Monday, September 09, 2019

Altra Olympus 3.5 Review - It's big, it's burly, it's fun to run

Article by Don Reichelt and Jeff Beck

Altra Olympus 3.5 ($150)

Jeff: The Olympus 3.5 is a minor update to the Olympus 3.0, and following Altra’s previous numbering scheme would indicate an upper revision from its predecessor. In this case, Altra reworked a handful of the overlays around the upper, and claims that this upper has increased durability. I personally didn’t get a chance to test the 3.0, but based on appearances the 3.5’s upper looks much more streamlined and straightforward. If you aren’t aware, the Olympus is Altra’s biggest and most cushioned trail shoe , and to combat high stack instability they have given the shoe a relatively wide platform. It is an Altra so it is a zero drop shoe, but it doesn’t look like it since the midsole in the rear goes up higher around the heel, embedding the heel into the midsole than it does in the front. 
Looks are deceiving, there are several millimeters of midsole in the rear that actually surround the heel, almost acting like a bucket seat for your foot.

Jeff: Breathable upper
Jeff: Midsole has lots of protection, but doesn’t feel mushy or stiff
Jeff: Solid traction for non-technical trails

Don: Stable platform for such a high stack 
Don: Surprisingly good toe-off feel 
Don: Soft without being mushy 
Don: Upper quality is spot on 

Jeff: Altra’s four-point gater can be tricky to put on 
Jeff: Center of outsole is exposed midsole leading to durability issues

Don: Keeping in mind what this shoe is… I struggle to come up with a con. 

Tester Profiles
Don is an accomplished ultra runner whose most recent exploits include a 3d place at the notorious extreme temperatures, big climb 2018 Badwater 135 miler. More recently he finished 1st at the Lean Horse 100 and 4th at the Jemez 50 mile. Don trains over 100 miles per week on both road and trail in Colorado.

Jeff is the token slow runner of the RTR lineup as such his viewpoints on shoe and gear can differ from those who routinely finish marathons in three hours or less. Jeff runs 40 miles per week, both roads and desert trails in Phoenix, Arizona. He has a PR's of 4:07 marathon and 5K at 23:39 both he is working to demolish with help from his coach Dave Ames as he trains for his first 50 mile race in December 2019.

Official Weight: men’s 326g / 11.5 oz (US 9);  women's / (US8)
Samples: men’s 10.5 right 352g / 12.4 oz left 332g / 11.7 oz
men’s 12:  right 357g/12.6 oz,left 339g / 12.6 oz
Stack Height: 33mm heel / 33mm forefoot, 0 drop
$150 Available now including Running Warehouse here

First Impressions and Fit

Jeff: I was a massive fan of the first few iterations, but I’ve sat out the last few Olympus revisions as the shoe got bigger and bigger. The 3.5 however, is a surprising joy to run in. The fit is classic Altra, with an enormous toe box and zero drop platform. Unlike many other Altras of the last few years, the Olympus 3.5 has a well-fitting midfoot that holds the foot well, and the laces are the appropriate length. My pair was a true-to-size 10.5, and they fit perfectly on my feet which can go to 2E in some shoe models.

Don: As always with Altra, I sized down to a half size to a 12 from the 12.5 I wear in most brands, and the fit was spot on. I haven’t worn an Olympus since the 1.5, so wasn’t totally sure what to expect out of the box, but boy was I impressed. The initial step in feel is off the charts good. Say what you want about big, maximal shoes, but the Olympus makes no apologies for what it is and presents you with one heck of a shoe. 

Jeff: The revised upper of the Olympus 3.5 is a lightweight mesh with a few minimal overlays to give the shoe a little extra support. It might not be sexy, but it works very well. As more and more shoes dabble in more exotic upper designs, sticking with tried and true construction isn’t a bad thing. Running early in the morning in Phoenix is still plenty hot, and I’ve had no problems with heat whatsoever. The upper doesn’t have any of the slop that I have had to deal with in some Altra trail models. While you can get a very good lock down, it isn’t a trail shoe I’d recommend for technical trails, and only part of that is the upper’s fault. That said, my one irritation with the upper is the side straps for Altra’s four-point gaiter. 
They have almost no give, and as a result threading the gaiter through them is very finicky, and ultimately best to be put on while the shoe is off the foot. Not a deal breaker by any means, just a slight annoyance.
Don: For the handful of shoes in this category I’ve run in, it seems the hardest thing to get right is the upper. Maybe that’s just in my head, but it seems like the higher the stack height for me, the less I like the upper. Well, all those complains change in the Olympus 3.5. The upper mesh is lightweight and breathable enough to keep my feet cool, even when walking slowly on a hot day in the exposed sun. It’s also put together in such a way that my foot feels secure in all the right places, without rubbing in any of the places I’d worry about. Well done here Altra, this upper feels like a major win the maximal category has been needing!

