I am extremely happy to bring you a question and answer session from Golden Harper, the founder of Altra shoes. Altra has grown in popularity since they were founded in 2009. Golden who has over 30 years in the running specialty industry wanted to design shoes what had a wide toe box that allows more room for your feet to spread out. Altra also provides a zero heel drop in their shoes, claiming that it puts your body in a more natural posture. They have an extensive line of shoes from minimal cushioning in their Instinct 1.5 to their max cushion shoes, the Paradigm. Altra believes in educating their customers on running with proper form and includes a booklet with each pair of shoes on how to run with proper form. Altra is one of my personal favorites.
Q: When did you start running?
A: I am told by everyone that I literally ran before I walked. My parents read some study that the longer a child crawled, the more intelligent they would be, so they always pushed me down whenever I stood up and didn’t let me walk. Apparently one day they set me outside of the car near a kids play area and I saw the kids playing and took off running towards them.
Q: What is was your favorite race and why?
A: Probably the Moab’s Alpine to Slickrock 50 (MAS 50). It has 30+ miles of singletrack, and hangs between 9,000 and 11,500 feet for the middle 25 miles of the race. When I started, the temperature was around 45 degrees at 4500 feet. It snowed and hailed on at one of the 11,500 foot passes. I nearly got struck by lightning with 15 miles to go and then dealt with nearly 100 degree temperatures the last few miles. You start in the desert, climb up through alpine zones, pine trees, etc. and finish on the world famous red slickrock. The views range from rocky mountains down to views that overlook Canyonlands National park and the red desert. It’s about as much variation as one can expect in a 50 mile race.
Q: What is the funniest thing that has happened to you (or that you have seen) at a race?
A: I don’t know, probably when I ran an out and back trail race this year and turfed it in nearly the exact same spot on the way out and the way back. There was enough blood that the aid station volunteers were yelling at me to stop, but I was in the lead so that wasn’t going to happen.
Also, when I was running the St. George Marathon at age 12, I was running with the female leaders, who were all Olympic Trials Qualifiers…some of them were super mad that a sawed off runt was running with them and cussed me out good….scared me enough to make me speed up!
Q: What inspired you to start Altra?
A: My research in college, combined with high speed video results at the running store I was managing made it clear that the elevated heel in virtually all running shoes caused people to run with higher impact and inefficient form than they otherwise would in flat spikes or no shoes. Additionally, we had 10 years of incredible success getting rid of our customers foot problems at the store by making them buy their shoes “too big” and not using the bottom laces so their feet would spread out and learn to relax. In one year, we sold nearly 1000 pairs of shoes that were modified to be weight balanced and have the same level of cushion from front to back. We called this “Zero Drop” in the cushioning from the heel to the forefoot. Additionally, we expanded the toe box and skipped the bottom laces to get the feet to relax. Most of the sales were from one injured runner to another as the shoes made a difference in their form and foot function and helped reduce their injuries.
We pitched it to the major shoe companies and they rejected it, saying all the marketing was in the heel and foot shaped shoes would never sell. At the end of the day, I just wanted to have something to sell to people at the store that we actually believed in. I didn’t want to start a shoe company, but nobody else wanted to run with the idea.
Q: Did you ever expect Altra would grow as big as it has?
A: Absolutely. I actually thought we would be even bigger by now, but I didn’t realize how difficult the operational and logistical things would be.
Q: Where do you see Altra going in the future (short term & long term)?
A: We’ll go wherever we need to go to make the best, most injury preventative shoes possible and get them out to as many athletes as possible.
Q: What advancements/changes do you see happening in running, as a sport?
A: 1) The researchers and medical community are starting to put an emphasis on killing the myth that pronation causes injuries or that pronation shoes “help” pronation. This will hopefully change the way everyone builds, categorizes, and sells shoes for the better. The research shows that “overpronators” are actually less injured than other runners. Additionally, it shows that only 13% of people benefit from wearing a “stability” shoe, yet stability shoes make up about 50% of running shoe sales.
2) With a decreased emphasis on pronation, which has been proven to not really make a difference, I’m hoping we’ll see a shift to running fundamentals and technique, which can quickly make a difference.
