Hoka One One – marketing hype or running shoe revolution?
Ever since Hoka One One was launched a few years ago it has divided runners opinions – depending on who you speak to its either a revolutionary shoe or a fad that will disappear with time.
Since they were launched right at the height of the minimalist shoe trend they stood out amongst the zero drop minimal cushioning alternatives and if you weren’t singing Hokas praises then you were probably firmly in the side against them.
Hoka lovers claim the shoe allows them to fly downhill and run further without muscle soreness.
The detractors claim the massive cushion will decrease the proprioreceptive feedback your feet give your brain, making you a less efficient runner. They will increase ground contact time which will slow you down and the height of the shoe would increase instability making them a poor choice for trails.
Fast forward a few years later and the biggest trend in running shoes for 2014 is for light weight maximally cushioned shoes – very similar to the Hokas.
So why the swing towards maximalist cushioned shoes?
Are Hokas actually onto something?
Rather than giving you another shoe review I wanted to look at the Hokas from a more scientific viewpoint and see if there is any evidence or good reasoning for the claims for and against Hokas.
Before I go any further I’ll let you know I am a fan of Hokas, I’ve worn the Bondi B’s , Stinson Evo and have recently been testing the Stinson Evo Tarmac. I was initially very sceptical of Hokas but decided I needed to try them before criticising them and I haven’t run in anything since. The Hokas in the photos (Stinson Evo Tarmac) have done over 1000ks in them, approx 60% of that on road, 40% on trails. The discussion below applies to both the Bondi B’s and Stinson Evo (which I prefer) and may not apply to other models.
1. Hokas reduce leg fatigue
I have noticed the same as many Hoka wearers – my quads just dont get as sore as they used to no matter how hard I trash them.
This actually makes sense when you understand a bit about what happens when we run on different surfaces.
The brain moderates the tension of the leg muscles so that no matter what surface you are running on the impact loading rates for the legs are more or less constant. The brain does this by increasing the stiffness of your legs before landing on soft surfaces and decreasing the stiffness when landing on hard surfaces.
Think how much your knees bend when jumping and landing on concrete vs a trampoline.
When landing on a hard surface the greater range of movement of the knee means the leg muscles have to work eccentrically to control that range. Landing on a softer surface means the muscles work more isometrically to stiffen the leg before landing.
What does this have to do with sore quads and Hokas?
Eccentric muscular action of does far more damage to the muscles than isometric muscular action.
Compare running downhill to running uphill – far more damage is done to the legs running downhill due to the eccentric load on the muscles.
Hokas reduce the eccentric load on the quads.
Now I know of no specific study done on Hokas to confirm this but a study on “Increasing Running Step Rate Reduces Patellofemoral Joint Forces*” showed that showed that the more knee flexion during the stance phase of running the greater patellofemoral force. So if you reduce knee flexion during stance phase you reduce the loading force on the knee.
So whilst that doesnt exactly prove what I am arguing it shows that if knee flexion is reduced loading on the knee is reduced we know that running on softer surfaces reduces knee flexion.
2. Hokas reduce feel for the road or trail and therefore reduce running efficiency
WIth a 30mm slab of foam under your foot you are definitely not going to feel the road as much as wearing less cushioned shoes. The question is does that matter?
The minimalist argument against Hokas is that the feet give a wide range of information to the brain about what is going on when we run and from this the brain can select the optimum muscle recruitment pattern to perform the task at hand – in this case running. On the road the task at hand is pretty simple as every step is the same but on the trail every step is different. So do Hokas reduce the information going from foot to brain and if so does that reduce performance?
There has been no research looking at the difference in running economy between running in a minimalist shoe or Hokas whilst running on trail (the technology doesnt exist for this to happen at the moment) so these are my thoughts.
The proprioreceptors in the foot sense a wide range of information including the rate of change of joint angle, muscle length and muscle tension. When running in heavily cushioned shoes like Hokas the proprioreceptors will still sense movement. If your foot hits a rock and starts to roll, then the proprioreceptors will still sense the change in muscle tension, length and joint angle and can still act on that information.
Ok you wont be able to feel every rock or tree root underneath your foot but is that such a bad thing?
The brain also anticipates what is going to happen based on previous experience. So for example if the running surface changes from bitumen to sand the brain will anticipate what it needs to do before your foot even hits the ground.
Any reduction in proprioreception information from the feet by wearing heavily cushioned shoes may not impact running efficiency much at all.
3. Hokas are unstable on trails
Running on technical trails requires good foot placement and a stable shoe that wont tip you over upon hitting the smallest rock. The higher the heel is relative to the forefoot (heel drop) the more unstable you are when you walk or run. A low drop heel is always better from a stability point of view for running on trails. Hokas have 4-5mm drop so is on the low end of spectrum compared to a traditional running shoe of 10-13mm.
What many people think is that running in Hokas is like running on stilts and whilst I admit it does take 1 or 2 runs to get used to the extra 10-15mm under your feet it is a very easy adaptation.
Stability is also dependant on the width of the shoe – the higher the shoe the wider it needs to be to compensate for the height. Hokas have increased the width of the bottom of the shoe to compensate for the extra height . I havent noticed any decrease in stability running in Hokas compared to a normal shoe.
My only reservation with the wide shoe is occasionally a narrow shoe would be more suitable for some sections of trails. This is a small trade off for me as the wider base is better suited to other sections.
4. Hokas are a heavy shoe
Despite the size of the shoe Hokas are a mid weight shoe. The are light for their size but not light compared to a more minimal shoe.
