Most runners have been taught that “softness” and “cushioning” are positive characteristics when looking to buy a new pair of running shoes. Each year, running companies spend millions of dollars, euros, and yen in an attempt to create shoes that have a comfortable “step-in” feel when customers first put them on their feet. When customers describe a certain model of shoe as making them feel like they have “pillows on their feet”, a shoe company knows that it probably has made a very popular shoe.
Was it always this way? Let’s travel back in time several decades.
In a land not so far away, Mizuno used thin and inexpensive insoles in the manufacture of their running shoes, so as to maximize the connection between the runner’s foot and the ground. This policy made good sense for runners who wanted responsiveness and less loss of energy. During the same time, in the same land, other companies had begun to use cushioned insoles and customers were reacting quite positively. They often exclaimed that they felt as if they were “walking on clouds”, and in fact one company even named some of their shoes after some of these well-known airy entities.
One day a Mizuno footwear sales rep visited my running shoe store in St.Louis. He was showing the new models to us and he tearfully revealed a company secret. With a trembling voice he told us that Mizuno was finally giving in to peer pressure and would now also use extra-cushioned insoles in all their more popular models. Their reasoning was simple and based purely on economic reality. Although they truly believed that Mizuno shoes were actually better than those of other brands, they also knew that the first experience a potential customer has with a new pair of shoes is critically important in determining which shoe will eventually be purchased. Mizuno had been losing customers because their insoles made their shoes feel firmer than those of other brands. By providing customers with a more “comfortable” initial feel, Mizuno would be able to recapture lost market share. They made the change and their market share increased.
Although Mizuno’s strategy worked, soft shoes are not especially good for running. It could even be argued that overly cushioned shoes have allowed millions of runners to develop poor form, because the information necessary to notice biomechanical errors that can lead to common injuries are not interpreted correctly by sensory receptors in the feet and throughout the body.
Yet, the main goal of shoe manufacturers should be to develop and sell shoes that encourage health and reduce the chance of injuries, but these aren’t the goals for most companies. For every pair of Vivo Barefoot, Merrell Barefoot, Altra, Skora or VFF shoes that are sold, probably one thousand “comfortable” shoes by the big brands make their way onto the feet of runners.
But as the evidence supporting, er, non-supportive shoes with less cushioning rapidly accumulates, forcing even most mainstream companies to offer more minimal (or less maximal) models, one company boldly stand defiant and doubles down: Hoka. This French company, named after the Maori words: “Now is the time to fly”, recognizes that they are moving against the grain. On their website they write:
While much of the early focus of this new era of shoe design has been around minimalism and less cushioning, Hoka One One has pursued innovation in an entirely different direction.
Hoka One One’s maximally cushioned midsoles offer superior protection, comfort and propulsion. The distinctive rockered geometry creates a platform for optimally efficient natural running mechanics. The oversized outsoles — which have fifty percent more surface area than the typical running shoes — allow for maximum stability, traction and connection to the ground.
Call me a skeptic but I tend to question Hoka’s claim that their shoes “allow your feet to move freely and naturally.” They also state that:
The foam in the midsoles of Hoka shoes is 30 percent softer than the material used in traditional running shoes, and there is 2.5 times more midsole volume than in most running shoes. The extra cushioning dissipates up to 80 percent of the shock associated with heel-striking when running and allows for as much as 20mm of compression in the heel.
These numbers strike me as a bit off. Their typical shoe has a stack height of 35mm in the heel and 29mm in the forefoot. If you’ve seen or tried on a pair, those figures appear to be equivalent to approximately 18” in the rear and 16” in the front. Hokas are very big shoes, although relatively light.
I did try on a pair of Hokas at the Boulder Running Company last year, but only because I needed a couple inches of growth in order to experience the feeling of being 6’ in height. The shoes certainly did not make me want to compare them to a Porsche 911, which Hoka does on their website, but I was able to do the “Moon Walk”, almost as if I was a combination of Neil Armstrong and Michael Jackson.
The one group of runners that seems to rave about Hoka shoes are ultra marathoners.Specifically they note that they have less muscle fatigue, almost no negative sensation with the ground, and the ability to maintain form after the point where they would already be tired running in other shoes. I believe these claims are partially true, but are dependent upon the nature of ultra marathons themselves. For example, it is unlikely that ultra marathons are actually physically beneficial for any runners, elite or (sometimes) pedestrian, because the combination of the distances run and the time on the feet is actually beyond the natural capacity of humans.
Over the course of many hours it is certainly possible that a shoe with an extremely forgiving midsole will, at a certain point, reduce the negative effects of impact, but the distance covered is already too far. After running for many miles a runner wearing the Hoka might be able to maintain form, but the manufacturers actually assume that humans run naturally by contacting the heel first. Only the softest “pillows” will prevent heel pain from impact in the 50-100 miles range!
The components of the Hoka midsoles touch on another problem associated with modern cushioned shoes: EVA, or ethyl vinyl acetate. This substance truly has many positive qualities, including light weight, softness, flexibility, and resistance to low temperatures, but used in the midsoles of running shoes it does not transmit information well from the surface to the sole of the foot. EVA also deforms dramatically over time, and since the pressure is not uniform, neither is deformation. The softness of the material is actually a liability, not an advantage. Incidentally, other names for EVA are “expanded rubber” and “foam rubber”.
Running should be enjoyable, but it should be experienced as fully as possible. Most companies want to make running seem easy and comfortable, so they provide customers with cushioned and stable shoes to create a sense of comfort and security, but these advantages are illusory. Despite the research and development that has been invested in improving running shoes, the original design of the modern PCECH (pronation control elevated cushioned heel) shoe is inherently flawed. It’s as if you developed a car with square wheels and tried to improve shock absorption by making better shock absorbers.
Although a transition to minimal shoes requires some time, these shoes will actually provide more comfort, because the foot will be able to receive more sensory information while being protected from sharp objects, rough surfaces, and extreme weather conditions. The flexibility of minimal shoes will allow the foot to move without restriction and become stronger and more balanced by developing internal stability. The zero-drop from heel to toe will place the body in its natural and optimal anatomical position. Other essential characteristics of good running shoes include: ample room in the toebox, few overlays, lightweight material, and no added stability. These should be the characteristics of “comfortable shoes”.
The only time you should need pillows is when you are sleeping. Not running.