Super Cushioned Shoes: Are HOKA Shoes Good for Runners or Not?

Maximalist cushioned running shoes are all the rage these days with athletes. So you know, talking about if HOKA shoes are good in a running blog might get a little fiery–maybe even a little weird.

After all, few things evoke more commentary, fervor, and zeal than a conversation around running shoes.

running in HOKA shoes
Photo credit: Gear Junkie

The Most Critical Equipment for Runners–Our Shoes

Runners tend to care a lot more about that thin–or in this case, ultra-thick–layer of rubber between them and the ground than they do about a lot of things.

For example–the next president, the name of their next child, or even the name of their current child.

Well, maybe not the last two things–sorry parents! Nevertheless, footwear ranks pretty darn high in the day-to-day of a runner.

Highly cushioned shoes such as the HOKA One One’s have become popular among runners who prefer a cushioned shoe. But first, we have to examine our intense relationship with shoes in the first place.

You might be saying, “Meeee? I don’t care that much about shoes. As IF!”

Yes, you. Unless you’re a Hobbit, you have an opinion. As for you barefoot runners out there–don’t think you’re excluded from this post. You guys are just as shoe-weird as the rest of us.

Before we dive into the controversial stuff, let’s remember the underlying belief that unites all runners.

We Believe Our Shoes Save Us

Shoes–or a certain type of shoe can save us, right? To put it another way, woe to the runner unjustly fit into the wrong shoe. That marathon? Gone in the blink of a Strava KOM, especially should the wrong shoes cup your heels.

Your friend who struggled through your last long run together with that IT band injury? Turns out he was in a moderate stability shoe with a 10mm drop, when he should have been in a high stability shoe and a 12mm drop.

So if all this certainty exists about the destroying power of the wrong shoe, how do we know when we have found the “right” pair?

The moment we hand our credit card over, we peek into the bag and see that minted cardboard box. You can smell that intoxicating new shoe smell. You don’t just see the right shoe anymore, you feel it.

We have a vision for the possibility and potential of the shoes. You might think, “I can do anything, run anywhere, and accomplish my major goals with this shoe.” We vibrate with a sense of hope, success, and perhaps a touch of nothing-can-stop-me invincibility as we exit the store.

Cushioned HOKA Running Shoes: Do They HURT or HELP?

Put aside your personal preferences for a moment. There various theories and research that help understand if cushioned shoes like HOKA’s are good for us or not.

Try not to pass judgment on any theory or study–take a moment to examine your own obsessive relationship with shoes. We all want our shoes to look right, be a certain color, have the precise size, and be the correct brand. Even choosing not to wear shoes is now a trend. Yes, there’s a lifestyle, product, and similar promises associated with virtually any fork in the road.

The question is–which fork have you chosen? Where do your loyalties lie, and why? Are your shoes responsible for your failure or success? Your injuries or crazy streak of health? Did your shoes get you to the Boston Marathon starting line or pave the way for your most recent 5K PR?

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One Study Links Cushioned Shoes to Higher Impact

Despite popular belief, researchers from the Spaulding National Running Center determined that highly cushioned shoes are not linked to lower levels of impact than traditional running shoes.

They found the opposite to be true. The study showed that highly cushioned shoes come with a higher vertical average load rate and vertical instantaneous loading rate. Both of these promote overuse injuries like stress fractures and plantar fasciitis.

Why? Aren’t those cushioned soles supposed to protect us?

“People actually land softer when they have less cushioning,” says Irene S. Davis, Ph.D., PT, a professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and director of the Spaulding National Running Center. “Cushioning actually lulls you into thinking you can slam your foot into the ground.”

Remember, Opinions Vary

A 2015 New York Times article also discusses the worthiness of HOKA shoes. HOKA shoes have twice the amount of cushioning as standard running shoes–and were designed with ultrarunners who run races of 200+ miles in mind.

Still, the author mentions 1,500 meter Olympian Leo Manzana, who runs in Hoka One One shoes. Manzana had chronic plantar fasciitis that he said disappeared one week after he started wearing the HOKA’s. In fact, he’s now sponsored by HOKA.

woman running an ultra distance race

On the other hand, when I ran cross-country and track in college, I learned that highly cushioned shoes were not for me the hard way. In cushioned shoes, I experienced stress fractures every season. Once I switched to a lightweight trainer, poof–it never happened again.

Jerry Dicharry, a biochemist and author of Anatomy for Runners, says, “People are frustrated, and we’re told so often there’s a magic shoe that will stop our injuries. But that’s just not true.”

The bottom line? Everyone is different–from your running form to your mileage, there’s no one right shoe for everyone. Just like evaluating any shoe, if you wear super-cushioned shoes and have recurring injuries, you might want to reconsider if HOKA shoes are good for you.

A happy runner is a healthy runner with strong muscles, enjoying pain-free runs. Get started by downloading our FREE injury prevention video series or checking out one of our training programs for runners of all levels today!