Categorized | News

Love at First Gait: HOKA is a Crazy-Looking Running Shoe, So Will Its Popularity Affect Minimalism’s Future?

Posted on 20 September 2013

Screen shot 2013-09-19 at 9.35.22 PMYou might ask, “Why is the Natural Running Center writing about a shoe that is anything but minimalist. The beefy-sole HOKA One One is as unnatural as a genetically modified Flavr Savr tomato.

Because the shoe lacks an outsized, crash-pad heel like your garden-variety ASICS, what exactly do you call the lightweight yet zero-drop HOKA (and what’s with brands using all CAPs)?

Is it minimalism on steroids?

A maximalist running shoe?

To all those trail-pounding legions of runners who shelled out big bucks for this bigger-is-better running shoe, there seems to be a widely developing consensus: they’re absolutely nuts about the soft-as-Serta HOKA! It’s love at first gait. They rock to its smooth-as-Al-Green mid-sole vibe.

Online reviews and comments championing HOKA tend to emote with genuine passion, especially when the authors are describing the positive effect that this game-changing shoe has had on their own running game. “It saved my running.” “It’s great for ultras.” “It’s an ideal recovery shoe.”  “I like the cushiony ride.”  “Downhills no longer trash my legs.”

Questioning these HOKA believers with eyebrow-arching skepticism is like showing up at a Metallica concert wearing a James Taylor t-shirt.

Natural running naysayers aren’t convinced that HOKA is a got-to-have-it-now shoe. “HOKA runners must be off their rocker.” “It’s hokey.” “It defeats the whole idea of proprioception, or ground feel.” “All that excess mid-sole cushioning is simply a marketing gimmick.”

If you want to sample the viewpoints from each camp, click here—and read the comments to an earlier piece on HOKA that written by Jim Hixson for the NRC.

Screen shot 2013-09-19 at 2.36.01 PMTime has passed since that article appeared last January. And HOKA, which now offers three very plump models for trail and road –Bondi. Mafate, and Stinson Evo Trail– has only become more popular, more talked about, and more copied. It has spawned imitators (mainly in the form of additional cushioning) from several running footwear companies. Maximalism is here to stay. Well, at least for the short term.

Maybe there is a chronically injured ultra runner among our ranks who rediscovered his running mojo ever since he crossed over to the other side and went HOKA’d. And this fiftysomething runner, having recently returned from a 1,500-mile solo run in the Himalayas, is now feverishly working on a memoir called “Born to Float.”

To bring more clarity to the HOKA phenomenon and its impact upon runners and the footwear trade, we asked running industry journalist Max Lockwood to dig his heels deep into the subject and see what he could find.  Enjoy the ride. – Bill Katovsky

***

HOKA Phenomenon and its Effect on Minimalism vs. Maximalism

by Max Lockwood

I am an avid runner, student of running, running industry analyst and coach. I study gaits and footwear trends. Never in my running life have I talked to so many people who love a certain running shoe. For the past several years, I have spoken with countless numbers of runners who were avid users of zero-drop minimalist shoes, but they never seemed to display all that much affection for a specific running shoe.

Then along came the HOKA One One, which was easily identifiable by the thick amount of EVA foam on its sole. HOKA One One (Hoka means “time to fly” in the Maori language) is a zero-drop shoe, which means that the heel and toe are the same height. In this sense, HOKA One One wishes to emulate one facet of minimalism, but it avoids another with a more cushiony approach. The midsole is a whopping 20 millimeters.

For many runners with joint and impact-related injury, HOKA is an answer to their silent prayers. One might even call the HOKA the ultra-runner and baby-boomer runner shoe; it seems to work for those going the distance or older runners needing shock-mitigating pampering for their worn-out legs.

Personally, I prefer a very firm, almost stiff-like ride in a running shoe as my biomechanics respond more positively to this aspect. I am 43 and run lots of miles. I use different model shoes. Some minimal and some not. It totally depends on my goals, what races I am doing and so on.  If I go too much in minimal, I lose my power. Sometimes my feet and legs crave support. Right now I run in a Newton Distance and use several lower profile minimal products from Skora and Merrell to strengthen my feet and improve my running mechanics.

If these are strange times in running and footwear, then it’s fair to ask the following questions: Is minimalism over? Is maximalism running’s new future? And if so, what caused the footwear pendulum to all of a sudden swing from less shoe to more shoe? Let’s investigate what we know and don’t know.

The current debate within the running industry focuses, to a great extent, on footwear and to a minor extent, on running form and training methods. For the 1990s and much of the following decade, recreational runners were sold shoes with increased stability, motion control, and cushioning to support their running. As marathons and half-marathons became more popular, the sport attracted a whole new wave of inexperienced runners, who thought they needed more shoe. The assumption was that a running injury occurred due to a lack of footwear support and too much body-jarring impact with the ground. A more fortified shoe would negate this.

During this period, books and magazine articles were written about strength conditioning and flexibility exercises to improve running form, but all of this maintenance work took a back seat to running shoes, much the way it does now. In 2009, the book “Born to Run” began to circulate among runners. Its primary message was that humans were made to run, and run with less or no footwear. The book, as many of us know, triggered a huge movement of barefoot and minimal shoe-wearers who became followers of the trend and believed wearing less shoe or running barefoot was the way to go. Moreover, many of these BTR believers were finally able to find a remedy for their chronic running injuries.

For some, including many who are regular visitors to the Natural Running Center website and are reading this article, this was and is still the case.  Runners of all abilities and backgrounds discovered that less shoe and stability applied to their feet allowed their bodies to act more naturally. The proprioception or “connectivity” to the ground with the foot, lead to improved lengthening and strengthening of muscles as well as increased efficiency and enhanced running mechanics.

