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!

 

 



 

  • Daniel Nikel

    So this post got my attention. Injured this year by low profile kicks. Feet were fine then two days of sprints uphill knocked the life out of my feet!

    I wanted to blame all involved and join the sueing culture….I wanted the running shop to pay and the kicks manufacturer to burn!

    I mailed both jointly and asked them to contact me. The shoe maker was first to provide contact. Great customer services. They explained how they point out and train the running stores on where they place their products therefore the fact that the shoe was in a support section meant it was incorrectly placed. (I can understand that)

    Next up was the shoe store. They apologised and offered refund or replace straight away. They also offered padded in doles to help with needed cushioning. I have accepted this and cut my losses. I have been out of running scince March now and dabbled just yesterday 3 miles in 7mmp. My foot has held up I think. I have three types of insole now however. One from boots which made the pain of walking bearable and one from the local orthopedic shoe shop which seems the have given me extra confidence to strike the ground.

    I also had 3 sessions of psysio which helped me to walk correctly early on along with metatarsal support recommended by the Dr. The DR suggested what I wanted to avoid (quatazon injections) I also predicted this would be his solution….the orthopedic center said that my Dr was wrong and I had not lost padding in my foot.

    Basically I have been thrown pillar to post and scared to spend any money on shoes again. The science needs to improve and until everyone run bear foot for a year and then full padding for a year you cannot really draw many conclusions. I guess each case has its individual issue to bring to the table.

    • Nate Helming

      thanks for the note! Glad you enjoyed our post. You know the biggest thing we work on with runners like you is getting you to move better in your body, understand where and why you’re body is tight, and how you can make simple improvements in your mobility, strength, and run technique. Meaning you’ll be able to run well regardless of the shoes you’re in.

      Our most successful program so for is our 30 Day Challenge! You can learn more about this 30 day program here: https://therunexperience.com/30daychallenge/

      And trust me, I wouldn’t share it if I didn’t think it would help 🙂

      But if that’s too big of a commitment, we have an injury prevention series that walks you through a series of game changing mobility exercises that will really help you understand how to work on your feet, ankles, and calves so that your feet work a little bit better for you!
      https://therunexperience.com/injuryprevention

    • hey Daniel Nikel how are you doing with your running? Sorry to hear about your frustrations here and unfortunately you are NOT alone on this one. Hope your running future is looking a little brighter 🙂

      • Daniel Nikel

        Well things are not quite as bad. I managed to visit an occupational health Specialist who advised me unlike my Dr and My usual sports physio that I did not have Plantar Fasciitis but and issues with a joint in the middle of my foot. I can put weight on my foot now and have my children on my back however I seemed to have developed Sciatica now maybe from trying to run too fast too soon on unprepared legs…Or like Ruth says it may be just my age being a factor. All I know is I was healthy prior to this mess of getting given the wrong shoes for my feet. I have ben able to do upto 5 miles 3 times and then I have had to rest from running and unfortunately this is not a consistent pattern yet the rests have been weeks rather than a day or two.
        I am trying not to push to much as I have a competition coming up I am doing with my friends called Endure24 you may have heard of it? Anyway I am looking forward to the day and will compete no matter my condition (well ok maybe I will stop if it hurts and keep my ability to walk).

        • Daniel Nikel

          One issue I have with these studies is that the subjects only run 10 miles per week when the average runner must run upto around 50 miles per week and the speed can sometimes be twice as quick which equals a greater load usually… any thoughts? It may not change the study much but when you include a flat foot runner also into the mix I am sure the studies might come up with different results.

          • Hey Daniel. If you haven’t checked out our Ultimate Guide it’s a good place to start. https://therunexperience.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-improve-your-running/

            I’m willing to bet that a focus on strength, single leg strength and balance, greater mobility and range of motion, and a daily practice around your movement can solve a lot of these problems.

            Remember it’s good to look at the problem from a micro lense, but if we never step back and look at the big picture we risk running around in circles.

            so check out our piece on squatting, on hollow body (Core work) etc. The good news? You can work on all of this stuff right now, even while you’re foot’s healing 🙂

    • Ruth Eiermann

      Its tough to experience issues when you just want to get out and run but I also blame it on age. As I have gotten older tendon issues have become more of a problem. Finding the right shoe is always difficult. I am out for 6 weeks with tarsal tunnel caused by overuse and that pounding during my speed work. You are not alone….. Missing the spring season will be tough but now I can root for my fellow runners and come back strong!

      • Hey Ruth! I’ll suggest the same to you as I did to Daniel. I think some focused work on strength, mobility, balance and coordination will really suprise you. We have to step back and look at the bigger picture and ask: why are your feet getting so beat up in the first place? Is it really just this one shoe? We believe you should be able to run in a lot of different shoes and that (while important) YOU control your movement more than your equipment does or should. I hope that makes sense! You can dig in more here with our Ultimate Guide: https://therunexperience.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-improve-your-running/

  • Ruth Eiermann

    I am confused with this article. Are you saying to leave it in the eyes of the beholder, not fads and promises? Hmm?

