Sole Man: Maximally Cushioned Shoes

Insights about the emerging maximum cushioning trend in running shoes.

What’s the latest in running shoe trends for 2014? Maximum cushioning! At the July 31-Aug. 3 Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, several brands — including Brooks, Skechers, Altra, Vasque, New Balance, Pearl Izumi and, of course, Hoka — showed off shoes with oversized foam midsoles set to debut in early 2014.

Minimalism isn’t dead — there are still great lightweight, low-to-the-ground shoes being produced for 2014, as well as more moderate models — but the maximalism concept that Hoka debuted in 2010 appears to be gaining momentum. And to be clear, it’s not just about the amount of foam, it’s how resilient and responsive the foam is. (For that reason, 2013 shoes like the Nike Flynkit Lunar 1+ and Adidas Energy Boost are tied to the trend, too, even though they had slightly more traditional dimensions.)

RELATED: Sneak Peek of 2014 Running Shoes

Clearly, the pendulum has swung away from the barely-there minimalist trend, both because wearing those shoes requires a high level of dynamic strength and fitness and not all runners have that or are willing or able to spend the time to develop it. And, of course, because many runners (presumably many who aren’t dynamically strong and fit and haven’t been willing or able to get there) have gotten hurt wearing minimalist shoes. It doesn’t mean the running industry is giving up on more minimally designed, lower-to-the-ground shoes; it just means companies are hedging their bets and trying to accommodate every runner out there.

Bottom line? Some runners just want a cushy feeling under their feet. And yes, just as the minimalist trend has its detractors, other runners are bound to completely avoid these shoes and consider them “hokey” or not for them.

Other brands have created shoes that have fallen in the soft, cushy, floaty realm in the past few years — including Brooks, Adidas, Nike and Skechers — but only now is there a deliberate movement toward oversized cushioning or “high cushion” as some brands are calling it. What’s making it possible now are all of the new lightweight upper and outsole materials and construction techniques, along with the lightweight and responsive midsole foams being developed, all of which enables oversized shoe designs to still be relatively light.

And, yes, marketing dollars help, too. A lot. When a brand (or several brands) put large amounts of money into promoting these shoes, that tends to create a trend as much as the authentic demand from the market. Still, the new trend is both a response to the uber-minimalist trend — with the new shoes expected to cater to both of those runners who were hurt wearing minimalist shoes or found it never worked for them — but also a continuation of what Hoka started a few years ago.

Remember, Hoka founders Nicolas Mermoud and Jean-Luc Diard never intended to create an anti-minimalist product. They were all along focused on the oversized technologies and designs in skiing, mountain biking, surfing and tennis. The idea is that excessive size — in this case the amount of cushioning in the midsole — can help an athlete conquer an aspect of that sport with a bigger sweet spot. In skiing, wider skis means more float over the snow. In tennis, a wider racket design means a larger surface area for hitting a ball. In mountain biking, a 29-inch wheel or oversized tires makes its easier to conquer technical features like rocks, roots and varying terrain angles.

RELATED: The Story Behind Hoka Running Shoes 

So what does it mean in running? Certainly, a soft, mega-cushy ride is the most obvious advantage (if that’s what you want), but there are several aspects to that. First, it feels comfortable underfoot on every footstrike. But there’s also the lessened impact stress inflicted on the body, and runners who swear by Hokas will tell you the extra foam reduces the amount of recovery time needed from a long run or race. Then there’s the idea of increased energy return, which each of these companies and many runners say is increased considerably in max cushioned shoes.

Are there still doubts about maximally cushioned shoes? You bet. Here are a few unanswered questions so far:

— If you follow the logic that a runner can reap the benefits of minimalist models — by way of engaging more muscles and other soft tissue components of the foot, ankle and lower leg, and thus becoming stronger — doesn’t that mean excessive foam would create weaker feet, ankles and lower legs from being less engaged?

— Even though these new shoes are made with light foams and other lightweight materials, many (but not all) still tip the scales between 11 and 13 ounces (1-5 ounces more than other everyday trainers, but on par with where most trainers were in the early 2000s), so what about the reports and the logic about lighter shoes being generally better than heavier shoes?

— One of the key benefits of minimalist shoes is a runner’s ability to “feel” the ground and react biomechanically according to the sensory connection between a runner’s foot and brain. Isn’t that sensory interaction muted or completely lost in these types of shoes?

— Aren’t runners more vulnerable to twisting or spraining ankles with such high-off-the-ground platforms?

The jury is still out, of course, and ultimately it will come down to individual runners finding out what works best for them. However, representatives from many running shoe retailers in attendance at the trade shoe — including Curtis Munson from Playmakers in Okemos, Mich., and Henry Guzman from the Boulder Running Company in Boulder, Colo. — spoke reverently about the trend in general.

“There’s a lot of merit to this new trend, and I think this is going to be a very good thing,” Munson says. “There’s still a lot of good reasons runners can and should wear lightweight, low-to-the-ground shoes. But not everyone can run in minimalist shoes, and not everyone can run in minimalist shoes every single day. There are a lot of runners who would think this is just what they’ve wanted all along. I think this is going to be big.”

And, for what it’s worth, footwear giant Deckers Outdoor Corp., the company that owns Teva, Ugg, Sanuk and Ahnu footwear brands, thought enough of the trend to buy Hoka earlier this year.

It’s also interesting to note that Hoka is bringing out shoes that are actually closer to the ground, with the idea of offering runners a way to transition into oversized technology. The new Rapa Nui Tarmac (men’s) and Kailua Tarmac (women’s) have “stack heights” of 26mm in the heel and 21mm in the forefoot. Those shoes are still maximally cushioned, but they’re lower than the other Hoka shoes which have stack heights that range from 29mm (heel)/24.5mm (forefoot) to 33mm (heel)/29mm (forefoot). (The stack height of a shoe accounts for all of the material between the foot and the ground, representing the height off the ground of the foot as it sits on the interior footbed of a shoe.)

It might seem ironic that the lower stack heights of the newer Hoka models and the weights of many of these modern trendsetters are akin to where most traditional trainers were in the early 2000s, before the running shoe revolution began. But it’s the performance of the new foams that is viewed as game-changing.

Check out the gallery at the top of this post for a look at five new maximally cushioned models due out in early 2014.

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