Studies have shown that the energy cost in wearing a heavier shoe (compared to barefoot) can be offset by the affect of cushioning. For example Tung et al reported that
” it appears that the positive effects of shoe cushioning counteracted the negative effects of added mass, resulting in a metabolic cost for shod running approximately equal to that of unshod running.” **
However the authors also said that there was considerable individual variation.
Does the greater cushioning of a hoka compensate for the heavier weight compared to a light weight minimal shoe? We dont know.
For me the longer I run the more cushioning I prefer so I’ll accept a slightly heavier shoe ( compared to a very minimalist shoe) when running ultras.
5. The extra cushioning reduces the elastic recoil available to your tendons
One argument against maximally cushioned shoes is that it is harder to take advantage of the elastic energy available to the tendons and ligaments of the foot and ankle upon landing. This energy can be used to propel the body forward and reduce the overall energy cost in running.
For this energy to be absorbed the tendons and ligaments must be under tension which cant happen until the muscles attached to those tendons are under tension.
There is only a short time frame available for this energy to be absorbed and then returned to the leg. Spend too long on the ground and the energy will dissipate away.
The argument against maximally cushioned shoes is that the time taken to compress the shoe upon landing means a reduction in time to utilise the elastic energy.
But when you land on a soft surface the muscles are stiffer, already tense.
So in a normal shoe, there is less time needed to compress the shoe but more time needed for the muscles to stiffen (due to the greater range of movement) and in the Hokas there is more time needed to compress the shoe but the the muscles have a greater degree of stiffness so can transfer the energy to the tendons quicker.
The question is does this transfer happen quick enough in Hokas? We dont know but given that many runners make very minimal use of this elastic recoil anyway it may not matter either way. But for faster runners over shorter distances this may be an issue.
At what distance does the increased time needed to compress the shoe outweigh the benefits of increased muscular stiffness?
This will depend on the runner and I would guess it would be around 5-10k for the average runner and up to half marathon to marathon for elite runners. Any longer than that and I believe there would be no loss of running efficiency. (I’ll happily change my mind if I read any evidence suggesting otherwise)
Hoka also have a rockered profile in place to try and direct the flow of energy forward. Think of jumping on a trampoline – you just go up and down – obviously not effective for running. The rocker system helps roll the foot forward onto the midfoot to transfer energy in a forwards direction.
6. You can run faster downhill with Hokas
I think this may depend on your downhill running technique. If you are an overstriding heel striker then that extra cushioning is going to be extremely forgiving on downhills. The rockered profile may transfer you onto your mid foot quicker to allow you to get off the ground again more rapidly than if wearing normal shoes. If you are a mid/fore foot downhill runner then it may not make much of a difference. But it depends on the slope.
On some slopes it may be faster to over stride and let the legs go rather than have a more controlled, higher cadence. This is where you can notice a difference, the Hokas allow you to let go of the legs without fear of the damage that every footfall is doing to your quads for later on in the race.
7. They are slower uphill
Hoka detractors claim they are slower running uphill. The Stinson Evo and Bondi B’s have very little flex in the toe which on steep hills may be a problem for some. It would depend on your big toe and ankle flexibility and speed. For steep hills if you prefer to really run on your toes you may find the lack of flexibility in the forefoot a problem but for the majority of runners and particularly ultrarunners who walk or slowly run uphill this is likely to be of no consequence.
But its probably not the shoe to run a vertical kilometre in!
8. Hoka are the opposite of a minimalist shoe
I disagree with this statement but it depends on how you define a minimalist shoe. If having a low heel drop and no arch or pronation support is to be considered a minimal shoe then the Hoka is a minimal shoe.
If you define it as being a shoe that is extremely flexible and can move with your foot then they definitely aren’t.
9. They allow you to get away with poor running technique
Does the big cushion encourage or allow your form to go sloppy without you noticing it?
To a certain extent I think this is true – you can crash your heel into the ground and the cushioning will absorb the shock. So if you are looking for a shoe that will allow you to feel when your form suffers then Hokas may not be a good choice.
But the 4-5mm heel drop and rockered profile encourage a faster transition from landing to push off so may improve technique. This helps offset the lack of feel.
If you are a massive overstrider then any shoe with cushioning will help soften your ride unless you are going very minimal.
Improving your running technique is not a simple as just switching to a more barefoot type shoe. I have seen plenty of barefoot runners with poor form. Conscious awareness of technique is necessary.
- Reduction of fatigue in the quads due to less knee flexion
- The extra cushioning certainly protects your feet from the hammering they may take in a long run or race.
- They are extremely durable – my shoes have done over 1000km and still feel fine with no marked signs of wear.
- It is easier to run faster downhill and with less stress on the legs.
- Great for running long distances
- Encourages more effective transition from landing to push off through the use of the rocker
- For faster runners who already make good use of elastic recoil in their lower leg tendons Hokas may not be as effective over shorter distances where you may be able take more advantage of this.
- Some runners will find the larger shoe both in height and width reduces their ability to run technical trail. I dont find this on anything except very rocky sections where having more narrow feet would help place your foot between the rocks.
- They may be less effective running fast uphill depending on the slope and speed
- No pronation control (although that may or may not be a good thing depending on the foot)
- May allow you to get away with prominent heel striking
I am not affiliated with Hoka in any way – I paid for all three pairs of my Hokas although the most recent pair ( Stinson Evo Tarmac) I purchased at a discounted price and was asked if I would write a review of them.
*Increasing Running Step Rate Reduces Patellofemoral Joint Forces
LenhartR, Thelen D, Wille C, Chumanov E, Heiderscheit B
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: 2 August 2013
**A Test of the Metabolic Cost of Cushioning Hypothesis during Unshod and Shod Running
Tung, Kryztopher D.; Franz, Jason R.; Kram, Rodger
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: 25 July 2013