    • In essence yes Ruth we are! Shoes play an important role, but we want to know why we are running in what shoes and simulataneously we want to further understand why our body moves the way it does and figure out ways to make it move better!

      • Ruth Eiermann

        and I am down for 6 weeks… Eek ghats! Why overuse and no rest time. I guess we all learn the hard way.

  • Alfredo Corretjer

    I was suffering from injuries for the last 3 years, keeping me out of training, and gaining weight; In this month, I gave an opportunity to Hoka One and my pain is gone, I am registered for a 5K next Saturday; I have improved distance, time etc… and no pain.

    • that’s great to hear Alfredo! Just remember…did the shoe really “fix” the problem? Or did it just take the pain away? Not necessarily the same thing. We like good running shoes around here, we just want to also have the conversation around your strength and mechanics and what things YOU can be doing to improve your running..regardless of the shoe you’re in!–Nate

  • Sarah Bibby

    I try to remain skeptical of all running shoe manufacturer’s claims – we all have different running styles and are all different weights and sizes so why should we expect one type of shoe to suit us all? I’ve progressed from running in Asics’ (at the time) most cushioned shoes, the rather lovely Nimbus, but struggled with shin splints. I transitioned through various Brooks Glycerine and Adidas Ace iterations and now run in a variety of low-profile shoes (Nike Free 5 and 4, NB Minimus WR00 and TR00 and Inov8 X-talon. I don’t fully subscribe to the whole barefoot thing (rocks hurt!) but I find I prefer a flexible, light-weight shoe with minimal/little cushioning. However, I fully accept that this is not for everyone – heavy landing heel-strikers would probably end up with impact related injury issues – and I certainly don’t think anyone should go from one type of running shoe to another (either barefoot or max cushioning) without a period of transitioning. (It took me a couple of years to get down to zero drop, zero cushioning and even now I tend to use them only for shorter, faster paced runs.)

    The study mentioned seems extremely rudimentary and I’d hesitate to draw conclusions from a study where the control shoe and the shoe tested were so wildly different (could they not have used a control shoe with the same drop?) and where the runners were given only 3 minutes to acclimatise to the shoes… When a study is done on athletes who regularly run 30+ miles a week, are accustomed to running on a treadmill and have a proper control to compare with, then maybe we can draw some meaningful conclusions – but by then we’ll probably be drooling over some other shoe trend! (For info, I’m currently drooling over the Nike Flyknit range – no seams, fit like slippers. Swoon!)

    • Nate Helming

      thanks for the thoughtful reply Sarah! You know it’s always when looking at different studies and extrapolating those results to mean something bigger 🙂 You’re right to remain skeptical AND to look at the conditions under which the study was conducted!

  • Michelle C.

    I’m one of those people who’ve spent their whole running career (19 years at this point) in search of the perfect shoe. And everyone is different. Recently, I suffered a bucket handle tear of me left my lateral meniscus, which left me with a locked knee and on crutches for a month. In the interest of best preserving my good let while under a newly higher load, I decided to spend most of my time on my feet in running shoes. The shoes of choice were two that I don’t love running in: Mizuno Hitogami and Nike Pegasus. I thought I’d appreciate the extra cushion and softness of the Pegs, but I was dead wrong. The extra soft stack height left me feeling like my good leg – and the foot in particular – was doing substantially more work in order to remain stable than in the much lower Hirogami. While I continue to heal post-surgery, it’s left me thinking that soft shoes are not something I want anymore. The cushion feels nice on my feet, but what is it really doing to the rest of my body? I also wonder whether softness is a much bigger factor than stack height. Lots to think about.

  • Jane Hudson Eaker

    I have been experimenting with an Altra shoe. So if its a zero drop with HC-does that make a difference towards impact . I am recovering from a back issue. What will provide the best impact absorption. Does the heel height/forefoot height ratio make a difference. It seems like a lot more studies need to be done.

  • Christopher Quiroga

    I’m just not so sure that the term “zero-drop” is really all that accurate from a functional kinetic perspective. To preface with a little background, I have had several nagging injuries throughout the years, ranging from the rare occurrence of typical shin splints, to more prevalent lower back issues, peroneal tendonitis, soleus pain, knee pain, and general forefoot pain, either caused or exacerbated by running, all of them being more of a concern in recent years, especially back, foot and knee pain, since I have put on a good deal of muscle weight, along with unwanted fat during periods of food splurging during injury-induced inactivity( why do those always seem to go together?). Though I’ve never really been what I’d call a true runner, running has always been a favorite fitness activity, both for fitness and recreation on its own, and a necessarily beneficial complement to my other activities such as boxing and soccer, and I’m happy to say that I’m finally getting back into it after a long period of injury and illness. Therefore, in my desire to continue a running program, footwear has been a major aspect of that endeavor. In my research over the last several years, I’ve considered many aspects of maximal vs minimal both in theory and practice, such as the fact that “natural” does not necessarily include concrete and asphalt, and that body weight and composition greatly affect one’s gait and the resulting consequences. In short, I’ve been looking for the perfect shoe, or rather, rotation of shoes.

