290.
With slightly shallower lugs than most, however, we found them to be not quite as good on grass and steep dirt, but that didn't keep them from performing far better than the entirely different traction compound found on the Lone Peak 3.5's. 8 out of 10 points.
With zero heel-toe drop, these shoes have a completely flat platform from front to back. Understandably, this feature combined with a relatively low 21mm stack height meant that this shoe ranked with the best for stability.
To test for stability, we took all of these trail runners and wore them as we side-hilled across steep grass and dirt slopes. We thought the Superior 3.5 was equally as good as our best overall trail running shoe, the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4, and also equally as good as the lower to the ground Helios 2.0. The only improvement we could consider making is adding tensioners to the lace holes so that the shoe grips the mid foot better, but as is this shoe was still the best of the bunch, so we gave it 9 out of 10 points for stability.
The fatal flaw of the previous version of this shoe was that it was intensely uncomfortable, specifically where Altra used a plastic-like material to reinforce the lace eyelets and where the tongue connects to the front of the shoe. Like many online customer reviewers, we experienced significant pinching and rubbing due to this design, to the point where we simply didn't want to wear the shoe at all. Luckily for all of us, the Superior 3.5 now ranks right up there with the New Balance Vazee Summit v2 and HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR 4 as some of the most comfortable shoes in this review.
So what changed? Honestly, we can't tell you. We have meticulously studied both versions of this shoe, and see no difference in how they were constructed. And yet, slip them onto your feet, and they feel nothing the same. Perhaps this is simply an issue of production variance (we hope not), or else the changes Altra made are more subtle than we can tune in to, but we love how the 3.5 feels on our feet. After weeks spent running and hiking desert trails in them, not even for a moment did we notice the slightest discomfort. For that, we awarded 8 out of 10 points.
Our pair of size men's 11 shoes weighed 20.9 ounces, the same weight as the previous version. This was still good enough for the third lightest shoe in this review.
We thought that our experience running in this shoe certainly backs up the stats, as it feels light and nimble on the feet. However, we found it interesting that it is only barely lighter than either the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4 or the Saucony Peregrine 7, both of which had far more underfoot protection. If you are to add in the StoneGuard inserts to both shoes, then the weight jumps to 23.3 ounces per pair, making it heavier than the Lone Peak 3.5, a shoe that would still offer greater protection. It received 7 out of 10 points for weight.
This was the second most sensitive shoe in our review; only the very light Helios 2.0 was more sensitive. Undoubtedly, this will be one of the attributes that will make it most attractive to some runners.
With 21mm of underfoot cushioning, it is not as low riding as the New Balance Vazee Summit v2, but the fact that its midsole is made entirely of soft, compressible EVA foam means that it retains excellent trail feel. Every runner is different, but we appreciated this shoe more for short runs on trails. Taking this shoe long distance or on scrambling missions is indeed possible, and we did it, but for us, the sensitivity and lack of underfoot protection led to a fair amount of foot fatigue at the end of the day. We gave it 9 out of 10 points for sensitivity.
As our Top Pick for Zero Drop, we naturally feel that this shoe is ideally suited to those who are in the market for a zero drop shoe. We found it to be more suitable for smooth trails than especially rough terrain, and we also enjoyed it more on shorter, everyday length runs than on our long days or during ultra races. That said, we know people who run ultras in these shoes. As with most minimalist footwear, those with strong feet and a long background in running tend to appreciate the advantages of a shoe like this more than newer runners or those who have a lot of wear and tear on their bodies.
This shoe retails for $110, making it one of the more affordable shoes in this review. We appreciate that for less shoe we can pay less money. However, after testing these shoes for years, we find that they tend to wear out fairly quickly. They certainly perform well enough to be worth the money, but those who value mileage above all else might look to something beefier.
The Altra Superior 3.5 is our Top Pick for Zero Drop because it is the best zero drop shoe that we have ever tested. There is a very noticeable improvement in the fit and comfort level compared to the previous version, and this shoe is nearly ideal for those who prefer something light, sensitive, and low to the ground.
— Andy Wellman
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