Heavily cushioned, thick-soled running shoes are the latest trend

The craze for minimalist running shoes has run its race and now those with heavily padded soles are all the rage. But are they any better for you, asks Rachel Jacqueline

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 10:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 10:01am

There was a time not so long ago when less was more in the running shoe world. Shoes were stripped down to bare bones, touting thin rubber and feather-light features that were said to promote a more natural running style and help reduce injuries.

Toes wiggled in five-fingered glove-like shoes - or even nothing at all - as the craze in minimalism and barefoot running raged.

These days, the pendulum has swung the other way: more is more. The latest shoe trend is "maximalism". Cushioning is now oversized, boasting about 25mm of rubber between the foot and the ground.

It was obvious that shoes had not evolved to answer the needs of moving fast downhill on uneven surfaces, unlike fat skis or mountain bikes
Jean-luc diard, hoka founder

The extra plushness is said to provide more support and comfort than traditional running shoes. Fans of these super-thick soled shoes find running in them is more relaxing and they are more comfortable for those with nagging injuries. They also say their recovery times are faster after long runs or races, and they are injured less often - however, these claims are not backed by independent scientific research.

Hoka One One, a running shoe brand founded by two French adventure athletes, is credited with starting the maximalist trend when its first thick-soled shoe, the Mafate, went on sale in July 2010.

Since then, other brands have followed suit, including mainstream brands such as Brooks and New Balance, and lesser known ones such as Vasque and Altra.

The rising popularity of maximalist shoes come at a time when the credibility of minimalist shoes has taken a hit.

In May, Vibram, the maker of FiveFingers barefoot running shoes that started the minimalist trend, agreed to a US$3.75 million class-action settlement over misleading claims that the shoes could strengthen muscles and reduce injury.

Vibram continues to deny wrongdoing, but, as part of the settlement, has also agreed to remove the claims.

On its website, Hoka One One hasn't made any such claims. It only says that the extra cushioning provides "excellent shock absorption and an inherently stable ride", and that its curved midsole (termed "Meta-Rocker") "supports a runners form, and encourages a continuous positive gait speed roll from heel-strike to toe-off".

These benefits have appealed to trail and ultra runners. "I love Hokas and I think the benefits are huge over long distances and when running back-to-back days," says Matt Moroz, 38, an events manager who runs up to 120 kilometres a week in training for a 24-hour running race later this year. "The legs feel nowhere near as beaten up, post run."

Another Hong Kong ultra runner, Eric LaHaie, reluctantly tried the shoes two years ago.

"At first I thought they looked crazy," he says, "but I had a nagging injury, and figured the Hokas might help, which they did. I came to like them more and more." LaHaie liked them so much, he is now a distributor for the shoe in Hong Kong.

Andy Dubois, a personal trainer and ultra marathon coach in Australia, says that different types of shoes change the muscle recruitment patterns slightly when we run. He says extra cushioning can be useful over longer distances.

"In ultras, many people report less muscle soreness in the quads. One possible reason for this is because the knee doesn't bend as much, the quadriceps have less eccentric load on them, and therefore less muscle damage."

When first launched four years ago, the Mafate was dubbed a "moon boot" by critics. But it's not all about a bit of extra rubber, says Hoka founder Jean-Luc Diard.

"The number one feature of the Hoka shoe is the fluid 'rolling motion'," he says, referring to the so-called "Meta-Rocker".

The initial idea came from Nicolas Mermoud, an ultra runner in France who wanted a shoe that would enable him to go downhill faster. He brought the idea to Diard.

"It was obvious that shoes had not evolved to answer the needs of moving fast downhill on uneven surfaces, unlike fat skis or mountain bikes," says Diard, who previously worked for outdoor sports equipment company Salomon.

"It also clicked there might be a way to get closer to the efficiency of the wheel versus the fairly brutal 'stop and go' motion of running."

Diard also wanted to tackle the rising problem of injuries among runners as they covered longer distances. Last year Hoka was bought out by Deckers Outdoor Corporation, the parent company of footwear brands such as UGG and Teva.

But not everyone is enthused by the trend. "I have very flat feet and unstable ankles. My ankles kept rolling in and out [in the Hokas] and the slight forefoot tilt was uncomfortable for a beginner like myself," says Agnes Cheng, 39, an ultra runner.

While maximalist shoes boast more cushioning, the "heel drop" - the difference in height in cushioning between heel and toe - mimics that of many minimalist shoes. That is, between zero and eight millimetres, which is less than most traditional running shoes.

"In a sense, these shoes are taking attributes from minimal and traditional shoes and combining them in new ways," says Peter Larson, author and biologist on his blog, Runblogger.

Altra, for example, has released the Olympus, a bulked-up version of its popular zero drop minimalist shoe. The idea behind the shoe, explains co-founder Brian Beckstead, is giving customers options on the level of comfort in their run.

"Altra is all about the natural positioning, meaning our shoes put your feet in the most natural position. Once you are in that position, you can choose the level of cushion you prefer. In the Olympus, you find this in our 'max' category," he says.

Experts warn, however, that extra cushioning may not be panacea for your running woes.

"There is no magic bullet," cautions osteopath and trail runner David Higgenbottom. "Hokas are more comfortable on the feet and calves, which equals running faster on rocky trail, especially downhill.

"But what about higher up the kinetic chain - your knees, hips and lower back? From a mechanical point of view nothing comes for free."

It is fine if you're injury-free, says Higgenbottom, but if you have any weaknesses higher up the kinetic chain, the extra cushioning may cause some problems.

Are maximalist shoes for you? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. The best advice is to ditch the categories, get shoe savvy and try them.


Altra Olympus


Type: trail

Heel height: 36mm

Forefoot height: 36mm

Heel drop: 0mm

Weight: 284 grams

Verdict: although the toe of the shoe seems to just drop away, I soon found the shoe had me running comfortably on my forefoot, true to its "minimalist" roots.

Brooks Transcend


Type: road

Heel height: 30mm

Forefoot height: 22mm

Heel drop: 8mm

Weight: 335 grams

Verdict: very comfortable, but don't have the same "bounce" effect as the Hokas. The soles are slightly wider underfoot, which can make the shoe a little clunky, but for long runs they are perfect: lightweight with extra cushioning.

Hoka Rapanui Trail


Type: trail

Heel height: 33mm

Forefoot height: 28mm

Heel drop: 5mm

Weight: 303 grams

Verdict: great cushioning system with the signature Hoka feel and a snug fit, but I felt my feet sat a little high and forward, which made me feel a little unstable. Otherwise, very lightweight and comfortable with good grip on the trails.

New Balance Fresh Foam 980


Type: road

Heel height: 25mm

Forefoot height: 21mm

Heel drop: 4mm

Weight: 256 grams

Verdict: the soles feel really squishy, but didn't seem to give my feet enough support while running; your feet just seem to sink into them, rather than having extra bounce. It's the cheapest of the lot, though.

Hoka Stinson Tarmac


Type: road

Heel height: 37mm

Forefoot height: 30mm

Heel drop: 7mm

Weight: 332 grams (all stated weights based on men's US size nine shoe)

Verdict: I flew in these shoes. Used on road, trail and track, they performed beyond expectation. Comfortable, stable and responsive, though grip in the rain is not great.

Vasque Shapeshifter

HK$1,320, not available in Hong Kong

Rating: not tested

Type: trail

Heel height: 28mm

Forefoot height: 22mm

Heel drop: 6mm

Weight: 298 grams

Verdict: not tested