The Altra Olympus 4 is an absolute beast of a shoe. It reminds me of a tank...bench pressing another tank. As a max cushioned trail running shoe, that makes sense, but it doesn't make it any less shocking when you first see it.
When I took my first run in the Olympus 4's I was equally shocked at how it didn't feel like the massive, bulky shoe that it is.
If you haven't read my initial thoughts on this shoe, you can check that out here. If you don't feel like it, just keep reading this one, I'll cover all the important stuff!
First, let's take a look at the specs...
Weight: 11.6 oz (329 grams)
Midsole: Compression Molded EVA
Outsole: Vibram MegaGrip
Stack Height: 33mm
Heel to Toe offset: 0mm
Before diving into the good stuff, let's quickly address a very important topic that I don't think gets enough attention in the running community.
Minimalist and maximalist shoes are often talked about in the road running world, but rarely talked about in the trail running world...why is that?
Well, this may be a good topic for another article, but let me give you a brief explanation.
Pavement is extremely hard, so the amount of cushion you have under your foot is a big deal. Some people like having less cushion, some like having more. Minimalist shoes (those with very little cushion) have different benefits and drawbacks than maximalist shoes (those with a lot of cushion). There is no perfect shoe, it all depends on what you like and how you run in your shoes.
When you are trail running, you're running on much softer terrain including grass, dirt, and gravel. These surfaces are much more forgiving so the amount of cushion you have under your feet is less important.
Running on the trails with a maximalist shoe had one glaring drawback that kept most people away from them for a long time...stability. Yes, this is a drawback for road runners as well but it's not nearly as concerning when you're running on a smooth road or sidewalk as opposed to a rocky, rooty, uneven trail.
As the stack height of your shoe gets higher you lose stability. Think about it like this...are you more stable in high heels or bare feet? Are you more likely to roll your ankle in platform shoes or bare feet?
Of course, you are much more stable with bare feet because there is less material between your feet and the ground. Due to the nature of trail running, people saw a huge drawback, but not much of a benefit to maximalist shoes because the terrain is already fairly soft.
That is why we have seen a black hole in the max cushioned trail running shoe market for so long.
So, what changed?
Well, a few things. First, maximalist shoes have surged in the past 10-15 years. Brands like Hoka One One have absolutely exploded in popularity. Seeing success with maximalist cushioned road shoes encouraged brands to expand the idea into trail shoes as well.
Second, ultramarathons have also become much more popular in the past decade. With races reaching 100+ miles in distance it was obvious that a more cushioned shoe would be kinder to your feet over the long haul, even if it meant sacrificing some stability.
While there are more brands who have started making a more cushioned trail shoe, the options are still pretty sparse.
So why did I choose a maximalist cushioned trail shoe?
No, I'm not an ultra-runner (maybe some day...?) and I'm not even a huge advocate for maximalist shoes in general but I have one little problem that helped persuade me...It's called plantar fasciitis.
For those who don't know, plantar fasciitis is basically just pain in the bottom of the foot caused by inflammation and micro-tears in the plantar fascia which runs along the bottom of your foot.
For me, the pain in my foot was always much worse the morning after a run. Less cushioned shoes always made it slightly worse, and more cushioned shoes made it slightly better.
While a max cushioned shoe is not a solution to the problem, it certainly helps with the pain. I have several pairs of maximalist road running shoes, but since I've been focused on running trails to reduce overuse injuries I decided to try out some maximalist trail running shoes...so here we are!
With the history lesson out of the way, let's get to the good stuff.
What I love
Obviously, the biggest selling point for this shoe was the cushion, and it didn't disappoint.
Yes, I know it looks like a Star Destroyer strapped to your feet, but they definitely don't ride like it.
To me, the cushion has a nice bounce to it and it's not nearly as sluggish as I thought it would be. When running on gravel or well maintained trails the midsole just soaks up all of the little bumps along the way. Coming from a traditional trail running shoe it was so nice not having to tip toe around the sharp stuff.
I expected this shoe to feel great on more mellow stuff but I didn't expect it to perform so well on more aggressive trails as well. I'll talk more about some of the other features later but, as for the midsole, it has been an absolute shock how good it feels through more tricky and technical sections like rock gardens, roots, and skree fields.