If improving one’s running form took on a new urgency and interest, going to less shoe didn’t automatically suggest that all running injuries now went away. Instead, new ones began to appear for those who rushed too quickly into minimalism; their bodies needed more time to make that footwear transition.

As the minimalist shoe trend was enjoying popularity and growth, new soft-landing shoes began to emerge.  Debuting in 2010, HOKA originated from France and was the brainchild of several former Solomon ski boot makers, Nicolas Mermoud and Jean-Luc Diard. Their aim with the lightweight HOKA was to produce a shoe with zero-drop and combine it with maximum cushion to support the rigors of trail and road.

To many in the minimal running camp, the HOKA and similar new soft-landing footwear products, is a huge step in the wrong direction in terms of promoting sound biomechanics and running form.  Says Hernan, Garcia, an ultrarunner and store owner of Big Daddy Ultra Run in Central Florida, a store that carries mainly minimal shoes: “I have nothing bad to say about HOKA One One or any big cushioned shoe.  However, I do not believe that a cushioned shoe will help make a runner stronger.  The cushion prevents proprioception and in doing so, prohibits activation of muscles and tendons up the kinetic chain”

Many others in the minimal running camp share Garcia’s point of view and in fact, HOKA and other cushioned shoe brands do not go out of their way to defend themselves or state otherwise.

HOKA’s brand manager, Jim Van Dine, says that their company’s goal was not to change the running shoe industry. “Our aim is to produce a shoe that folks want to wear and will not get them hurt. It is that simple.  We think that if people do not get hurt, enjoy the run, then they will run more efficiently.”

Van Dine, a former national class runner who paced Bill Rodgers to an American PR in the 30k in 1979, a record that still holds at 1:31:50, takes a very practical approach to running shoes. And with Deckers, the parent company now behind HOKA, Van Dine is in a much better position with the brand to empower more runners of all abilities to take on the roads and trails

Says Van Dine, “I cannot promise nor do I think that our shoes are meant for anyone or that they will solve injury woes.  I spent my early years working in specialty running stores and know that each and every shoe has a customer just like all runners have different bodies and biomechanics. What I can say is that the very few people are complaining and that the shoe has allowed many old guys and beat-up runners to get back out there and earn our miles.”

Hoka-Info-Page-4In reviewing Van Dine’s assessment, I cannot help but agree, at least with the short-term prognosis.  I too, know of many runners who have been able to return to the roads in HOKAs. Michael Wardian, one of the U.S.’s top ultra runners and someone who has run a countless number of sub 2:30 marathons, suffered severe stress fractures in his pelvis and along with hernias. These serious sports injuries forced him to take off much of the 2012 season. During his rehab, he discovered HOKA One Ones.  He started running in them and has been training hard ever since.

Says Wardian, “ I got injured pretty drastically last year with five stress fractures of my pelvis and five hernias so I figure that the more cushion that I have the better.  I have been wearing super cushioned and protective shoes on all my runs, even track workouts and races.  I just don’t want to risk getting hurt.”

Wardian is not the only athlete who speaks this way. I talk to runners on a regular basis, who after struggling with fatigue and muscle soreness, make the switch to HOKA in order to offset the repetitive-stress pounding and to recover quicker.

Along with HOKA, there are now other brands promoting a soft landing such as On Running, the BOOST from Adidas, Altra’s Olympus, and Brooks’ Transcend.

Does the trend of maximalist and soft-landing running shoes spell the end for minimalism? And how will this new shoe design have a major impact on the other more popular and traditional running shoe models such as the ASICS Kayano, the Brooks Pure Flow series? And what about Mizuno, New Balance, and Nike?

One thing is certain: innovation, experimentation, and change are all important.  So let’s turn our attention to several influential players in the running shoe industry, ranging from company founders to store owners (including several who are Natural Running Center store partners).

***

“Runners definitely have to be strong enough to wear minimalist shoes full-time.”

Golden Harper, Founder of Altra Running

Background:  Golden grew up in a running family where both his parents were national class runners. They went on to open up a family owned and operated running store in Utah and Golden grew up literally fitting and selling shoes to people.  From his store experience, he developed a keen sense of footwear and saw an opportunity to fill a niche with zero-drop anatomically designed shoes.

Question: What is your impression of maximalist footwear?

Golden Harper: The industry is just following its old tried and true marketing tool of ‘more cushion is better’. I believe they are becoming popular because people believe that if a shoe has a ton of cushion, it will protect them more and keep them from being injured. Unfortunately, the research does not bare that out.

Screen shot 2013-09-19 at 2.34.31 PMQ: What is the scoop with Altra creating their own maximalist shoe?

Harper: I wouldn’t say that Altra has switched gears to address the trend. Altra always had been about blending the benefits of barefoot with enough cushion to get the job done.  Our most cushioned shoe, The Olympus, came as a result of some of us and our wear-test team deciding that we need a bit more protection for our belabored feet after we had been out on rocky trail for hours on end.  It’s certainly not a shoe for everybody, but it may definitely benefit those with weak or sensitive feet.

Q: Where is minimalism headed?