Jeff: The midsole is where this shoe shines. As the biggest/most cushioned trail shoe in Altra’s repertoire, you’ll never confuse this with an ultralight race shoe, but it doesn’t run nearly as heavy as it looks. Initially I volunteered to test the Olympus 3.5 because I’ve logged quite a few miles in the Hoka One One Stinson 5, Hoka’s highest stack trail shoe, and I figured they would be a direct comparison. But while the Stinson is a steady cruiser, the Olympus is much more fun to run in than it has any right to be. The midsole is thick enough to dull ground feel, but as a result it mutes any jagged rocks you may land on. There’s no rockplate, but none is needed, and the result is a smooth running trail cruiser that is fantastic on dirt singletrack or even relatively rocky terrain.
Don: With a 33mm stack height, this is where the Olympus 3.5 is going to make its living. I have struggled in the past with some larger stack height shoes with them either being way too soft, or way to firm… but consider this shoe the Goldilocks of the maximal world; I found the midsole density to be just right for my foot, and I enjoyed running on it way more than I anticipated. It was soft enough to clod along as the slowest of post-race recovery paces, and equally capable of pushing the pace a bit without getting bogged down with all that cushion. Although there is no rockplate, I’d never run a large stack height shoe on a very technical trail anyway so I don’t consider that a negative at all. 

Jeff: The outsole is unique for a trail shoe, in that it legitimately only covers the first 30% of the shoe in rubber, and then wraps around the perimeter until it gets to the last 20% or so where the rubber takes over again. Looking at Don’s picture above, all of the orange is all Vibram rubber, and five black pods that replicate toes are rubber as well. If you look closely at the midfoot (where the Vibram logo is) and rear of the shoe, the slightly darker black color is rubber outsole instead of exposed midsole compound. The resulting exposed midsole gets worn down pretty quickly, but it is soft enough of a compound that it wasn’t providing much traction from the get-go. This design, paired with the nice, but not clamped down upper makes this shoe a non-starter for technical trails, but on tame stuff there’s plenty of grip. My neighborhood singletrack has a steep wash that you have to run down then back up, and I’ve experienced zero slippage on my runs in the Olympus in that section. So I don’t fault them for removing the center rubber, as tame trails don’t need it, and it helps the shoe stay as light and flexible as possible. The Vibram Megagrip compound they used lives up to the hype, and is very durable.
Don: The outsole design of the Olympus 3.5 makes it painfully obvious what this shoe was designed for smooth, groomed trail terrain. As Jeff mentioned above, outsolerubber only covers part of the midsole, with the rest being exposed. I didn’t find this to be a problem at all on the terrain I test it over, but again, you need to accept what this shoe was made for when considering that exposed area and don’t go climbing super technical trails with it. I will give the midsole an overall positive grade, and keep it on smooth stuff to increase the life of the shoe. 

Jeff: The Olympus 3.5 is the right level of soft and bouncy for a big run trail shoe for me. There’s zero mushy feelings at any speed, and the shoe is super smooth. Above I made the initial comparison to the Stinson 5 in construction alone, but after logging miles in them it runs closer to the Hoka One One Evo Mafate 2 - and I can’t give a better compliment. If you’ve written off the Olympus as a big lumbering shoe for a big lumbering runner (I’ve been called worse), then you may want to give it a shot. I’ve run the Olympus on some fairly rocky single track as well as smooth rolling dirt trails, and I would say it’s amazing on rolling dirt hills and completely adequate for more technical running. There are a number of other shoes I’d recommend purely for tech trails, but if you are looking at an ultra-length race that’s only got small elements of tricky stuff, the Olympus would be the shoe.

Don: This is where I was left very impressed. Everything about this shoe comes together in perfect harmony to produce a joyous ride that honestly I wasn’t expecting. I had fun running in this shoe , and honestly that’s what it’s all about. This summer I’ve been pushing the pace and throwing down the hammer whenever possible, but the Olympus 3.5 reminded me how special it can be to slow down and and literally enjoy the ride.

Conclusions and Recommendations
Jeff: One of the bigger surprises of the year, the Olympus 3.5 is one of the more fun to run trail shoes I’ve tested. The upper holds the foot well without creating heat issues, the midsole gives plenty of protection from poorly placed rocks (or poorly placed footstrikes), the outsole has plenty of grip without turning the shoe into a stiff brick, and the ride is the right level of smooth and bouncy. My first 50K is a few weeks away, and I’m fairly certain this shoe will be on my feet as I toe the starting line. Don’t let its overbuilt looks fool you, this shoe is not a bulldozer - more like the breed of hyper sport utility vehicles like a Lamborghini Urus, which is .3 seconds faster 0-62
(zany Europeans and their obsession with 100KMH vs 60MPH) than the Bentley Bentayga - just sayin’ :P. For me the important thing is that it’s a fun ride, at any speed.
Jeff’s Score 9.7 out of 10
Ride (50%): 9.5 Fit (30%): 10 Value (15%): 10 Style (5%): 8

