Thursday, January 11, 2018

Altra Superior 3.5 Review: Refined, Stellar, Potentially Polarizing


Article by Dominick Layfield with Dave Ames

Official Stats:
  • Stack height 21 mm
  • Weight 10.3 oz / 292 g  (usually referenced against US M10)
  • $110 MSRP
  • Available now (Dec 2017 release)
Measured:
  • Men’s size 10 US weighed 654 g (pair) or 11.5 oz / 327 g  per shoe INCLUDING “stone guard” rock plate.

  • With “stone guard” removed, same shoes weighed 584 g per pair or 10.3 oz / 292 g per shoe.

  • Stone guard weighed 70 g (2.5 oz) per pair

Introduction 

Altra’s trail shoe line-up used to be simple:  Superior, Lone Peak, Timp,  in order of increasing cushioning.  With the addition of the King MT with 19 mm nominal stack height, the Superior (21 mm) now comes fills the number two slot in the sequence.  Lone Peak stack is 25 mm, and Timp is 29 mm.

As ever, things are not quite as simple as that progression seems.  Altra’s various trail offerings have different tread patterns.  The King MT has an aggressive outsole with dense 6mm lugs.  The Superior tread pattern is sparser, with less prominent lugs (I couldn’t find official numbers, but I measured the lugs at ~4 mm).   The Lone Peak tread pattern, with large squarish lugs, works better on a range of surfaces, including pavement.   The Timp tread is similar to the Superior.   Can you discern the pattern?   If so, then you’re a better man than me!

Lasts:
  • Superior and Timp PFS2-M
  • Lone Peak SD6-M
  • King MT RFS-M
First Impressions and Fit

If you’re a fan of the previous iteration of the Superior (3.0), you’ll find that not much has changed.  This is a relatively minor update, with some tweaks to the upper to improve durability, and a modified heel sling to accommodate Altra’s new four-point gaiter, that has hooks on either side of the foot in addition to the previous front hook and rear velcro attachment point.

I’d not previously run in the 3.0, and was expecting that the Superior would have a similar fit to the Lone Peak 3.0 and 3.5 since I understood this shoe to be targeted at runners wanting to go faster over shorter distances and wanting a shoe that was closer to the ground.  Consequently, I was surprised to find a much roomier forefoot, more reminiscent of the Lone Peak 2.5.

My initial runs were on relatively smooth, soft trails, and I was struck that the shoe felt curiously removed from the trail, with good rock protection but little sensitivity.   It felt disconnected, and -- despite the comparatively low stack -- somewhat ponderous.


BUT... the Superior has a removable rock plate under the footbed, which Altra brands the “Stone Guard”.  With this removed, I found the character of the shoe much different and (to my taste at least) much improved.  The shoe not only felt lighter, but more sensitive and more nimble.   The downside was that the removal of the stone guard made an already roomy shoe feel oversized.  I compensated for the extra space by inserting a slim footbed from an old pair of sneakers (Nike TK3) and was very pleased with the feel of the resulting ensemble.

Dave:  I previously did not have much trail or road time in an Altra.  Over the past few years I’ve been going more away from the lower drop/zero drop footwear as I have been feeling much more beat up after marathon training blocks in these types of shoes.  However, initial fit and step in on the Superior 3.5 was very, very nice!  I have a narrow foot, but loved the wider toe box and snug midfoot grab on this shoe.  Loved the red colorway on the pair that I received.  

Upper

The upper fabric is a lightweight, dense mesh with welded overlays for reinforcement.  It feels light and durable.  Generally, I felt the choice was excellent.  On dry, dusty Los Angeles trails, the weave was dense enough that dust ingress was limited.  On muddy, wet English trails, the upper shed mud nicely, and -- while nowhere near water-resistant -- the bulk of light splashes ran off quickly with minimal absorption.  Breathability seemed good, too.  

Overall, I felt that the upper was excellent.  The only downside that I could think of was that there’s very little elasticity to it.

With the exception of the Altra logo itself, all the overlays seemed functional, rather than decorative.  (And no silly mountain graphics like on the Altra Lone Peak!)

