A Zero-Drop Super Shoe? Meet Altra’s Vanish Carbon.
The brand took its time entering the super-shoe race, but its new, responsive model for marathoners was worth the wait
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More than two years after nearly every other brand entered the super-shoe fray, Altra has arrived on the scene with its unique entry into the modern marathon-racing genre. After ten runs in the Vanish Carbon, my initial assessment is that this light, peppy, comfortable, well-balanced, and smooth-riding shoe was worth the wait.
First, some background. The super-shoe craze started in 2016, when Nike launched the Vaporfly 4%. By 2020, Adidas, ASICS, Brooks, Craft, Hoka, New Balance, Saucony, and Skechers had all followed suit, launching their own models with lightweight, ultra-bouncy foam and curved, rigid plates. These components combine to provide superior cushioning with minimal energy loss, producing a lively ride that improves a runner’s economy in ways not yet fully understood. In other words, they let you run faster with less effort.
What took Altra so long to ante up? The brand needed to create a product that not only incorporated super-shoe components and delivered their benefits but also maintained the brand’s particular design ethos. Altra famously got its start in 2011 when cofounder Golden Harper began deconstructing shoes to make them level from heel to toe. Since its inception, Altra has built each of its shoes with a zero-drop platform and a foot-shaped toe box, which the brand says supports a balanced posture, allows a runner’s foot to move naturally, and optimizes energy transmission and propulsion between foot-strike and toe-off.
The Vanish Carbon maintains those design priorities while facilitating the high energy return, soft-flowing ride, and long-haul comfort expected from a super shoe. Most notably, it features a decidedly lower heel height than many of its contemporaries. The Vanish Carbon’s sole measures 33 millimeters high from heel to forefoot, while the Nike Vaporfly Next% 2, for reference, has a heel that’s 40 millimeters thick and drops to a 32 millimeter forefoot height.
Another key to the natural ride of the Vanish Carbon is a unique carbon-fiber plate, designed by Carbitex. This light, curved plate extends roughly two-thirds the length of the foot, from the arch through the toes. Unlike solid, rigid plates in most super shoes, the plate is W-shaped; two longitudinal flex grooves let toes move semi-independently. The plate also bends, but only upward, allowing for a natural flexing motion of the forefoot as the stride rolls onto the toes, while maintaining its stiffness in the downward direction for a powerful push-off.
The plate is embedded in an ultralight, soft, and bouncy midsole, created with a similar nitrogen-infusing process as used by Brooks, Puma, and Skechers, employing Altra’s new proprietary foam compound. An airy, unstructured, engineered-mesh upper, sans heel counter, helps keep the shoe as light as possible, as does a thin outsole made of durable EVA foam.
Over two weeks, I took the Vanish Carbon out on ten wear-test runs that ranged from easy days to tempo runs, including a 12-mile outing and a mile repeat workout on the track. Overall, the shoe felt lower to the ground, less bouncy, and faster rolling than other contemporary super shoes. The midsole foam is soft and highly responsive but not mushy. The rocker begins early, just beyond the midfoot, instead of the dramatic upward curve in the forefoot found on many racers.
I found that the rocker shape and responsive ride propelled my foot forward and promoted an efficient, quick-cadence gait pattern—a contrast to the late, stride-lengthening roll and bouncy trampoline sensation of other super-shoe models. More significantly, the roomy toe box and flexibility of the plate allowed my toes to splay and move naturally, creating a smooth, compact, stable, and snappy ride.
While the specs say the shoe technically maintains Altra’s zero-drop platform, the functional heel-toe offset of the shoe feels larger. My forefoot dropped a bit as my weight shifted forward and compressed the soft foam, and continued to drop as I rolled quickly down the early rocker. This doesn’t seem to alter the Vanish Carbon’s balance and should make the shoe more accessible for those not used to Altra’s low heel.
How fast and effective is the Vanish Carbon over the long haul? Texas ultrarunner Zach Bitter won the U.S. 100-mile road-running championships in a prototype last year in 12:52:13 (averaging 7:43 per mile), while Colorado’s Frank Lara wore a pair when he ran his debut marathon on January 16 in Houston in 2:11:32—the fastest time by an American in 2022 up until Boston.
The Vanish Carbon dropped on April 14. Later this spring, Altra will release the non-plated Vanish-T ($190), a performance training shoe, built with the same foam and similar geometry, intended for up-tempo workouts.
Altra cofounder Brian Beckstead believes they’ve created a uniquely functional super shoe. “We’ve incorporated a lot of those technologies in our own way and come up with a shoe that is authentically Altra, and I think that’s pretty awesome,” he says. “It’s better to do it right than be first.”
Who will most appreciate the Vanish Carbon? Any runner who wants foot-shaped comfort in a super shoe that encourages a smooth, natural, high-cadence gait pattern, without excessive bounce or marshmallowy-soft cushioning.
Weight: 6.2 ounces (women’s) / 7.3 ounces (men’s)
Stack Height: 33 millimeters (heel and forefoot)