Harper: I believe that minimalism is going to a place that is practical for most runners, although perhaps not ideal. I have long maintained that our Instinct shoe was the future of the running industry, and I still stand by that.  It is a moderately cushioned zero-drop shoe with a generous foot-shaped toe box.  Although the industry is abandoning non-cushioned minimalist shoes due to many runners lack of ability to transition properly, the principles of minimalism will continue to be implemented in moderately cushioned packages as the advantages are undeniable.  Additionally, runners who convert to using shoes with lower heel heights or foot-shaped toe boxes rarely if ever go back to crowding their toes or over-striding in high-heeled shoes.  I believe that minimal shoes as an every day, every mile shoe is definitely for those with the patience to very gradually strengthen their feet and transition in to them. People definitely have to be strong enough to wear them full time.  Every runner should wear a minimal shoe occasionally to work on improving their form and strengthening their feet.  I believe every runner should own a pair of minimalist shoes as an additional training tool for these reasons.  Additionally, you can kind of look at being able to run in a more minimal shoe as an ultimate goal for some runners.  Being able to do so full time would mean that the runner has put in the work and has strengthened one’s feet and body enough to do so.  However, I do not believe it is a matter of biomechanics.  Running in a zero-drop shoe immediately improves your running technique and reduces initial impact.  For this reason, I believe every runner should be wearing a zero-drop shoe; they just need to find out what level of cushioning works best for them right now.

Q: What is your impression of maximalist footwear?

Harper: I believe they are becoming popular because people believe that if a shoe has a ton of cushion, it will protect them more and keep them from being injured; unfortunately, the research does not support that.

***

“Brands look to be back in the evolution versus revolution mode.”

Joe Rubio, co-owner of the online Running Warehouse

Background: Joe has a storied running background including two trips to the Olympic Marathon trials (’92, ’96). In high school, his 14:52 in the 5,000 meters was the third fastest in the U.S. that year.

Question: I consider you to be one of the wisest heads in the business.  Can you give me a general lowdown on the history of running shoes?

Joe Rubio: I’ve been selling running, track and field, cross country and team gear since 1992.  I have been a shoe geek since day one and that was 1977. When I started running, you had the Nike Waffle Trainer, Adidas Runner, Tiger Montreal and a few others to choose from.  Not a lot of choices.  Then came the Puma Easy Rider, Etonic Street Fighter, Brooks Vantage/Villanova and other brands got into the game like Converse, Vans and many others trying to capitalize on the increased numbers of runners brought in by the running boom of the 1970s.  Runners were given a greater number of choices.  It’s no different now really.  A trend hits, brands try to capitalize on it – some make it, some don’t.  The market expands, then retracts.

Screen shot 2013-09-20 at 1.39.18 PMMany of the brands from 20 to 30 years ago are no longer making running shoes; many of the trends are no longer relevant.  It’s the nature of the beast.  That said the major trends as I remember them in rough chronological order:

-An increase in the brands actually offering running shoes designed specifically for runner’s needs versus shoes designed for other sports that were used by runners due to lack of availability.

-Introduction of extreme designs essentially testing on the consumer to see what works.

-Introduction of pronation-control devices

-Advent of brand specific technologies.

-Technology could solve your injury issues.

-Technology is causing your injury issues.  This led to a reintroduction of extreme designs and essentially testing on the consumer to see what works.

-Light is right.

-Colors moves product.

–All of the major categories have been relevant for quite a while and continue to be so.  Like your basic $100 to $120 neutral or supportive daily trainer.  These hit the sweet spot for most runners.  They are durable, help runners stay relatively injury free, are offered by every major brand, and are available in a wide range of outlets.  If sales equals relevance, this would be the most relevant category.

–Racing flats, lightweight trainers, spikes have all stood the test of time – regardless of what many say, there is a market for these products.  Motion-control shoes I realize are not very popular at the moment, but all those people we fitted up with them that couldn’t walk previously who can now move about as a result didn’t suddenly disappear.  Trail shoes ebb and flow. Barefoot is the new kid on the block and I would think it will end up being a very, very small segment whereas minimal will be a segment that a running store has to have a few offerings in to be relevant.

Q: What is your take on maximum cushioned shoes?  They are coming on strong right after minimal. 

Rubio: I think the more cushioned shoes are legit, definitely. There’s a need for shoes that enhance recovery through added cushioning.  We always said to run on soft surfaces – same concept here.  They have a place in a runner’s toolbox, same as running barefoot or in lightweight trainers.  Should you run in them every day?  Probably not, but I said the same thing about people running barefoot on asphalt – that’s a really weird idea that makes little sense to a guy like me who’s been around running for 35+ years.  Do barefoot strides on grass instead if you want to run without shoes.  Yes run in spikes, but make sure you use them for your fast 200′s and not your long runs.  Run your hard 800 intervals in a racing flat and your tempo runs in a lightweight trainer.  Run your moderate intensity mileage days in a solid, dependable neutral or support shoe and use the maximalist trainer for your true recovery runs or your easy second run of the day.

Q: What do you think of the natural running shoes or minimal-only brands?

Rubio: Unless they expand what their brands represents across many different categories, they will continue to make up a relatively small percentage of sales in the industry.  That said, having brands such as these introduce technologies that cause people in the industry to rethink they way they are doing things and if not, hopefully look at solving problems from a slightly different perspective are a great benefit.

Q:  What is your outlook for the next five years?

Rubio: Over the next five years I think we will see which brands have staying power. You’re seeing it already. There isn’t a new “gotta-have” technology or category on the horizon that encourages runners to try something new right now; it’s not because they need a new pair of shoes to replace their current over worn pair, but because they want to find out what the buzz is about, or better yet (at least from a sales standpoint) they buy it because it’s cool.  That’s what minimalism/barefoot offered, a new type of shoe that had a buzz and people wanted to be a part of regardless if they actually needed a new pair of shoes or not.  I think maximalism will prove popular, but it will cannibalize existing sales, not result in new ones.

You should see a flattening or even a shrinking of the overall industry for the next five years with runners replacing their worn shoes for the most part and the added sales brought in by runners and non-runners alike looking for an extra pair of minimal shoes drying up.  Brands look to be back in the evolution versus revolution mode, same for customers.  Many barefoot models and brands will lose relevance and disappear.  Minimal offerings will be consolidated.