The gaiter attachment points sewn into the heel sling is also a useful addition.  I didn’t have a pair of the new “Four-point” gaiters from Altra to test with, but I did try some Inov-8 gaiters with similar side hooks (but lacking rear velcro attachment point) and found they worked well.

The tongue is conventionally gusseted.  

Dave:  I’ll second Dom here on a light and durable upper.  For the type of trail running I do, which is a mix of Upstate NY single track and Southern California cruisers, the shoe needs to withstand multiple weather conditions, yet not be overly aggressive.  I had a great run in Upstate NY on the trails in snow, ice and sleet, as well as snowpack.  My feet were warm and relatively dry.  While I may not be running the most rugged trails compared to the awesomeness of Colorado or Utah, this shoe and upper will do just fine for what I need.  I think that’s a perfect category to put this shoe in.  “Get’s the job done.”

Midsole

Not too much to say here.  I’m a fan of Altra’s A-Bound version of EVA foam.  It gives a very pleasing “creamy” ground feel that absorbs a lot of harshness.  I didn’t test the Superior on pavement, and certainly not in a side-by-side test, so can’t comment much on rebound and energy return, which is typically a much bigger factor on road than trail.

In the past, I’ve found that A-Bound has excellent durability.  I’ve had Altra shoes fail from upper wear, but have not observed any midsole compression or loss of resilience after many hundred miles of use.  In the Superior, the midsole is exposed through several cut-outs in the outsole, and appears to be holding up well.

Dave:  I had the opportunity to run on the road vs. the trail in the Superior 3.5, just to get an initial idea of how the A-Bound midsole reacted under my foot before I took it to the trail.  There is no question that this shoe is made for the trails, but the A-Bound works quite well in transitioning the runner smoothly and efficiently and I felt that on the roads as well.  Taking this baby to the trails, it’s so so smooth.  My stride felt amazing on the limited trail time I got in this thing (SoCal fires put a big damper on the amount of time I got in)  You find the sweet spot ever so nicely in the Superior 3.5 and add the trail feel to that and they have built a winner here.  Nice snappiness and your legs feel ever so fresh on the trails shaping mile after mile of happiness.

Outsole

I liked the outsole material, thickness, and tread pattern in all the conditions I tested (dry, dusty dirt through wet mud).  The lugs are fairly small and widely spaced, which meant that mud is shed relatively quickly.  Traction was good in all conditions.  The only caveat might be that grip on wet rock didn’t feel particularly reassuring.

I’m not convinced by the strange flap of outsole that cantilevers out, extending past the back of the heel, which felt superfluous.  Maybe someone who loves this feature (shared by the Altra Timp, but not Lone Peak or King MT) can explain to me what it achieves.  In testing, I had to restrain myself from trimming it off completely.
  
Dave:  As stated earlier, I do not run overly aggressive trails, so the Superior 3.5 for me, honestly, has more or about the same outsole as I am used to (Skechers GoTrail etc) - - The tread pattern as Dom states, never collected too much mud, snow or rocks by any means.  My runs were in the winter in Upstate NY and SoCal, so I did not get to test the Superior 3.5 on any slippery rock or algae/moss that can build up and be treacherous to a trail runner (mostly East Coast unless in the PNW)

Ride

As mentioned above in the “First Impressions” section, I found that the Superior was more to my liking with the “stone guard” insert removed.  This thin piece of plastic makes a surprisingly large difference to both the feel and the weight of the shoe.  With the Stone Guard in place, I thought the shoe was lacking in ground feel.  With the Stone Guard removed, the shoe felt much improved: more nimble, and with better underfoot sensitivity.

Of course, the “right” amount of cushioning and the optimal trade-off between rock protection vs ground feel are a matter not just of personal taste, but also depend on terrain and duration of activity.

