The category of high cushion or “maximalist” running shoes appears ready to explode. With some of the new shoes already at stores and more arriving every week, here are some thoughts about the category, the trend and what it all might mean for you.
1. What is maximalism?
Frenchmen Nicolas Mermoud and Jean-Luc Diard, both longtime mountain runners and former Salomon footwear guys, started Hoka One One four years ago based on the concept of oversized design constructs utilized in powder skis, full suspension mountain bikes, oversized tennis rackets and, lately, fat bikes for mountain biking in the snow. In each of those applications, it’s all about having a larger “sweet spot” that aids in performance. Same with “maximal” or “high cushion” running shoes, but it’s only partly about the copious amounts of cushioning underfoot. It also has to do with dynamic midsole foams and, in most cases, modern profiles and shapes. “It’s definitely not just about the stack heights,” says Jason Hill, an inside sales manager for Hoka.
2. Is maximalism the next great thing? Or is it a quirky trend like minimalism? Or worse yet, a short-lived gimmick?
That depends on whether you’re an optimist, a cynic or a hopeless romantic. Word to the wise: maximalist shoes are not for everyone, just as minimalist shoes were not for everyone. And just as with any running shoe, you need to find a shoe that fits your foot and works with your gait and the type of running you’ll be doing. Maximalism is just another option out there. Some runners will love ‘em, some runners won’t. No need to throw stones if it’s not your shoe of choice. (I only mention that because this is the question that will evoke the most spirited social media responses.)
3. Are maximalist shoes only for ultrarunners?
It is true that maximalist shoes have, so far, been more prevalent at ultrarunning races than anywhere else. In fact, a conservative estimate at some of the country’s biggest ultra races last year would have shown that 40 to 60 percent of the runners were wearing Hokas. Why? Because that extra cushion is appreciated during long hours of pounding. But that principle also applies to running long distances on the roads, which is why more and more marathoners, half marathoners and long-distance triathletes can also be seen wearing Hokas. (Some of the elite American marathoners training in Boulder, Colo., do their long runs and recovery runs in Hokas.) Sage Canaday, a 2:16 marathoner, recently placed second in the Carlsbad Marathon in 2:22:14 wearing a new, lightweight pair of Hoka Huakas. Although he’s not training for marathons at the moment, he did manage to split a 4:54 mile late in the race.
4. Are there any scientific studies tied to running in maximalist types of shoes?
Nope. It doesn’t appear there have been any independent laboratory studies to date. Several shoe manufacturers have conducted their own research within the scope of product development (and engaged some leading biomechanics experts), but those tests, not surprisingly, typically support the shoe company’s marketing pitch. There have been plenty who have offered informed opinions on each side.
5. Are maximalist shoes the opposite of minimalist shoes?
Yes and no. Certainly the high-off-the-ground concept is the antithesis of what the low-to-the-ground sensation of what barely-there minimalist shoes are all about. However, maximalist shoes weren’t designed with a “more-is-more” design motif. Actually, many maximalist shoes have taken a lot from modern minimalist designs—using materials that are as light as possible, avoiding excess materials and incorporating low to moderate heel-toe offsets (anywhere from 0 to 8mm).
6. How many companies are producing maximalist shoe models?
That depends on what the definition of maximalism is. Just like minimalism, the parameters are a bit arbitrary. But, generally speaking, several brands have at least one model—Hoka One One, Brooks, Skechers, Puma, Pearl Izumi, Vasque, New Balance and Altra. When it comes to new foams, the Adidas Boost foam (which debuted last spring) has some next-generation qualities, even though it has been used in a wide range of shoes from the Adizero Adios Boost racing flats to the maximalist-esque Boost 2 trainer shoes. Pearl Izumi’s Road M2 and Scott’s eRide AeroFoam Trainer 2 also feature high cushioning profiles with new foam configurations, though neither are as thick as some of their contemporaries. And you could make an argument that Nike’s Lunar Eclipse 4 is maximal in nature because of its chunky midsole and it’s dynamic stabilising platform.