3) I hope people will start to understand the science about cushioning. Cushioning works at the point of impact but has actually been shown to magnify forces higher up the kinetic chain. The moral of the story is if you have foot and lower leg issues, a more cushioned shoe may be a good answer for you, but if your joints give you trouble, then you should look at a shoe that helps you improve your running form. Scientifically, a cushioned shoe is the WRONG answer for people with joint problems. It’s like boxing gloves…they protect a boxers hands (the point of impact), but many still retire with shoulder injuries (the cushioning didn’t help higher up the kinetic chain).
Q: What is your biggest inspiration when you run?
A: I don’t know, I just like being out there. I love being up on a mountain and seeing incredible views, and I also love the feeling of moving very quick and seeing what my body is capable of doing.
Q: Do you listen to music when you run? If so, what type and what is your favorite song right now?
A: I don’t really listen to music too much because I mostly trail run and listening to music while running in the mountains is sacrilege ;) When I run on the road, it’s to race or for speed work, so once again, no music. But I have done it, for example at the last 10k of the MAS 50 and I did get in to major groove listening to a live version of Bullet the Blue Sky, as I mostly listen to rock and alternative. Ran a 37 minute final 10k so I guess it may have helped, who knows.
Favorite song right now is Song for Someone, off the new U2 album.
Q: What is the one piece of advice you would give to a newer runner?
A: Take a running technique class, and become a student of the sport. What you put into your brain may be almost as important as how much you actually run.
Q: What are you training for right now?
A: Life. I’ve also got a few shorter trail races on the docket.
Q: What is the next goal you want to reach?
A: I would love for Altra to unseat one of the historical “big 7” shoe companies at run specialty stores. This will mean that a lot of people are running better and healthier, which is what this is all about. We’ve already passed all but 2 of them for trail shoes, but breaking in nationwide and on the road is the next hurdle. We have a lot of work to do on the east coast, as we are more popular on the west coast right now.
Q: Do you have kids? If so, how has that influenced/changed your running?
A: No kids yet. I just got married less than 2 years ago, but probably soon ;)
Q: How has running a large company changed the way your train? How do you find time to fit everything in?
A: Running changed for me in a big way right before Altra hit the market. I had a massive ski accident that left me unable to run for quite a while and I was unable to compete until this last year. Combine that with often working 80 hours a week those first few years, and it’s been a long road back. I now travel about every other week and often work from morning until late at night on the road as I usually do an evening presentation every night so it’s hard to get quality workouts in. I end up running about 3 days a week, but when I get out I make it count. I try to get in a v02max, Lactate Threshold, and a longer run in each week and I use heart rate so I can do those workouts on trails whenever possible. I really believe it’s more about quality than quantity. I think we would have a lot more healthy, efficient runners if more people focused on the 5k instead of the longer distances. The 5k and 10k are becoming a lost art. We tend to glamorize running far, but running fast is cooler and a lot healthier for your body at the end of the day.
Q: What general advice would you tell people who are dealing with running injuries?
A: First, understand that most running injuries are actually from muscle imbalances caused by running on consistent, man-made surfaces. This is why track workouts and treadmills, while soft, create more running injuries than the road, which creates more injuries than the trail. So get off road. Find grass, dirt, gravel, bark chips, etc. Connect city parks to school fields to soccer fields, etc. on a run. Go to the woods or the mountains. If you can get 33% of your runs off road and on the most uneven terrain possible, you can balance and strengthen your stabilizers and muscle structure to get rid of injuries.
Second, focus on your technique and fundamentals. Focus less on your shoes unless it is to get shoes that help you have better technique. Don’t let your arms swing forward past your hips unless you are sprinting. Run proud, run tall and don’t bend at the waist. Land under a bent knee. Forget about foot strike and keep quick steps regardless of your pace, shooting for at least 170 steps a minute (shoot for 29-30 steps on one leg in 20 seconds).
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I had a blast working with Golden on this Q&A and this is one of the coolest things that has happened since I started my blog. The difference Altra, and ultimately Golden Harper, has made in my running is immense. They take pride in not selling you shoes, but educating their customers on correcting running form and technique. I wish some of the larger running companies would do more education rather than advertisement. I hope you enjoy the post. As always, your comments and questions are appreciated. If there is someone you would like me to interview, please let me know and I will see if I can make it happen.