There have been several scenarios in which I've taken a bad step and braced myself for impact on a sharp rock, bulbous root, or sapling stump only to be pleasantly surprised at how much the cushion absorbs, leaving my feet a lot happier!
The additional stack height means you'll have to lift your leg a little higher when stepping over obstacles. This can be a little tricky if you're constantly rotating between minimalist and maximalist shoes.
The other nice thing about the cushion on the Olympus 4 is that it wraps around the heel of the shoe along with the rand. Remember, Altra shoes have a 0mm drop, so the amount of cushion in the heel is the same as the amount of cushion under your toes...so why does it look like there is so much more cushion in the heel of the shoe? Well, Altra built the cushioning up and around the heel of the shoe to protect you from all the pointy stuff you're likely to encounter on the trails. It's a good idea, and it works.
The Olympus 4 rocks a Vibram Megagrip outsole and the traction is just absolutely bombproof. I have 140+ miles on these shoes and I've been so stoked about how they've been performing. I've been able to test these shoes on some of the most challenging terrain I could imagine; wet granite, wet roots, and wet leaves are part of every trail run I take after September! These shoes have been incredibly impressive.
This past week we got our first nor'easter of the season which brought rain, freezing rain and snow. I decided to take my first snowy trail run in the Olympus 4 to see how they performed and, once again, I was amazed at how well they kept me off my butt.
The rubber on the outsole is just incredibly sticky. I remember thinking "this rubber is so soft, there is no way it's going to last" but after 140 miles the rubber is still sticky and shows very little sign of any wear (except for one specific spot, but we'll get to the later).
Have you ever heard a car with winter tires driving on dry pavement? You know the sound it makes? That's exactly how the Olympus 4 sounds when you're running on pavement!
The only time that I've noticed some slipping is when I was running in very muddy conditions. This shoe doesn't have especially large lugs so while it excels in most situations, it leaves something to be desired when you're getting into more soupy stuff like thick mud or clay. That's not the type of terrain that I run in very frequently so it hasn't been a big deal for me but this shoe probably won't be your best option if you encounter a lot of mud or clay on your trails, or if you're looking for a shoe for Spartan races or Tough Mudders.
I'm glad to see that the Vibram Megagrip outsole is being used on so many trail running shoes, it really has earned it's popularity.
The upper of the Olympus 4 isn't going to win any prizes for innovation or ingenuity, it is a fairly standard engineered upper. I would say it's not super breathable, not super lightweight. However, it is super durable and is strong enough to keep your feet protected where is matters the most.
The toe has a nice rand to protect your toes from sticks, stumps and rocks. The back half of the shoe is fairly rigid to keep your heel locked in so you're not sliding around when cornering. There is also plenty of padding along the back and sides of the shoe to keep your heel and achilles safe and secure.
Although lightly padded near the top, the tongue is fairly thin and I can experience a bit of lace bite if I cinch my laces too tight, but once I get the tightness dialed in that goes away.
The lacing system is simple but effective. It allows you get your midfoot and heel really locked in while still allowing your forefoot to feel free and loose. This "footshape toe box" is one of Altra's claim to fame. Allowing your toes some room to spread out not only provides a more comfortable shoe but it also allows for more stability and strength in your feet. A few of the Altra's have gotten a little too narrow and the community has voiced their concerns, so it's good to see that Altra is listening and making adjustments.
After 140 miles in the Olympus the upper still looks like new and I'm expecting it to outlast the midsole!
The independent suspension
If you think about a car it makes sense that each wheel has its own suspension system. If you run over a pothole on one side, the suspension allows your wheel to independently move down in the pothole and back up while the other 3 wheels maintain traction on the road.
This is the same concept that Altra has brought to the Olympus 4. You can see the small valley running down the middle of the outsole until you get to the forefoot, that creates two sides of the shoe. When you step on a big rock on one side, the shoe does its best to absorb the impact only on that side while the other side is able to maintain traction.
When you get to the forefoot you have 5 areas of independent suspension, one for each toe.
The idea of independent suspension is important for 2 reasons!