Customers are heading back to traditional shoes many of which are incorporating the minimal traits they desire thereby eliminating the need for a second pair of shoes, which can cause another downward force on sales. There may be something that moves the needle regarding a new technology like 3D printing; I’m just not sure if this is a gotta-have or cool technology that people admire but aren’t greatly influenced to buy.

***

“Running in a big and bulky shoe with lots of cushion does not make life easy for the runner.”

Ian Adamson: Director of Research and Education at Newton Running. 

Background:  Ian, now retired from the sport, is a world-champion adventure racer with titles on almost every continent. He was also first masters at 2011 Badwater Ultra in Death Valley.

Question: Ian, you are a passionate adventure athlete and true brand ambassador for Newton. You have been with them since they started out.  Would you mind giving me a little background on Newton’s philosophy.

Adamson: Danny Abshire, the creator of Newton shoes uses the language “minimal design, maximal protection.” The vast majority of runners have a very limited awareness of natural running, so we are building our line to address the wider market (90 percent of runners who are recreational or fitness.) We have never claimed to have minimal shoes. We have been working on shoes that offer a high level of protection and efficiency while working with a runner’s bio-mechanics and neuromuscular system. This basically means not interfering with a runner’s mechanics or ability to feel and react to the ground.

Q:  Newton is an expensive shoe.  Why?

Adamson:  Yes, Newton shoes are slightly more expensive. Our midsole cushioning lasts far longer than many other shoes. Unlike regular foam in traditional shoes (regardless of the technical package using air or gel) Newton Membrane technology holds up well over time. Specifically the cell walls in regular foam collapses rapidly and does not recover.

Q:  Newton stands out from the pack in a big way with its education program.  Can you give us some insight on this?

Adamson: At Newton, a big part of our program is training and education.  Newton Running Form is bio-mechanically efficient, focusing on technique, gait retraining, efficiency and injury prevention. In a nutshell,we address stability, mobility, strength and movement patterns. This is based purely on the science, so we continue to evolve with the increased body of evidence. Data from researchers and gait experts like Jay Dicharry, Mark Cucuzzella, Blaise Dubois, and Casey Kerrigan shape our understanding and delivery of running form.

Q: Recently, more cushioned shoes have entered the market. HOKA is a perfect example. This type of shoe contrasts directly with Newton. Would you mind sharing your thoughts?

Adamson: Running in a big and bulky shoe with lots of cushion does not make life easy for the runner. It takes a very strong runner to successfully run on an elevated, soft surface. Think of this like a Bosu ball or stability mat, and try to maintain joint alignment while doing a single-leg shallow squat. If you can do this without your knee wobbling or diving in or out, plus maintain good balance and alignment of your body column, the HOKA shoe might work for you. From a physiological perspective, it is not possible to have ground feel with a HOKA. This removes half the neuromuscular component of running. Most runners are unaware that they hit the ground hard because their shoes are removing their ability to feel the surface. Studies are consistent and unequivocal in that the more you have between your foot and the ground, the higher the impact/shock load.

***

“Like many who came into the store business, I did it because I love running.”

Hernan Garcia, store owner: Daddy Ultra Runs, Cocoa Village Florida. 

Background: Hernan has always been  a competitive athlete. His main passion is sailing and he has crossed the Atlantic several times in a boat. In addition to the working the water, he has hiked the Continental Ice Shelf in Patagonia, and ran over 30 marathons and 10 ultra marathons.

Question:  You are a big believer in minimalist shoes. Can you elaborate?

Garcia: I have been running 28 years. I was a soccer player and got turned onto running after a soccer injury.  Perhaps because soccer cleats are fairly minimal and low to the ground. I have always run in a lightweight and fairly flat shoe.  Unlike many who switched to minimal, I never needed to be converted. I was always a big fan. I am just glad that others are behind the effort.

Q:What is your take on minimal vs. extra cushion, and the running shoe industry?

Garcia: Regarding this big debate on running shoes and so on, I am not going to go over the top with strong opinions and accusations of any type. After all, I am new to the industry.  I got into it when I opened my store four years ago.   Like many who came into the store business, I did it because I love running and not because I had a strong agenda to sell any type of footwear.  The energy and joy one gets from being closely connected with the running community is great. If I can get folks to wear footwear that will keep them running injury free, all the better.

Q: Obviously you have a bias in favor of a more minimalist shoe.  You state so much in your store and web advertising.   Would you mind sharing your thoughts on why you lean in this direction regarding footwear?

Garcia: Regarding what types of shoes I sell and my attention to a lower profile piece of footwear, I lean this way because I believe the foot needs to be free to move and act naturally. As a runner who trains hard and run ultra distances, I spend a good deal of time trying to understand my body and what is best for it.  I believe that the foot needs to be strong and have the freedom to move naturally.  More importantly, I believe proprioception or the ability to get energy and strength from having the foot touch the ground is extremely important.  By allowing proprioception to take place, you are enabling the body’s full kinetic chain to properly activate and a more natural strengthening process takes place.

Q:  Will maximalist shoes or severely cushioned shoes entering the market eat into the market-share recently taken up by minimalist products?

Garcia: As for the more cushioned shoes entering the market such as HOKA, and now Altra with theirs and some others, my experience and observation tells me that the industry is a large arena and many believe that more cushioned shoes are a true asset to the runner.  I might not concur with this philosophy but I am not going to criticize it.  Obviously, there is a market for HOKA and other cushioned shoes. So long as consumers are buying them, the shoes will be made and sold.  With this being said, and knowing the marketing power of the brands, I absolutely think some will flock to these maximalist shoes and they will eat into other brands and styles market-share.

Q: What are the challenges of operating a store that sells mainly minimal shoes?

