Jason Bahamundi will go to his grave clutching his pair of Hoka One One running shoes. The finisher of five Ironman races and multiple ultramarathons swears by the big, cushy shoes—and he’s not alone. The brand saw sales increase 350 percent from 2013 to 2015 and most running shoemakers now have a maximalist offering. As legions of runners flock to the over-cushioned category, however, they risk some tradeoffs if they don’t do some back-end work—a false sense of security being one.
“The shoes might not be bad, but they will allow you to get away with some movement dysfunction,” says elite runner, physician and natural running advocate Mark Cucuzzella. “If an 80-year old runner wants to run a few miles a week and these shoes allow him or her to do that, great. But for a young marathoner putting in high mileage, ultimately the body will pay a price if the runner doesn’t have good form.”
Physical therapist Dr. Robert Gillanders from Washington, D.C., agrees. “If you think all that cushion will fix things or allow you to stay injury-free, you are being short-sighted,” he says. “When we step back and look over injury statistics dating to the 1970s, not much has changed. Runners still make the same mistakes and equipment variations aren’t improving that.”
Gillanders points out that research shows runners who avoid injuries tend to be those who land softly. He worries that when a runner straps on a heavily cushioned shoe, he or she perceives a soft landing when in fact the opposite is true. He points to a 2007 study in the Journal of Sports Science that tested athletes landing on force plates. When told they were running on soft surfaces, they actually hit the ground harder than when they perceived themselves to be running across hard surfaces.
Houston-based runner James Dykas recently made the switch from a minimal shoe to the Altra Torin, the company’s second most cushioned model, on a physician’s recommendation. He feels the difference in a lack of control. “I am more apt to attack the ground in less shoe whereas in the bigger shoe, I gingerly make my way through an area of concern, like a broken stretch of sidewalk,” he says. “The more cushion I am wearing, the less I feel like I am running, and the more I feel like I am just moving forward.”
Cucuzzella maintains that running in a big shoe prevents the foot from functioning as it is designed—as a spring rather than a shock absorber. “Our feet are the first thing to hit the ground,” he says. “They control the forces that hit our body and when you are wearing lots of cushion, they can’t activate and perform that function.”
Closing The Gaps
So what’s a runner like Bahamundi to do? Ensure that his feet are strong and his body is primed for proper mechanical function, says Gillanders. “In my clinic, I don’t spend time focusing on footwear,” he explains. “I am looking for things like mobility, balance and stability throughout the kinetic chain.”
The PT commonly works with runners on their posterior chain strength and neutral positioning. “Runners need to demonstrate static stability before they can lead into moving stability,” he says. “There’s no substitute for the basics.”
Bahamundi has been very conscientious about this. “As soon as I come in from a run, the shoes are off and I am walking around in my bare feet,” he says. “I also do balance work that intertwines with my core work and strength work.”
His regimen includes things like rolling a ball under his feet, picking up items with his toes and standing balance work. “This has helped me strengthen my body and allow [my shoes] to be an asset rather than a liability,” Bahamundi says.
Cucuzzella says that these are all part and parcel to making a heavily cushioned shoe work for a runner. “If you counter the time spent in these shoes with lots of time in your bare feet or minimalist shoes at other times, you’ll improve your odds of avoiding injury,” he explains. “The body needs variability.”
Gillanders likes to see runners strengthen the muscles going into the foot, as well as working to make the foot stable. “In maximalist models, in particular, there’s a good deal of play that can impact the posterior tibialis,” he says. “Whatever the shoe, a runner should be on a path to kinetic chain stability.”
While Dykas isn’t yet convinced the cushioned shoes will work for him, Bahamundi will never look back. “At the end of the day, it’s performance that matters to me,” he says. “I was able to run two 100-milers in a two-week period and I’m convinced I wouldn’t have been able to do that if it weren’t for the shoes.”