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June 12, 2012

Altra Samson Shoe Review

Among the multitude of minimalist and natural running shoe manufacturers out there, nearly all of them seem to be staking out one particular segment of the market.  Some are throwbacks to old-world designs, others try to be as minimal as possible, and others seek to be an all-purpose transitional shoe for newcomers to the natural running Renaissance.

And then there’s Altra, which is doing something altogether different: they’re producing very solid entries in every segment across the board.

Last year the company released the Instinct and Intuition, 9-oz men’s and women’s models that feature a somewhat stiff zero-drop midsole platform and a total stack height of 21mm off the ground.  They quickly followed that with the Adam and Eve, pure minimalist models that remind many (including me) of Vibram’s groundbreaking KSO: they are lightweight (4.7 oz), low to the ground (4mm), and completely flexible.

Altra Samson

With this year’s Samson (and women’s equivalent Delilah – don’t you love how Altra’s model names are male and female counterparts?), Altra now occupies a middle ground between their two previous releases.  The vital specs – 6.5-oz weight, 10mm stack height, moderate protection and flexibility - are all comfortably situated between the Adam/Eve and the Instinct/Intuition.  The Samson also features all of the compelling design aspects that Altra has made standard with its entire line of footwear, and it’s proven to be a very comfortable and durable shoe for me over about 100 miles of testing.

The Samson also addresses one criticism that many users has with the Adam, in that the upper uses a traditional lace design instead of the slip-on / pull-on upper that some users found difficult to use.   

Although I didn’t have a problem with the Adam’s fit, it’s clear that a lace system represents a large improvement both in terms of ease of putting on and customization of fit.

The remainder of the upper is a quick-dry mesh that ventilates the foot very effectively, but also does a decent job of keeping grit away from your toes.  As I do with virtually all my shoes, I did the majority of my Samson testing off-road; after a long run, my toes are a little dustier than usual, but not so much that it bothers me during the run itself.

Inside the shoe, Altra provides the option of using a 3mm insole (which results in the 10mm standing height), or ...

... removing the insole and riding directly on the BareSole footbed that feels comfortable against bare skin and creates a resulting stack height of 7mm.

Below the footbed, the Samson has 3.5mm of EVA for a very moderate degree of cushioning, which makes this a nice option for a couple of potential users: 1) those who are almost ready to go all-in with completely minimal footwear but aren’t quite there yet, or 2) pure minimalist users who want a slight margin of error when pushing the envelope of high mileage runs.  You obviously sacrifice a little bit of ground feel compared to the Adam, but it’s a very subtle difference, especially if you run without the Samson insole.

Even with the midsole EVA, and even with the insole in place, the Samson is still very nicely flexible in all directions.  Also ...

... like all Altra shoes, it also allows plenty of room in the toebox for your toes, so there’s nothing about the overall structure that will interfere with your foot’s natural motion while it’s contacting the ground.

That ground contact will be made with the same siped outsole that Altra uses for the Adam.  It is remarkably similar to Vibram’s old KSO in terms of appearance, durability, traction, and overall performance.  It’s more than grippy enough for road running, and does remarkably well on most trails aside from loose gravel or very steep climbs and descents.

With the Samson, Altra presents a very solid natural running option in that elusive middle ground between pure minimalist entries such as Vibram, VivoBarefoot and Soft Star, and more structured zero-drop shoes like Merrell’s Barefoot line or New Balance's Minimus Road shoe.  Obviously, it’s also a comfortable medium for Altra’s own existing models – so if either side of the existing spectrum is too much for you, the Samson or Delilah might be just the shoe you’re looking for.

Altra’s Samson retails for $100 with free shipping from Amazon.com, and the Delilah is available for the same price.

*Product provided by Altra.  Affiliate sales support Running and Rambling.
**If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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Stan 6/13/12, 5:40 AM  

terrific review as usual Donald. i feel the same way about these shoes...really good pair with or without the insole and just the right amount of thickness and cushioning for me.

how did you find the sizing? i'm a regular size 10 (9.75 really) but i found these fit a tiny bit too small for a 10.

Donald 6/13/12, 9:09 PM  

@Stan: sizing is true for me, but I'm probably on the small side of 11.

The BIG E 6/14/12, 7:06 PM  

LOVE these shoes. I found going up a 1/2 size was helpful. My go to shoes. Nice review. I have found traditional lacing to work best for me. Soft star Runamoc and Moc 3 though good, do not seem to hold my foot like these. I probably owe Dash a try. These also look cool for every day use. Thus I feel like I'm bare and protected all the time.

Dominic Acito 6/18/12, 6:33 AM  

Great review Donald. I am a big time runner who is trying to decide between this shoe and a normal asics shoe. My last pair were asics and they were pretty solid. I am not sure if I am ready to go for a minimalist shoe yet though. Anyways, great information in this post!

Eric 7/19/12, 9:17 AM  

How would you compare these to Merrell's Bare Access? I'm looking for a zero drop shoe with a bit of cushion for some longer runs.

Donald 7/22/12, 8:54 PM  

@Eric: I haven't used the Bare Access, so I don't have a point of comparison. I believe the Merrells have more cushioning than the Samson, though.

Jay Fast 8/22/12, 10:09 AM  

After reading this review, I purchased a pair. I'm glad I did! Currently it's my favorite all-around shoe and minimalist running shoe. I've worn Bikila VFF's, the Osma Feelmax, New Balance Minimus Trail, and Merrell's Pace Glove. While I still have several of these shoes in my rotation, I predominately now wear the Altra Samson. I love the wide toe box, and especially the durability of the shoe. I've found them to be the most durable of all the other options. The Altra Samson is noticeably heavier than the Bikila and NB Minimus Trail, but I think I will be able to put at least twice as many miles on it. The Feelmax Osma in my experience is right behind the Samson in durability. The Osma is also lighter than the Samson with a much thinner sole (a little too thin for me on long runs and on trails). I've appreciated all of these shoes for different reasons, but if I could only pick one it would be the Samson.

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