Garcia: I will say this on behalf of those in the minimal camp, going minimal is perhaps more difficult and challenging than selling cushioned and more traditional shoes. Owning, operating and growing any small specialty store is hard. On top of the basic retail services, as a store, which emphasizes natural and minimal running and footwear, we are tasked with trying to educate and teach people how to run properly.  I know it might sound odd but this is a large part of what we do. I have to teach my staff about biomechanics and natural footwork along with the importance of letting folks know about the importance of transitioning to minimal shoes from a more cushioned and stable platform.  This is not easy and takes time and energy.

***

“The Hoka has been an amazing product to watch in our stores.  It has brought people back into the sport.”

Amanda Charles, General Manager, Boulder Running Company

Background: Amanda is a runner and veteran of the running industry. She was the General Manager of the Boulder Running Company when it was a  three-store chain based out of Boulder, Colorado. The business was recently purchased by Gart Capital and brought into the Running Specialty Group running store chain.  Amanda is remaining on board and is considered a key part of the business.

Question:Would you mind sharing a quick overview of your take on footwear trends?            

Amanda Charles: I have been in the industry for 16 years and seen so many trends and shoes come and go.  There are core basic principles that good shoe brands stick to allowing them to not only survive but also thrive.  Shoes that have stood the test of time are those that service the needs of the majority of runners and the reality of what needs to be accommodated for from a functional standpoint.

Q: Boulder Running Company never did get on the minimal bandwagon full tilt. Why was that?  

Charles:Regarding minimal, even when other stores were jumping head over heels about for them, the category never played a large part in our footwear business; it was simply viewed as a tool in our toolbox that could provide a solution for those that it could prove itself upon analysis, to be a logical choice. It was also one that we felt could work in conjunction with an everyday trainer, but not one to replace the shoe for the bulk of someone’s activities.

Q: As I understand it, HOKA really got its start in your store.   

Charles: HOKA has been an amazing product to watch in our stores.  It has brought people back into the sport that they are passionate about simply because it provides more protection than other options available to them. From people with plantar issues to those who are overweight and to others who want to ramp up their mileage as they are training for ultras. We have seen this shoe service the full spectrum of possibilities and have very few complaints, if any. HOKA continues to be a strong brand for us because it serves a wide customer base.  Minimal shoes will always have their place but never one that fuels the engine of our business.

Q: Where are we heading with footwear and consumer awareness on shoes that are right for them?      

Charles: The evolution of today’s modern runner and what their needs are much wider in scope than they have ever been. It is important that the leading footwear brands do not lose sight of this for their loyal customer base.  Brooks has done a phenomenal job of never losing sight of this and providing opportunities for every type of athlete that comes through our doors.
Screen shot 2013-09-18 at 5.37.20 PM***

“While not everyone can run in HOKA, I have seen the shoes do wonders with a certain type of runner.”

Kenneth Larscheid, owner, The Running Lab, Brighton, Michigan.

Background:  Ken is a competitive runner who has worked for New Balance. While at NB, he got exposure to Playmakers Running store in Michigan, and which is, the birthplace of Good Form Running. Ken took an immediate liking to GFR, and used its core principles to help his own running. Ken became so enamored with the importance of form, that he opened up the Running Lab in 2011

Question:  What shoes do you run in?

Ken Larscheid: I currently run in the  Newton Distance. I was a rep for New Balance before I opened my store.  When Vibram FiveFingers came out, I began to think about the role of my feet and how important having strong feet is for running.

Q: What is your overall take on minimal running shoes and do you consider yourself a minimal only running store?

Larscheid:  I think minimal shoes are great and that is our emphasis.  However, HOKA, which is a big topic in the running store world, is a favorite of mine. The reason is that their design allows the foot to sit inside the sole rather than on top; they have a wide platform; and there is the rocker-sole transition.

Q:  So, even though you are minimal in terms of your philosophy, you still think HOKA has a place in the running store world?

Larscheid: People sometimes label us a minimal or natural running shoe store.Actually, we are more of a hybrid store but we have definitely been labeled as “minimal only”.  I think the challenges of being “minimal only” is you risk turning away some customers that want your incredible expertise of the foot and form, but they just don’t have proper range of motion in some areas to accommodate a true minimal shoe.  At the same time, you want stay innovative in the eyes of the consumer.  While not everyone can run in HOKA, I have seen the shoes do wonders with a certain type of runner who needs a more soft landing and rocker bottom sole for propulsion.

Q: Where are we heading with footwear for runners?

Larscheid: Regarding options and choices of footwear and what it means for the industry and the consumer, I think the “grey area” of {heel-to-toe} drops and amount of cushion has been established.  There are more options than ever before from 0mm-14mm offsets.  You can find something for everyone, more so than you could two-and-a-half years ago.  The choices are good for business and they are good for competition with the brands.

***

“Experience tells me that different trends will continue to emerge and play a role in how runners choose shoes.”

Gillian Lundell, co-owner, Zombie Runner, Palo Alto California

Background: An endurance runner, and long-time popular fixture in the Northern California ultra-running community, Gillian previously worked in public relations in Silicon Valley. Interesting factoid: Chris McDougall did his first “Born to Run” reading at Zombie Runner. “It was a small turnout,” recalls Gillian. The following year, Chris spoke to over  1,000 at Google headquarters just up the road.

Question:  You sell lots of minimal shoes but you also carry your standard ASICS Kayano and HOKAs. Obviously you are casting your net wide and far as far as accommodating the customer.

Gillian Lundell:  Our goal at Zombie is to get people thinking about running correctly and more importantly, enjoy their running. When you work on the store floor day in and day out, you see that people have different sets of biomechanics. Some folks can jump right into a Merrell or Skora, but many cannot.  In fact, we see many people who try to go minimal and just get hurt. Shoes are very important but are only a piece of the puzzle.  A runner needs to keep his or her whole body strong to keep injuries from occurring, and to reach one’s potential.