It allows you to maintain better grip. Think about it this way, if the bottom of your shoe was made of wood and you stepped on a penny that would be enough to keep your entire shoe off the ground which means you have no traction. This is why shoes have soft soles. With a softer foam sole your shoe will flex and bend around the penny to allow other parts of the shoe to reach the ground, giving you some amount of traction.
Based on these same principles, the independent suspension makes it harder for you to roll your ankle which is critical for a max cushioned trail shoe. If you step on a rock on the left side of your shoe your foot will roll to the right, but with the independent suspension the shoe will do a better job of allowing only the left side to absorb the impact while the right side remains more upright and stable.
Ok, enough of the tech talk, does it actually work? Well, It's hard for me to say. I have never really rolled my ankle in this shoe, but I've come close several times. I've definitely turned my ankle but luckily I've been able to bring it back without severely twisting or spraining my ankle.
Now, this isn't to say the independent suspension idea doesn't work, I mean, it can only do so much! Maybe without this particular system I would've rolled my ankle a dozen more times...I just don't know.
I do know that the shoe feels amazing to run in, I feel like I always have amazing grip, and I really can feel the foam forming to the terrain underfoot, so I'm chalking this one up as a win!
What I don't love
The exposed foam
As you can see from the picture above, there is an area right in the middle of the foot that is just exposed foam, no rubber outsole. That means it provides less traction, wears much faster, and provides much less protection from all that sharp stuff.
Yes, I know that many shoes do this to save some weight but with this shoe is just doesn't make any sense. First of all, this shoe is a monster, so saving an ounce isn't really going to make much of a difference. Second of all, even with the amount of foam between your foot and the ground this provides a perfect area to get a sharp rock or sapling stump in the midfoot that will send shivers up your spine! No...just no.
You can also see how much faster this section of the shoe is wearing compared to the other, better protected areas. It's not going to cause you to retire your shoes early or anything, but it just seems like such a simple problem that could've been avoided. I dunno, maybe I'm missing something here...?
$170?!???!??!!??!?!??!?! Sweet baby Jesus of Nazareth what am I looking at!?!?
Yes, I know. I know. I said I KNOW! The price tag on this shoe is absurd. It really is. And I, like all of the rest of you, am sick of having to sell blood plasma to afford a new pair of shoes.
I was so stoked about this shoe and wanted to get it early so I could review it for all of you still on the fence, so I bit the bullet and paid $170 for running shoes.
I can't believe I just said that.
Anyways, there's not much else to say about this except, yeah, it's a really expensive running shoe...
The stack height
Ok, this one comes with a very large grain of salt. I actually love the stack height of this shoe, but it comes with a price. This is not a knock on this shoe but ,rather, all maximalist trail running shoes.
As we discussed above as you add more foam underfoot you also take away the stability that we so desperately need when running on tricky, uncertain terrain. By adding more material between us and the ground we are effectively diminishing our "ground feel" making us more prone to slip, trip, or roll an ankle.
Altra actually makes a good effort to mitigate the risk of rolling by adding some width to the heel of the shoe. I think this will make a noticeable difference for heel strikers.
This added cushion can also teach us bad lessons about trail running like it's ok to lazily slap your feet down a technical decent, or you don't need to worry about the sharp stuff, or you don't have to think about how hard your knees are getting blasted.
The pain that we feel in our feet is feedback. It's telling us, "you're landing too hard", "you're running too fast", "your body is too heavy!". This kind of feedback really shouldn't be ignored. Just because you're not feeling the pain in your feet anymore doesn't mean that the rest of your body is unaffected. That's why I think we need to be careful as we go down this road of bulking up our trail running shoes.
Yes, I love these shoes and yes, I will continue to run in them. If you choose to do the same please make sure you're rotating in less cushioned shoes and paying close attention to how the rest of your body is reacting to your maximalist trail shoes.
Overall, I think this is a stellar trail running shoe. It's got the cushion, the grip and the comfort that make this a shoe I can wear all day. I use it for trail running but I also use it for solo hikes when I'm looking to move a little bit faster. I initially thought I would just use these shoes for longer runs, but now they are my default for anything off road.
So yeah, I would absolutely recommend this shoe to anyone who walks or runs the trails and has an extra $170 just laying around!