Healthy Choices

Maximalist running shoes on the front line of marathon training in Sacramento

The Hoka running shoe, with 2.5 times more midsole volume than standard running shoes, is constructed to support a runner’s form. An increase in midsole cushioning is supposed to provide shock absorption and a firm ride to the runner.
The Hoka running shoe, with 2.5 times more midsole volume than standard running shoes, is constructed to support a runner’s form. An increase in midsole cushioning is supposed to provide shock absorption and a firm ride to the runner.

Just a few years ago, runners were shedding shoes with padding, convinced that so called “minimalist” models would allow their feet to move more naturally and so would prevent all-too-common running injuries. Some people dumped the shoes altogether and ran barefoot on pavement.

Now, as thousands of Sacramento area runners gear up for the California International Marathon in early December, the padding is back. And it’s thicker than ever.

The hot trend now is the opposite of minimalism – shoes pumped up with additional cushioning that is meant to provide stability and absorb shock. On the frontier of that movement is a brand called Hoka One One, a line of “maximalist” road and trail shoes with more than twice the midsole material of a standard model. They look a bit clownish, but feel like walking on clouds, some wearers say. The name, pronounced “Hok-uh Oh-nay Oh-nay,” means “time to fly” in Maori.

At Fleet Feet’s midtown Sacramento location, owner Pat Sweeney said the trend has shifted away from minimalism because “people realized they actually like cushioning.” Sweeney has been recommending the Hoka to runners and non-runners alike and is selling about 85 pairs a month. Sales have about doubled since the shoe was stocked two years ago, he said.

“Initially it was with the trail community, and very quickly it started to move to the road-running community,” Sweeney said. “It’s allowing people who are older or whose knees are not doing what they used to do, or who have issues walking, to be able to run more.”

The softer style is catching on with the running community nationally, said Andy Annunziata, vice president of retail industry watcher SportsOneSource. The sporting news and information firm says sales of minimalist shoes at running specialty stores have decreased by 25 percent so far this calendar year, while sales of amply cushioned models have increased by nearly 19 percent.

Cushioned shoe sales have been buoyed by Hoka’s “meteoric growth,” Annunziata said. Its success has spurred the creation of other maximally cushioned shoes including the New Balance Fresh Foam, the Brooks Transcend, the Altra Olympus and the soon-to-arrive Vasque Ultra SST.

“The running shoe community is a very fickle community, and if there’s a new technology or a new type of shoe out there, they all gravitate to it for a while,” he said.

A similar sentiment drove the “minimalist” movement of recent years, which Annunziata said is mostly over from a running perspective. That trend, spurred by the top-selling 2009 book “Born to Run,” caused millions to flock to Vibram FiveFingers and other “barefoot” shoes in the hopes of preventing injury. In 2012, minimalist category revenue peaked at $400 million, according to SportsOneSource but has dropped nearly steeply since.

“It’s a unique and interesting phenomenon that’s happening,” said Brian Metzler, editor-in-chief of Competitor Magazine who regularly tests new shoes. “Previously we had the minimalist revolution of shoes being closer to the ground ... this is kind of the antithesis of that with more cushioning and being higher off the ground.”

This May, Vibram FiveFingers settled a class-action lawsuit that alleged it made false and unsubstantiated claims about the health benefits of its product, leading runners to question whether proximity to the ground is actually beneficial when it comes to preventing injury.

With stack heights as tall as 35 millimeters, Hokas contain more than twice as much ethylene-vinyl acetate, a polymer with stress and impact resistant qualities, as a standard pair of running shoes. The elastic material is in the midsole – the area between the sole of the shoe and the upper foot casing.

The result is a responsive and stable shoe that keeps runners going for longer with less pain, said Dr. Kevin Kirby, Sacramento podiatrist with a specialty in biomechanics.

Kirby, a former UC Davis runner and 21/2 hour CIM finisher, said the Hokas are “fairly radical” in their ability to secure the foot with extra cushion and rocker technology. Previously, softer shoes allowed the foot to pronate and supinate, or roll inward and outward from the subtalar joint below the ankle, increasing risk of injury. Shoes with a hard, flat midsole kept the foot in place, but did little to countershock the impact of hitting the ground, he said.

Thanks to more advanced material technology, a pair of Hokas weighs in at 6 to 12 ounces – not much more than a standard training shoe. The midsole is made of a light material compound called RMAT, a blend of actual and synthetic rubber. Less weight increases metabolic efficiency because runners don’t burn as much oxygen while moving, he added.

Kirby recommends cushioned shoes primarily to runners over 160 pounds because the shock-absorbing cushions help prevent metatarsal stress fractures, knee and ankle injuries and tendinitis when they hit the ground with two to three times their body weight.

The shoes, which are relatively even with a 4- to 6-millimeter heel drop, are big with ultra runners and were seen on about one-third of participants at the recent Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, the podiatrist said.

“A lot of it is just keeping the muscles fresh as long as you can,” he said. “(Ultra-runners) think the legs are fresher, and that’s part of finishing the race.”

Runners participating in the CIM on Dec. 7 will take an average of 160 to 180 steps per minute for anywhere between two and six hours as they complete the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon qualifier, said Charlie Brenneman, coach for the Sacramento Running Association’s training team.

He has a few Hoka-wearers in his twice-weekly running group, which is in prime conditioning mode leading up to the marathon. The route, which is all on roads with a net downhill of about 300 feet, will take them and approximately 7,000 other runners from the Folsom Dam to the state Capitol.

While he’s not ready to recommend maximalist shoes for everyone, Brenneman said he understands why some would gravitate toward cushion for a multi-hour stretch.

“Everything starts to hurt after a while – your quads, the pounding of feet, the repetitive motion,” he said. “It starts to add up. If you’ve got more shoe, it can help that sense of comfort a bit.”

Kirby, who first critiqued minimalism in a 2010 Runner’s World article and has since been dubbed “The Angry Podiatrist” by the barefoot running community, said the lack of support in minimalist shoes caused a lot of injury to people who were not used to striking the ground with the forefoot, not to mention lacerations and infections to those who went bare.

“Maybe if we grew up in Africa running barefoot, we’d be doing that,” he said. “But most of us grew up with shoes on. We have man-made surfaces all around us. Having a shoe with more cushion makes sense.”

Scott Carson, a midtown Sacramento resident who is wearing Hokas to train for the CIM, said his foot and back problems have almost disappeared since he started wearing the shoes a few months ago.

“Last weekend I moved a hundred pounds of crushed granite, ran a half-marathon, moved more granite, and it never hurt,” he said. “I like Hokas cause they make my feet feel indestructible.”

The company itself isn’t claiming anything when it comes to health benefits, just that it has created a shoe that no one has been able to replicate, said Jim Van Dine, Hoka One One president, in an email.

“We will continue to develop running shoes of all dimensions for all types of runners,” he said. “I expect our rapid growth to continue strongly for several years to come.”

Whether Hokas are a true innovation or just another fad, Metzler said it’s more important for runners to tailor their shoe choice to their running style.

“It’s not the only answer,” he said. “People need to realize that on one level running is very simple and all you need is T-shirt and shoes and you can run. But the next layer is you should differentiate your shoes so you’re not always using the same gait pattern and leg muscles.”

Jonathan Ide-Don, physical therapist at the Sutter Health Running Clinic in San Francisco, said shoes play only a small role when it comes to running injuries, and that different shoes will be right for different types of runners.

“There are lots of other factors that play into injuries – oftentimes it’s related to how strong your muscles are, how well your tendons are able to absorb force, and how you move in general,” he said. “Oftentimes those factors are bigger than the choice of running shoe.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.