7. Aren’t maximalist shoes unstable or tippy because your feet are so high off the ground?
Some can be, but surprisingly most are not. The biggest reason is because of the wide body profile of the shoes. Most maximalist shoes are 20 to 30 percent wider than traditional everyday trainers, and that additional ground contact creates greater stability. Also, companies have tinkered with a variety of foam durometers, i.e., the firmness of the midsole cushion. For example, some of the original Hoka shoes (circa 2011) had super-squishy midsoles and a lack of sidewall support, which could cause them to easily tip on unstable or uneven footing.
8. Don’t maximalist shoes lessen the proprioceptive interaction between your foot and the ground? And does that make you less efficient as a runner?
Yes, maximalist shoes definitely take away the “feel” for the ground. But some runners say that’s an OK trade-off for having so much cushion. As for the question about efficiency, that’s a good question. It certainly seems logical that it could take away from efficiency, although the relatively light weight seems to offset some of the potential drag of a shoe with such enormous girth. However, for ultrarunners, sacrificing a bit of efficiency can be an acceptable tradeoff for long-wearing comfort and potentially less muscle fatigue after 30, 50 or 80 miles of running. As an personal trial of one, last year I ran a series of six 400-meter repeats on a track in as close to 80 seconds as possible with 3 minutes rest after each, but I alternated each loop between Hoka Bondi Speed shoes and Nike Free 3.0 shoes. What did I find? The differentiation in my heart rate at the end of each 400 was inconclusive—it climbed gradually from the first to the last as I became slightly more fatigued, but it wasn’t dramatically higher or lower wearing either pair of shoes. (And yes, I know that’s not a very scientific test.)
9. Are all maximalist shoes the same or similar?
No, not at all. In fact, every model we’ve tested for the spring is slightly to completely different. Some are very soft and marshmallowy, some are springy and resilient and others are much more firm. Some are fairly light, some are fairly heavy. Some are completely neutral, some offer a significant amount of stability.
10. What’s the best way to find the right maximalist shoe for you?
If you’re interested in trying maximalist shoes, the best thing to do is go to a specialty running store and try a few on and see how they feel. Every shoe in the high cushioning category will feel different than your typical training shoes. As with any shoe, you need to consider several factors—fit, feel, ride, price and how that particular shoe fits into your quiver of shoes. (Hint: Just as with any other shoe, you shouldn’t wear a maximalist shoe for every run or every day of the week.)
11. What do some people love maximalist shoes while others do not?
So far, those that swear by Hokas seem to all suggest that the extra cushion feels great, but it’s the reduction in leg fatigue over longer distances and shorter recovery time that are most appreciated. There’s also the notion that the high level of foam helps slow the rate of pronation in a less harsh way than a firm media post. Those that don’t like them typically say they’re too heavy or too awkward or too expensive. There are plenty of good blogs about maximalism, including this one at Minimalist Running Shoes and this one from Australian ultrarunner and fitness writer Andy DuBois.
12. Are there any track runners training in Hokas?
Yes. Former Villanova middle-distance runner Nicole Schappert, a 27-year-old post collegiate runner who has found success on the track as a post-collegiate runner, has recently started running in Hokas. She ran near-world-class times in the 800m (2:02) and 1,500m (4:06) in 2012, but was sidelined with injuries much of last year until she started doing some of her training in Hokas. The current models of maximalist shoes aren’t built for high-end track speed, but there are lighter and sleeker models on the way as soon as this summer. The brand also recently signed 26-year-old former UConn runner Mike Rutt, who on Feb. 8 helped his New Jersey/New York Track Club surpass the previous world record in the 4×800-meter relay while finishing second to a team that set the new world record. And, rumor has it, that Hoka is developing prototypes of racing flats and track spikes.