Q: What is your number-one selling shoe and why?

Lundell: Our number-one selling shoe is HOKA ONE ONE.  HOKA has been our biggest seller for the last four years.  We have many returning customers who are just hooked on their HOKAs.

Q:  Why are folks seemingly addicted to this shoe? It seems big and cumbersome.

Lundell:  I am not sure why.  Only customers wearing them can answer you. What I will say, is that the shoe is ideal for people coming back from injury and need protection from impact; older runners who have been through lots of wear and tear and are looking for a softer landing; and ultra distance runners who need protection for those long distances.

Q:  Do you see any one pattern or trend taking a strong hold in the running industry?

Lundell:  We saw minimal shoes do their thing and now we are seeing a shoe like HOKA influence some folks and the market. Experience tells me that different trends will continue to emerge and play a role in how runners choose shoes.  I am in the business of working with my community of runners.  So, I really cannot afford to get into one shoe camp.  My customers come to me with concerns, needs, questions and more. My store’s job is to do its best to serve our customers and make sure they are satisfied and come away knowing that they have received thoughtful and thorough service.

Q: And you serve coffee.

Lundell:  It’s all part of delivering outstanding customer service.  Runners do more than run. They like their coffee. So, why not buy a cup here, before or after your run, get the running community vibe and more.

***

“I believe in promoting a flexible shoe that is empowered to act naturally, but this is it.”

Michael Ferrer, co-owner, Boston Street Running in Baltimore, Maryland

Background:  Prior to opening up Boston Street Running with his wife, Michael worked in the financial services industry.  Michael has been a lifelong athlete and running has been a passion for over 30 years.

Question: What prompted you to open up a store that primarily sells minimal running shoes and promoted natural biomechanics?

Michael Ferrer:  As a competitive triathlete who has completed multiple ironman’s I was and am always tinkering with new and progressive ways to improve my performance.  When minimalist shoes started to hit the market, the whole thing just caught my eye.

Q:  When you say progressive, what do you mean?

Ferrer: By progressive I mean nee and dynamic. I am attracted to progress and improvement.  For years, running shoes were stuck in the same rut and doing more or less the same thing in terms of working with the foot and influencing biomechanics.  The new brands like Skora, Newton and Altra have added a new way of thinking about how the foot should work in running.

Q: Many think that new shoes like HOKA and maximalist cushion are good for runners.

Ferrer:  I come from a background in finance where I was trained on the importance of diversification and having a diverse portfolio to accommodate the fluctuation of the market.  Ditto with shoes and feet and customers and shoes.  Our customers have a different running background and history. I do not think any one shoe or style is good for everyone.  I believe in promoting a flexible shoe that is empowered to act naturally, but this is it.  I will not carry some rigid stability products because I believe they can compromise the integrity of the foot, which leads to injury.

Q:  Please elaborate on what you mean regarding not carrying stability or overly built up shoes.

Ferrer: To me, overly built up stability shoes are sort of like old cars or TVs or any product that has not created new technology to make itself or its use more efficient and effective.  It is clear from the research and education out there, that people are not meant to have their feet controlled and messed with too much.  This throws off their natural mechanics and can lead to various types of injury down the road.   Shoes that allow the toes to splay, the posterior chain of muscles to naturally elongate and the arches to strengthen naturally make sense.  My goal at the shop is to educate each and every customer about this. Some might be receptive and others not.  The bottom line, I come away knowing that I have tried to educate someone about his or her body and what running with different types of footwear, does to it.

Q:  Do you think you can compete selling mainly minimal?

Ferrer: Absolutely. As stated before, I believe in progress. What we are doing is introducing new thinking aimed at improving the well being of the runner.  How can one go wrong with that?

**

Max Lockwood is a marketing and communications consultant, running coach and writer in Washington, D.C.  This is his first piece for the NRC. He can be reached at max.lockwood@gmail.com

 

Donate

28 Responses to “Love at First Gait: HOKA is a Crazy-Looking Running Shoe, So Will Its Popularity Affect Minimalism’s Future?”

  1. Sock Doc says:

    Most runners are broken, so they will be attracted to a shoe that supports their dysfunction Hokas and other shoes with more cushion and support. Sure it’s a great thing if someone can get running again with such footwear, but you have to ask yourself – if that’s all you can run in without any problems – should you even be running in the first place?

    • reanimated says:

      I realize you are posting here not as a runner but as someone with a practice built around a certain fitness/lifestyle philosophy that you are selling, but the idea is that people get to decide for themselves what they want to do.

      And if someone has invested a lot in running, gotten some results, and really loves running, then the answer is yes — they will probably try to find a way to work around problems that would otherwise keep them from running. Even if it’s something as horrible as running in Hokas. And even if you don’t approve, or would make a different decision for yourself.

  2. max says:

    that is a good point. However, running with lots of runners as I do, participating in lots of races and group runs and having worked in running store, I would say, that argument or way of looking at things, may fall on deaf ears to some. There are simply too many people out there and too many folks who want to run and achieve athletic goals. What I will agree full heartedly with is that folks can and should be steered away from getting injured in the first place. I got most of my running and athletic injuries due to over training and racing vs having bad shoes. If had it to do all over again I would have backed off and trained easier.

    HOKA or other products that allow hurt or beat up runners need to be seen as a tool or one more item to use on the journey.

    There is nothing really natural about running long and hard on pavement or even doing competitive road racing. Both pavement and competitive racing are inventions of the human mind. As humans, we are prone to creating challenges and products and methods designed to help us meet the challenges. Thus, shoes, compression socks, massages, natural foods, special stretching and strength work are all invented for the sake of keeping us active and resistant to injury and in the game. Some of these inventions and products will work for certain people and of course, some will not. Life and circumstances are far too complex to throw a one size fits all solution out there. The key is giving consumers/people a full spectrum of choices along with the sufficient rationale behind their function, use and purpose.