When I’m reviewing shoes, I try to review them “as supplied”, but outside of that domain, I like to play with various different insoles to tweak the feel and fit of the shoe for different conditions, sock thicknesses etc.  As such, I was expecting to really like the customizability provided by the removable rock plate.   In reality, I was a little disappointed.  While I love the idea, I found the shoe imbalanced with the “stone guard” in place.  Moreover, the insert added a surprising amount of weight (70g, 2.5 oz per pair), and was thick enough (~1.8 mm, 0.07 inch) that the shoe felt noticeably roomier with the plate removed.

Dave:  Just an extremely pleasant ride for me in the Superior 3.5.  Fast, snappy and smooth, allowing nice level landing and quick heel to toe transition.  I felt confident and connected to the trails in this shoe and would recommend it to anyone.  Run after run (as stated earlier...not as much trail time as I would have liked) it got better and better.  I plan on using this shoe for its entire life cycle and have become a huge Altra trail fan because of it.  For Zero drop, which has been a while since I’ve been back running in, I noticed no issues at all in getting back used to this platform.  I felt fresh and ready to attack the trails the next day.  My runs ranged from 60 mins of rollers to 2.5 hours of singletrack.  Nothing crazy, but enough to test out at various paces and aggressive hill climbs.

Fit

The fit of the Superior 3.5 is classic Altra.  It has a wide toebox that provides a roomy fit.  Personally, I like this type of fit more for training than for racing.

If you have an unusually wide foot, this may be a “hallelujah” shoe (particularly with the “stone guard” insert removed).  If you have narrow feet and/or like a snug fit, the Superior 3.5 is unlikely to work for you.

Otherwise, the midfoot retention is excellent, and I experienced no other fit issues.

Dave:  I am a classic size 9 in most trainers across the board and had no issues with length or width. Perfect fit for me.

Conclusions and Recommendations

I think the Superior will be a polarizing shoe, in that some people will love it, and others hate it.  It has a wide toe box in the classic Altra tradition.  The fit reminded my of the Lone Peak 2.5.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but based on my experience with recent Altra shoes (Lone Peak 3.0 & 3.5 and Torin 2.5 & 3.0),  my impression was that Altra have been moving away from this to a more mainstream fit.
I preferred the feel of the shoe with the “Stone Guard” insert removed.  However, this made an already roomy shoe noticeably roomier.  I added an extra insole to replace the missing thickness.   If I were buying the shoe, I might be tempted to drop a ½ size down.   However, the smaller size might then be a little short.

In most other respects, I found the Superior 3.5 to be a stellar trail shoe.  Material choice was excellent.  Running dynamics were excellent.  Grip was good.  You can tell that this is a shoe that has been refined over several iterations.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment is weight.  Although not exactly heavy, the Superior 3.5 are way off the cutting edge.   With the rockplate installed, my pair of size US M10 weighed 654 g (22.9 oz).  I keep a spreadsheet with the weights of every pair of shoes I’ve owned or tested.  Of the 25 shoes I’ve measured, the Superior 3.5 (including stone guard) is the 2nd heaviest.  The only shoe that was heavier was the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Neoshell (waterproof version), at 656 g -- and I made a note that I weighed these dirty (i.e. covered in mud).

With the Stone Guard removed, the 580 g weight puts the Superior 3.5 right in the same ballpark as the Nike Terra Kiger, Hoka Speed Instinct, and Brooks Mazama.  (See comparisons below)


Dave:  Overall a solid shoe with all I am really looking for in a trail shoe.  Again, I just don’t have the time with a full time coaching business and marathon training to get out to the trails consistently, so the Superior 3.5 fits the bill just fine for me.  It’s aggressive enough for some nasty conditions on the East Coast and can cruise on the dry dirt here in SoCal (Santa Monica Mountains, LA Crest etc) - - If you are looking for a legit trail shoe, reasonably priced, good fit and boasting a snappy midsole, Superior 3.5 is for you.  If you plan on getting a little more gnarly, check out the more aggressive models in Altra’s lineup.