Don: This is an incredible shoe. There’s something I never thought I’d say about a big stack, super plush, maximal shoe! Funny thing, like Jeff, I was also thinking about car analogies with this shoe. But (sorry Jeff) mine is much better. ;) 

Did you know that Bentley makes an SUV?  Well they do. It’s big, heavy, super plush… and still goes fast as hell. Bentley is known for making some of the most luxurious cars on the planet. Their SUV (it’s called the Bentayga if you’re playing along at home) will get you where you need to go as comfortably and as quickly as you need to get there… just like the Olympus 3.5. 

If you’ve ever wanted to drive a Bentley but (like the rest of us) can’t afford one… you can get a taste for what it’s like by running the in the Olympus 3.5! 
Don’s Score 9.8/10
Ride (40%): 10, Fit (40%): 9.75, Value (10%) 9.5, Style (10%): 9.5

Index to all RTR reviews: HERE

Hoka One One Stinson ATR 5 
Jeff: Olympus is true-to-size 10.5, Stinson is a half-size up 11. Pitting the two biggest bruisers against each other seemed like a no-brainer, but the Olympus runs circles around the Stinson. Not only does it have a better fitting and breathable upper, the slightly thinner midsole runs so much better. The Stinson approaches a mushy feeling, while the Olympus doesn’t get close. Both shoes have a similar rubber perimeter and exposed midsole, but the Olympus has much more traction. Definitely take the Olympus unless you have very narrow feet.

Hoka One One Evo Mafate 2 (RTR Review)
Jeff: Both shoes run true-to-size 10.5. One of my favorite trail shoes, the Evo Mafate 2 improved the upper from the EM1 giving it a much improved toe box and more comfortable upper - but the toe box and upper are seriously lacking compared to the Olympus. The Olympus is several ounces heavier, but out on the trail they feel very similar. Ultimately, both are great shoes. If you have wider feet, take the Olympus. If you need lots of traction, take the Evo Mafate 2.

Hoka One One Challenger ATR 5 (RTR Review)
Jeff: Both shoes run true-to-size 10.5, but Challenger is a 2E. My shoe of the year for last year, the Challenger is a decently cushioned Hoka with a normal sized toe box and that’s a great thing. But, compared to the Olympus, it feels spartan in nature. It doesn’t have nearly the cushioning or traction of the Olympus, and it isn’t nearly as fun to run in. The Challenger is a better road/trail hybrid, but the Olympus is a much better shoe.

Nike Zoom Wildhorse 5 (RTR Review)
Jeff: Both shoes run true-to-size 10.5. Another superb trail cruiser, the Wildhorse 5 has a slightly lower stack and full-fledged rock plate to protect the foot as opposed to the Olympus design with lots of midsole foam. Ultimately the Wildhorse feels a little more planted, while the Olympus is more comfortable and more lively to run in. While the Wildhorse isn’t my first choice for technical trails, it fares much better in hairy conditions than the Olympus. Outside of that, I’d go Olympus across the boards, slightly better fit, and much more fun to run.

Topo Athletic UltraVenture (RTR Review)
Jeff: Both shoes run true-to-size 10.5. The two brands that focus on big toe boxes and low/zero stacks, the UltraVenture is Topo’s most cushioned shoe opposite the Olympus. Fit is outstanding on both shoes giving lots of room up front and solid lockdown everywhere else. The Olympus has much more cushioning and as a result mutes any rock feel, while the UltraVenture isn’t as protective. However, the UltraVenture’s outsole is much more substantial in both grip and coverage. Both shoes are great, but I prefer the Olympus and it’s more protective and bouncy ride.

Don: I haven’t really run much in maximal shoes to make direct comparisons, but I’ll make a blanket statement - the Olympus 3.5 is the best “BIG” trail running shoe I’ve ever worn. 

Read reviewers' full run bios here
The product reviewed was provided at no cost. The opinions herein are the authors'.
Comments and Questions Welcome Below!
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Dutch said...

Hello Jeff-ive been eyeing this Olympus for a while the use would be longer 25+efforts in preps for first 50mile. For the actual race though I was thinking of Challenger 5. Would this be best in a wide? For reference my current lineup: Caldera 3(too narrow) Revel 3(underrated & stretches) 1400v6(D width good for HM)Fuel cell rebel D width-very good width-thought it ran short but after 10miles was good)
*Also did you try the Challenger's in a D width?

jean jacques said...

the size of my hoka mafate speed 2 is 10 , what size to take for the altra olympuys 3.5 ? thanks .