    • Dane says:

      Agreed! Too much too soon is a huge mistake. If I could start running again I think I would have told myself to hit the trails sooner too. Trail running is so much more fulfilling to me know and seems to yield less injuries too. Maybe it’s just me though…?

  3. Bob says:

    Hokas may be a godsend for broken ultra marathoners, but the fact remains that there are many mediocre runners using them in 5ks, marathons and other relatively short races. There’s certainly nothing wrong with wearing a shoe that allows you to sloppily get through a race. It just seems to me that part of the fun of running, or acquiring any new skill is actually becoming skilled. I’m not a hunter, but wearing Hokas seems like the equivalent of those canned hunts.

  4. Cody R. says:

    you say runners are broken…

    yes, some are…

    though i think one big problem is that too many runners are told they’re broken, and like most people, they believe what they are told no questions asked

    and here comes the “support” with all the arch stuff and bigger shoes and whatnot

    and instead of trying to strengthen themselves, they stay where they are or make it worse

    i’m not a fan of HOKA because i don’t need it, i have feet thank you :P

    though i do understand that they could be a rehab tool to an extent

  5. reanimated says:

    Bill, nice dismissive dig at your caricature of an injured older runner. Why do you guys always imagine you are engaged in some end-times religious war over this stuff? And even worse, that other runners are your enemy? Let’s hope you never wake up one day with some injury that forces you to choose between probably never running again or putting on these damn pillows — I wonder which you would choose?

  6. max says:

    I am curious if all of you think of the shoe as the solution and how much weight you put in them? Can HOKA alone cure what ails the broken runner? thoughts and or comments are welcome.

  7. pepijn says:

    Broken or not. I don’t think this is the solution. This shows perfect is the whole problem at our society, cure the problem but don’t fix the cause.

    With these “monsters” you will still have the weak cause and yes for a while the problem should be cured but what’s next. Shoes with build in propellers. So you can “run” on air? When it’s wrong in the beginning you will never be a stronger sportsman (or woman of course :-)

    Just my thoughts…

  8. Dane says:

    I recently bought my first pair of Hoka’s. I cant’ decide if I like them yet. I love the idea of a low drop and feel it is more natural. I just think it is funny how a lot of people in the industry are trying to separate minimal and maximal shoes and suggest that one will die off if the other is around. Why? Why can’t we have both and one runner use both? I know I will.

    • MarkC says:

      Dane,

      agree…shoes like set of golf clubs. some days take out the Bib Bertha and go reckless (Hoka) and other days more sensing with the wedge (thin shoe). Run in all directions too.

      Mark

  9. max says:

    The running industry and those standing on the sidelines are enamored with the fact that this more plush/cushioned shoe is making such a strong impact with the consumer on the heels of the minimalist shoe boom. After all, the science and biomechanics of minimalism suport the notion that this footwear type is more suited for humans and promoted efficient gait and postural integrity. so, maximalist shoes are, in some sense, a direct slap in the face of “superior gait” minimalism.

    the jury is still out on what the long term effects of either shoe type will be on joe or jane average consumer.

    keeping an open mind and always learning is most important

  10. Matt says:

    I’m pretty sure that at this point, now that I’ve ditched my high-heeled motion control shoes and orthotics in favour of minimal shoes (currently Merrells and the new Altra “the One”, which is a freaking awesome shoe!), and after spending significant time working on my running form, I could wear a pair of Hokas and not get injured, and likely not trash my form. If I were going to run an ultramarathon (which I’m not, cause it’s too damn far), I’d likely give them a go. But there’s no doubt whatsoever that I would not be the efficient, injury-free runner I am today without the switch to minimal shoes. I think the danger of Hokas is not for the experienced ultra-runner, but for the newbie with bad form that will never be corrected if they run on a couple of pillows.

    • BillK says:

      bill k: well said, matt. you distilled the entire hoka/form/newbie debate into a concise and practical summary.

    • Jeff F says:

      Matt. I very much agree with your post. I’m devoting all of 2013 to the minimalist transition. Am still hindered by Achilles issueS though. Was just wondering if you could briefly describe what ‘non-running’ work you did that contributed the most to your successful transition. Examples of stuff I’m doing are lots of walk/jogging barefoot on paved bike path, wearing zero shoes always/everywhere, using Correct Toes, and trigger point therapy tools. Any comments would be greatly appreciated. And congratulations !

      • dvmfoj says:

        Jeff, I am ten months into the transition to natural running and minimal shoes (merrell road gloves and nb minimus). Took it slow and easy for months and then started stretching the runs to 8-10 miles in the road gloves. For many months I experienced discomfort with my achilles (burning sensation and tenderness); but they really do strengthen given the time to transition. Like you, I wear zero drop or 4 mm drop shoes to work and everywhere else, only wearing my old Asics for yard work and other dirty jobs. The results after almost a year: injury free, running 5-6 days a week, carved 18 minutes off my last half marathon – natural running is good!

      • Matt says:

        Jeff, thanks! For me this was part of an overall effort to generally feel less crappy as I approached middle age – had been suffering a bunch of nagging joint and back pains for a while. At the same time I got back into running, I also started weight training, working on a lot of compound movements that work the whole body and the core (deadlifts, squats, pullups) and did a lot of it on one leg (one-legged deadlifts, step-ups, single leg squats, etc…). One legged stuff is good because you can get a serious workout with just your body weight, and I think that helped a lot. A few form tips really helped as well, stuff you’ll see on this site but especially running more with your butt rather than hamstrings, increasing my cadence, avoiding “sticky feet”, and landing my foot under my body.