Scores

Dom's Score:  9/10

Deductions:
  • -0.5 for a toebox that seems excessively wide, particularly with rockplate removed
    • However, for some runners this will be a +0.5!
  • -0.5 for rockplate weight and thickness
I really like the Superior 3.5.  I prefered the dynamics of the shoe with the Stone Guard removed, but felt this made the shoe excessively roomy.  The shoe could be more competitive weight-wise, particularly with the Stone Guard in place.

Dave Score:  10/10
I honestly had not a single issue with this shoe!  Great work by Golden and his team!

Comparisons

Altra Superior 3.5 vs. Skechers Performance Go Trail 2
Dave:  While on 2 different platforms (4mm vs. Zero) these are now my go to trail shoes for someone who would love to get more trail time in, but just can’t.  The Go Trail 2 is much more underfoot, which I think I used to like, but after running in the Superior 3.5, I think I have found a new winner.  I feel much more connected to the trail in the Superior.

Altra Superior 3.5 vs. Newton Boco Sol (yes, I just went there with the old school Newton)
Dave:  It’s funny, I’d have to say the Superior feels somewhat similar to the old Boco Sol by Newton.  I found the sweet spot upon footfall well in both of these.  The Superior wins out however, as I just feel far more connected and confident on the zero drop platform, compared to 3mm in the Newton.

Altra Superior 3.5 vs. Brooks Caldera/Cascadia (RTR review under Brooks here)
Dave:  Just too much shoe with the Caldera or Cascadia.  I enjoy feeling connected to the trail….feeling each and rock and root (in a good way) and I just don’t get that in the Brooks.  Both are just too much shoe for me for the trails.

Dom: I haven’t tried recent iterations of the Cascadia, but I have a pair of the Caldera 2 (24, 28 mm stack).  I was impressed with the overall feel of the Caldera.   I did feel that the sole of the Caldera is a little stiff: I had the sensation of tipping off rocks in the Caldera, instead of the sole conforming around the protuberance.   At 600 g for M10, the Caldera 2 is still 50 g lighter per pair than the Superior 3.5.

Altra Superior 3.5 vs. Skechers Performance Go Trail Ultra 4
Dave:  I used to like the maximal capabilities of the Skechers Go Trail Ultra 4.  And while an absolutely outstanding shoe, I use it now more for road miles on snowy slushy roads.  On the trail, the Trail Ultra 4 gets very sloppy for me laterally and I roll my ankles.  I do not feel confident as I do in the Superior 3.5.  Altra for the win here...but I still keep the Skechers for the roads.  Zero drop vs. Maximal.  Too different categories anyways.

Altra Superior 3.5 vs Topo MT-2 
Dom: The MT-2 (RTR review) feels very similar to the Superior.  Both shoes are low to the ground.  MT-2 stack height (20, 23 mm) is almost identical to Superior (21 mm).  The MT-2 has a small (3 mm) drop and slightly narrower forefoot, but very similar character.  There is, however, a dramatic difference in weight.  MT-2 weighs 522 g (18.4 oz) per pair US M10, as compared to 650 g (22.9 oz) for Superior 3.5 including Stone Guard.  That may be a little unfair, as the Superior offers slightly more rock protection with the Stone Guard.  Even with the Stone Guard removed (580 g), the weight difference is still significant.

Altra Superior 3.5 vs Nike Terra Kiger 4
Dom: Another trail shoe in the same ballpark for trail feel, stack height (20, 24 mm) as Altra Superior.  The Terra Kiger 4 (RTR review)’s weight is similar to the Superior without Stone Guard, but rock protection is better in TK4 (than Superior sans Stone Guard, comparable to Superior with Stone Guard).   For my feet, at least, the Nike Terra Kiger series is the benchmark for fit, conforming (after initial break-in) like a glove, and striking the Goldilocks balance between stack height, trail feel and protection.

Altra Superior 3.5 vs Hoka Speed Instinct 2
Dom: Out of the Hoka lineup, I think the Speed Instinct 2 (RTR review) is closest in character to the Superior 3.5.  Weight for the SI2 is about the same as Superior without Stone Guard.  The SI2 sits a little higher off the ground (22, 25 mm stack) and provides more cushioning without a rock plate.  Fit is very different: the Hoka forefoot is much narrower, but with stretchy upper fabric that enables it to accommodate moderately wide feet.  

