Pros and cons of maximalist running shoes

A few months ago I wrote a blog that explored the rise and supposed fall of barefoot running. So it was a matter of time before I balanced the ledger and looked into the explosion in popularity of super-cushioned running shoes, also known as maximalist footwear.

Over the past few weeks I've been exposed to this trendy phenomenon a handful of times. First, my local gym had a display stand from a footwear store featuring maximalist running shoes, then a friend told me about the Trail Running Series (which looks great by the way) and then I came across the first study that tested whether extreme cushioned running shoes influence running economy.

Maximalist what?

Although running shoes with ample cushioning have been around for a while, extreme cushioned running shoes, featuring lightweight yet bulky foam midsoles, have gained a steady stream of followers over the past couple of years.

The maximalist footwear category was pioneered by newcomer HOKA ONE ONE in 2010, but today they're not the only brand producing shoes with thick, cushy midsoles and high heel stack. All the well-known shoe manufactures are making them too including Brooks, New Balance, Nike and Saucony. Due to their relatively short time in the market, there's a tendency to categorise any shoe with a thick midsole as maximalist, but Roger Hanney from HOKA says the term maximalism doesn't convey a universal meaning.

"Spikes are a kind of shoe; racing flats are a kind of shoe and cross-trainers are a kind of shoe, but for most people cushion, comfort and speed still say more about what they want from a shoe than 'maximal' does."

Neutral vs maximalist

Until now, there hasn't been a study looking at the performance of maximalist running shoes, whether they make running easier or prevent injuries. Several shoe manufacturers have conducted their own research as part of their product development, but those studies tend to support the shoe company's marketing agenda.

That's why, despite its relatively small sample size, the first independent laboratory study into maximalist footwear is quite exciting.

The study, conducted out of the University of Nevada's human performance lab, saw 10 experienced runners alternate between wearing neutral running shoes (Adidas Prene) and a pair of extreme cushioning shoes (HOKA Bondi 4). They ran for eight to 10 minutes in each type of shoe at three different speeds and two different inclines on a treadmill, while wearing a mask that measured their oxygen intake.

The scientists looked to see if the shoes made it more or less difficult to run by measuring the amount of oxygen used by a runner wearing those shoes.

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I found the results really underwhelming. The footwear the runners wore did not affect their oxygen intake and it seems that the cushioning of the shoe (extreme vs regular) played no role in the influence of running economy. In other words, the maximalist shoes did not make running more tiring. But they also did not make it easier.

Runners on the rise

We still don't scientifically know whether wearing maximalist shoes will make you a better runner or help prevent injury, but the growth in sales must mean something. Right?

A quick peek at Google Trends data on HOKA shows that interest over time continues to rise, with Australians being the third most interested behind the US and France. Hanney says Australian sales of HOKA have doubled every year since launching in mid-2011.

"Six years ago HOKA did not really exist," says Hanney. "Last year, HOKA was the third most popular running shoe amongst triathletes at the Hawaiian Ironman World Championships. These are not people using kit because of fashion. These are athletes who compete for anywhere from eight to 15 hours and want solutions that work."

To help shed light on what's making runners switch to maximalist footwear I spoke with stroke survivor and ultra runner Bill Deering.

Deering started running in 2011 when he weighed 130kgs. Today, he has completed at least 50 ultra-marathons and tips the scales at 70kgs. When he's training for a race he puts me to shame by running around 100kms a week and this year aims to complete an ultra-marathon each month.

Deering began trail running at the height of the barefoot running boom, so naturally he wore minimalist shoes. As he increased his training and mileage he started getting foot pain and lower limb injuries. Over the next few years Deering tried most running shoe brands until settling on HOKA.

"As I got to know a few more people in the ultra running community, people started to turn up to social runs in HOKAs and I thought they look a bit odd. I said 'these are a gimmick and they won't hang around long'," says Deering.

Rolling issue

One of my burning questions when I look at maximalist running shoes is whether the large midsole and added heel lift makes them unstable. Deering admits this was one of his concerns too.

Hanney adds, "the appearance of a very high heel is deceiving, because unlike regular shoes your foot actually sits down inside the midsole of a HOKA and is cradled by the foam."

"The soft thick foam of the midsole means that the shoe is also much more likely to deform over naturally occurring irregularities like rocks and tree roots, rather than deflect the way that a thinner, harder midsole would."

If after reading this you're not sure whether to race out and buy a pair of HOKAs, New Balance Fresh Foam or Brooks Transcend, just remember that maximalist shoes aren't for everyone, just as minimalist shoes aren't everyone. Super-spongey, maximalist shoes are another option for runners and not just ultra runners.

Have you tried maximalist running shoes? Give us your verdict in the Comments section.

The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.

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