  11. max says:

    Matt, the dilemma I see is that many runners who are simply joggers or recreational athletes, do not care, or I should say, do not have the time to care about being efficient and might never be able to get there. Furthermore, they might not know what the term means. The term running efficiency and or economy is highly subjective and speaks to individuals vs some sort of mass aggregated summary. Some folks might have great running mechanics and achieve efficiency easier than others, etc.

    Perhaps a stability shoe and insert was wrong for you as it might be for many, but this does not mean it is wrong for everybody. I simply see to many athletes who seem to benefit from inserts and shoes like HOKA. This might run counter to some of the natural foot strengthening we talk about within the NRC world but so be it.

    One of the problems or issues, perhaps, is that many running stores do not train staff to the degree necessary for putting them in the right shoes, corrective or otherwise. Many stores get by with some sort of gait analysis or fitting process but they simply might be lacking all information necessary to fit someone 100% properly. This is not a criticism but a mere by-product of creating too many shoes and inserts and so on for the market to possibly get a handle on. Couple this with the fact that every runner has a unique body and running mechanics.

    All this being said, i do not think one can make an assumption on footwear and running form based on what has worked for them as individuals. There are simply too many variables at play when dealing with individual runners.

    If you think differently, I am game to your thoughts and opinion on the matter.

    Let the thoughts and ideas flow.

    Max

  12. Matt says:

    Yeah, I take your point, and I completely agree that people should do whatever works for them, and that there’s no one-size fits all approach – I find it weird how this discussion of running form and equipment so often turns into a pitched ideological battle, but I guess that’s how it often goes on the Intertubes! But in my case, the advice I got from running stores was essentially that my running problems could be solved by shoe technology and orthotics, with no discussion of strength training, gait analysis, etc… I ended up with a massive pair of shoes and expensive, high-arched orthotics, to “correct” my flat feet. The result: my feet felt like two slabs of meat slapping the pavement, and I ended up getting injured so frequently that I quit running altogether. What I take from that is not that what worked for me is necessarily best for everyone, but that for those runners who are having injury problems, the answer isn’t necessarily more technology. Instead, (or perhaps in addition) it’s worth taking some time to discover our most efficient, comfortable running form, and that it’s tough to do that when you’re wearing shoes that don’t allow your feet to fully operate as feet, or to adequately feel the ground. But again, I don’t doubt that once you get a handle on your form, a shoe with some serious cushioning would help you get through a 100km race.

  13. max says:

    there is also age to consider. when i was younger, i could run in anything and for a variety of reasons, the body would compensate and my form was great. over time and much overuse, the body develops imbalances and certain muscles take over and others get neglected. I think it is pretty much the same in any sport. So, we have become immersed with this topic of running form, economy and shoes that help as we plod along and try to remain strong and powerful.

    What I will say is that before you get critical and come up with strong opinions about HOKA, u absolutely need to try them and run with them for several runs. You need to allow the body to adapt and for the neuromuscular relationship to take hold in some form or fashion. After this, you can make a more informed decision.

    • Mike says:

      I don’t want to run in a shoe that requires me to adapt to IT. A shoe should work with your body, otherwise you are asking for problems.

      Your comment also alludes to a certain “those-in-the-know” pseudo-esotericism that is prevalent in the trail running community.

  14. Again, there’s too much focus on the shoe as the “be all problem solver” for runners and not enough emphasis on functional fitness specific to the bio-mechanical requirements of running. You can run in what ever shoe “feels” good, but if you are weak in critical areas such as your core, calves, foot and knees, your running will always be a struggle. I find that the discussion above is akin to arguing about which swim-suit and goggles make you a better swimmer without mention of all the critical elements that need to be in place in order to truly be an efficient swimmer. The fact is, most average runners in our culture find it easier to throw money at the problem by buying different shoes than to spend time working on core and leg fitness. Big brand advertising doesn’t help. It actually promotes this very thinking. There’s a reason why the Newton approach works and resonates with so many runners. It’s all about form and function. The rest is fashion ebb and flow.

  15. Rich says:

    Here is an interesting quote in Running Insight from HOKA brand manager Issac Alvear. ” At Hoka One One,we would still encourage runners of all distances, who are embracing a healthy running regime mix of short high intensity running days and long slow duration,aerobic building running days to consider using more minimalistic footwear for short high intensity days.”

  16. Gunnar Bruun says:

    I look at my running shoes as tools in my toolbox.
    Sometimes the hammer is the right tool, and sometimes it’s a wrench.
    I use my Merrell Bare Access/Asics Hyperspeed when I want to run a little quicker and have the ground feel, and I use my Hokas when my legs are tired from a hard interval workout the day before and it reduces the impact just enough.

    Why does it have to be either this or that? Why not this AND that?
    Different shoes for different training runs.

  17. Mike says:

    Hokas and minimalism are more of a statement on Americans, rather than running.

    Americans tend to do things in extreme fashions. It’s either Hokas or minimalism….ultra right, or ultra left….Paleo, or Fruititarianism.

    I find it interesting that a French company founded by ski boot manufacturers essentially tailored made a show specifically for Americans. Most French and other Europeans think of Americans as being somewhat over weight and with extreme opinions….a brilliant move on Hoka’s part!

  18. Kay says:

    In my experience with working with running shoes for the past 2.5 years. Hoka has helped people who were told by their podiatrist that they could never run again. I have seen it help people with numerous injuries not all related to running. Hoka has revolutionized the running world and every day footwear.

    When I see a customer with a smile on their face saying that they no longer feel pain it just makes me love my job and realize that myself and other footwear specialist are here to help everyone.

    Everyone is different and there is a perfect shoe out there for every body.

    Best wishes,
    Kay


Leave a Reply

*