    Forgive the lengthy preface and let me come to the point. In regards to the high-cushion, minimal-drop debate, I have recently come to realize that there is one potentially important concept I have only very rarely (perhaps only once or twice) even seen addressed let alone studied. There seems to be little to no accounting for the fact that upon impact, any material meant to provide cushioning must inherently compress, especially in a high-cushion shoe, where the compression would be significantly higher than a firmer shoe. So if a runner such as myself (I tend to lean towards a mid-foot strike, then often resort to rear-foot as I get tired…so basically I rear-foot a lot more than I would like 🙂 who weighs north of 200 were to land on my heel in a zero-drop shoe, it seems highly likely that I would in effect be wearing a NEGATIVE drop shoe, as the compression forces would place my heel FAR below my forefoot, and would remain there until part of the way through transition, as the force on the heel strike would be far greater than the push off of the forefoot. With some of the softer materials being stacked up so high, a negative drop seems a likely scenario even with a 4mm or 6mm drop, as even with walking, I can feel a significant compression under heel in some of the softer shoes I have tried. Obviously, this would result in a much greater transition effort for a true heel striker, a group around which much of the current data revolves, as the forefoot essentially has to dig the heel out of a hole with every step, but what affect would these forces have on the muscles, bones, and tendons that would essentially be running uphill in moist clay with every step, but doing so from a position that places them under unique stresses that bear no resemblance to actually running up a hill on your toes?

    This is definitely a conundrum I would love to see answered with further study. Obviously, without any hard data, I can’t make a judgement either way, nor speak with any authority on the matter, but from an eager enthusiast’s perspective, it seems to me that a foot unevenly squishing into a zero drop shoe heel-first may not only be confounding some of the current study results, but potentially could also be a fairly bad idea.

  • Carrie

    These are the best, most thoroughly researched shoes I have found. http://oeshshoes.com/ The sole development also came out of Harvard research during the barefoot research trends. And continued research on the UVA treadmill. After a competitive college career and some hefty post-collegiate marathon training, they are the only shoes I can wear where my feet don’t hurt in the first 1/4 mile and my back doesn’t hurt later that day. I am totally sold. As for Hoka’s. I was given a free pair, and they came in handy when I broke my ankle and was in a walking boot. I was able to wear a Hoka on my healthy foot and elevate to the same level as that klunky walking boot. Good for them.

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  • Susan

    A lifetime recreational runner I used many different shoes. (Adidas response was a favorite) Four years ago I decided to take on a 13.1. And during that training I went to a local running store who checked my form, etc. Brooks Ghost was great for three years. 10 half marathons, and a full. After awhile injuries started to plague me. The Hoka’s felt so sweet under my aching legs….but they certainly required more work running than the Ghosts. I then switched to the Glycerin 12’s. Felt more control over my form (I am 5’4 and 112). they were great until Brooks decided to add more cushioning when the 13’s and 14’s came out. Although the cushioning made my feet feel better it did affect my gate. I had to focus for my 20 mile runs. my 3rd attempt to run the 20 miler (before my 2nd marathon) went bad. A stressed tendon probably due to an over tightened hamstring. So, now I am out looking for another type of shoe that isn’t all cushioning yet isn’t zero drop. Ugh! It is frustrating when one finds a great shoe just to have the manufacturer change it. (Brooks). I have had my gate and form checked by specialists.

  • Gary

    Ever since I bought a pair of ASICs Kayano, the extra cushion gel have been giving me really had shin splints. I stopped wearing them altogether, jog instead with my tennis shoes (which barely have any cushion) and the shin splint all but disappeared. Guess Asics just ain’t for me despite how great they feel

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  • Andrew Shardlow

    I have seen the study by J Baltich et al. It is pretty high tech yet rather naive. It uses recreational runners with a 90% heel strike and compares the dynamics of a normal drop conventional shoe with a low drop highly cushioned shoe. This is a strange choice as it does not control for drop. Directly measured forces are obtained from running a short distance to include over a footplate. These forces are applied to the bottom of the shoe not the sole of the foot. The study did not look at long term adaptation to the extra cushioning (AND to the reduced drop).

  • Bris Vegas

    I was taught by one of the world’s leading professors of biomechanics. I will paraphrase his opinions:

    1) Injuries are caused by bad technique
    2) No shoe will reduce injuries or correct technique
    2) Expensive running shoes are no better than $20 no brand department store shoes.
    3) Shoe manufacturers claims are total BS
    4) Buy shoes that are comfortable and replace them very frequently (500-100Km)

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