Altra Superior 3.5 vs Brooks Mazama 2
Dom: These shoes should both be in the “fast and light” end of trail shoes, although Mazama 2( (RTR review) is a very different beast and feels a lot more like a race shoe than the Superior.  Mazama 2 (15, 21 mm stack) is lower to the ground up front.  The Mazama is substantially narrower in the forefoot, with a stiffer, thinner sole.  Mazama 2 weighed 585 g in US M10, so pretty much identical to Superior with Stone Guard removed.
Reviewers

Dom Layfield is an accomplished trail runner with a background and PhD in bio mechanical engineering from MIT.  His 2017 achievements include first place in the dead of winter 2017 108-mile Spine Challenger race in the UK, breaking the course record by an hour, first place in the Quicksilver 100K in California, and 14th at the Western States Endurance Run. 

Dave Ames is the Founder and Head Coach of Ame For It Run Coaching, a nationwide run coaching business, training athletes of all ability levels from 5K to Marathon. A former competitive college athlete he keeps sub 3 hour marathon fit. 

For Dom and Dave's full run bios see our Reviewers Bio Page here.
The Superior was provided at no cost.The opinions herein are entirely the authors'.

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6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Gaps in the outsole still here. I hope they remove them in the next version.

Paul said...

The Superior has been my primary trail shoe through several iterations. But I've never understood the removable stone guard. I agree that it changes the fit and feel of the shoe, so I just leave it out. It also adds weight, which is becoming more of a problem as the shoe continues to add weight with each new release. I understand this is to add durability in the upper, which there had been some complaints about. But I'll take a lighter shoe. For that reason, I also can't agree with the prior comment. The gaps in the outsole make the Superior lighter and more flexible. If I want a heavier, sturdier shoe, I'll switch to the Timp, which is built on the same last. Please, Altra, don't make this shoe any heavier than it's already gotten.

rms said...

Typo on the weight without Stoneguards.

rms said...

Paul mentioned the Timp, which I've taken an intense dislike to. The King MT 1.5 however, at approximately the same weight as the Timp, could be my new favorite shoe on rocky trails: A full coverage outsole -- no gaps -- no mushiness, enough flexibility in the forefoot for a smooth stride, arch support plate for confidence in heavy landings, and firm cushion for some comfort while still providing immediate feedback.

I tend to like gaps in the outsole, as even as lugs wear down, the gaps remain and provide traction. But I've just received the S-Lab Sense6, which removes the outsole gaps present in Sense5, and will see if I discern any difference. The outsole gap areas on the Superior3, similar to those on the LaSp Helios line, are thin and weak enough to be susceptible to hazards like spines or sharp rocks taken at speed, and can make the forefoot overly flexible, thereby pummeling the foot on uneven ground.

rms said...

And OMG sorry for the 3rd comment, but the review lamenting the overly roomy toebox on the S3.5 mirrors my own experience with the S3.0. And it reinforces my strong opinion that the original Superior2 release, with it's flexible and tapered leading toebox edge design, was by far the best of this line. Altra grossly over-responded to complaints and made the leading edge blunt and far too high in volume, and it's something of a mess now. Look at the tapered toebox leading edge of the Golden Spike to see what the Superior *should* aspire to. The KingMT1.5 has also tightened up the toebox nicely.

Dom Layfield said...

Thanks for your comments, @rms.

I've just been testing out the King MT 1.5 and I prefer it to the Superior. Weight (638 g pair US M10) is slightly lighter than Superior with Stone Guard (654 g for same size). But traction is better, with full-coverage outsole, and better ground feel. I agree with you that the King toebox is better shaped.

After checking weights in article, I did see a typo in the English weight of the Superior 3.5 including Stone Guard. Text currently reads "10.5 oz / 327 g per shoe" and this should be "11.5 oz". Will get this corrected shortly. Is that what you were referring to? Or is there another typo that I missed?

-- Dom