HOKA shoes have been extremely popular amongst ultra runners for the last few years and recently they have started to make in-roads into the triathlon market, being the 3rd most popular shoe at Kona in 2015. As a result, other shoe manufacturers have brought out there own 'over-cushioned' shoes, in an attempt to follow the growing trend.
It's interesting that during the 'minimalist shoe' trend, HOKA were able to grow rapidly despite being completely the opposite with their 'maximal cushioning' approach. The minimalist shoe trend seems to be dead and buried now, with very few shoe manufacturers producing minimalist shoes and a few having faced court cases for their unsupported claims. In fact, many manufacturers have completed a 'U turn' and started to follow HOKA, bringing out new ranges of shoes with higher volumes of cushioning than previous.
So what's it all about?
The most basic principle is to provide a huge amount of cushioning, thereby reducing impact when your foot strikes the ground. Wearing shoes which have 'maximal cushioning' can help to reduce muscle damage from running long miles on hard surfaces and also when descending steep hills. They generally have 2-3 times the cushioning compared to a standard 'high-mileage' road shoe.
So who's it for?
If you struggle to build up long mileage without causing damage, injury and soreness then they give you a real helping hand. In simple terms, the reduced 'pounding' means you can run for longer and feel less sore the next day. For those who have injury problems, such as knees and hips, they can also help greatly with this. Many people who suffer long standing injuries have been able to successfully continue their running careers thanks to over-cushioned shoes.
Is there a down-side?
As with everything, there is a downside. They're probably not best suited for lighter and faster runners (sub 40's 10k). Due to the higher level of cushioning they are less responsive. In simple terms, running on a huge mattress would feel very soft and comfortable, but as you push off, you lose energy due to the 'give' in the mattress, so running quickly can be difficult. The speed loss isn't significant, perhaps 10-30 seconds over 10k, but for faster runners, that's significant.
The other thing to consider is that a positive, can turn into a negative. Running in soft shoes feels fantastic but after 6 months, your legs may become accustomed to running in soft shoes, so switching back may be a short term shock. Imagine you ran all the time on soft grass which feels wonderful and then after 6 months of 'grass only' you switched back to concrete, you can imagine that you'd need time to adapt!
Based on the above, we recommend that you use them for longer runs but continue to use normal shoes for anything up to an hour. This will allow you to maintain a normal level of conditioning and really feel the benefit when you use over-cushioned shoes on longer runs! If you choose to use them because an injury is stopping you running, then you probably don't have the luxury of this and need to use them all the time (but at least you're still running!!).
One of the key features of over-cushioned shoes is the 'rocker-system'. It sounds like yet another pointless marketing term which makes no difference to the shoe, but for once, it's actually very useful. You'll recall that a few years ago, forefoot running was key. The reason for this was due to the fact that heel striking has a braking effect. This is most noticeable running downhill when tired, the inevitable heel strike creates an awful 'slap... slap... slap...' and you feel every stride as it shocks through your body.
A rocker system reduces the braking effect by altering the rear of the shoe, so that heel striking still promotes a natural rolling effect onto the forefoot. There is soft cushioning initially, to reduces the braking upn impact and the midsole is designed to roll from heel to forefoot. This is most noticeable running downhill, where you appear to fly, with no braking effect and minimal impact.
In conclusion, if you struggle to build up those marathon miles and you suffer from impact injuries, then over-cushioned shoes are something you should consider. The Endurance Store is the HOKA specialist for the North West, give us a call on 01257 251217 if you'd like to know more!