HOKA Running Shoe Review-Hype or Helpful?
HOKA RUNNING SHOE REVIEW-HYPE OR HELPFUL?
Anyone paying attention to current running shoe trends would have noticed the recent emergence and rise in popularity of a bulky rocker bottom brand of shoes known as HOKA One Ones. These shoes seem to be appearing more and more on runner’s feet. I’ve observed a concomitant uptake of use by both recreational and elite athletes.
There are numerous shoes within the HOKA One One range, from the performance oriented Bondi 3, to the ‘running on grass’ Clifton (the lightest HOKA shoe). All of the HOKA One One range (click HERE to view the range) share common features that distinguish the shoes from what we would recognise as a more traditional motion control (e.g. ASICS Kayano) or lighter minimalist type shoe (e.g. NIKE Free).
THE FEATURES OF HOKA SHOES
The common features of the HOKA One One range that distinguishes these shoes from most other shoes are:
- Larger soles (greater stack height) from forefoot to rear-foot (there can be up to 33mm of cushioning under the heel and 29mm under the forefoot, see the Bondi 4 road running shoe HERE. This greater midsole volume can be up to 2.5 x greater than a standard running shoe.
- Rocker bottom sole (this is not unique to just HOKA One Ones-there are a few shoe brands that produce rocker bottom shoes e.g. Sketchers, Altra). The HOKA rocker bottom is labelled as ‘Meta-Rocker’ technology, whereby the heel and toe of the shoe are wider than usual to help create a forward driving ‘fulcrum-type’ effect and faster transition of the runner’s body weight onto the forefoot. Shoes stability is also dependant on the width of the shoe – the higher the shoe the wider it needs to be to compensate for the height. Hence HOKAS have increased the width of the bottom of the shoe to compensate for the extra height.
- Manufacturer purported greater rebounding foam (HOKA claim 50% greater cushioning than a standard running shoe).
NOT SO FAR FROM A MINIMALIST SHOE
At first glance HOKAS appear to fly in the face of the trend towards lighter more minimalist running shoes, of whose popularity enjoyed a recent decade long boom. Interestingly many people fail to recognise that the heel drop (or pitch) of the HOKA One One range of shoes is in fact not greater in drop than more conventional shoes. The appearance of the shoes with the large rear -foot stack heights certainly gives the impression of a large heel drop height, but the reality is that the drop off all of the road-running HOKA One One range varies between 2mm and 5mm (click HERE). Compare this heel drop to an ASICS Kayano (HERE) shoe which typically has a 10mm heel drop, or a New Balance 860 (HERE) for example which also features a 10mm heel drop, and it’s interesting to note that if you define a minimalist shoe on the heel drop of the shoe alone, than the HOKA One Ones would in fact be a minimalist shoe!
Just as the recent running world trend toward minimalist shoes such as the VIBRAM 5 fingers polarised the running community, so too the running world seems divided over the entrance and growing popularity of the HOKA One Ones.
As a physiotherapist and running enthusiast I have been observing the growing popularity of the ‘HOKAS’ for the last 2 years. My first recollection of the shoe was when a client of mine who was suffering from a long standing Achilles tendon injury wore the shoes into the practice and swore by the help that the HOKAS had afforded her efforts of running pain free. The appearance of the shoe immediately grabbed my attention and my scepticism of the extra bulky heel was high given my fervent penchant towards minimalist running footwear.
My scepticism of the HOKAS has remained high over the last 2 years however an observation of more and more runners wearing the HOKAS has led me to now do the research in order to form an informed opinion of this funny looking footwear. I have also observed a mini boom in local and QLD Australia based runners adopting the HOKA Ones Ones as their shoe of choice. Additionally I recently returned from the Cairns Ironman Triathlon where I observed a large number of competitors of all levels running in the HOKA shoes, including race winner and professional triathlete (and former junior triathlon friend) Luke McKenzie donning the HOKA’s en route to his 7th Ironman Title.
RUNNER’S TYPICAL OPINIONS
In asking fellow runners and clients their opinion of the HOKA One One range of shoes and they will share one of three responses:
- They will dismiss the HOKA’s as a flash in the pan’ fad soon to disappear from the running shoe marketplace
- In contrast they will praise the HOKA’s as a much needed running shoe innovation and ‘breakthrough’
- Or they will likely be aware of the shoes existence and be confused and searching for an answer as to whether the HOKA’s are actually ‘any good’.
After I have asked the what do you think question, the standard response is ‘what do you think?’. Given that the bulk of my physiotherapy week is spent working with runners, I figured it’s time to get informed and write a blog post about my findings.
HOKA’s launched in 2009 right in the height of the minimalist shoe boom. The brand was pioneered by French athletes based out of San Francisco. HOKA’s grassroots following emerged from within the ultra-runners who embraced the notion that the extra ‘maximilist’ cushioning spared their legs some of the shock associated with running upwards of two back to back continuous marathons. However over recent years HOKA has developed a keen following amongst recreational runners. In 2014 HOKA’s annual sales swelled to a staggering 350% from 2013’s annual figures, the total sales topped $48million, with more than half a million pairs sold.
THE HUNT FOR THE PERFECT SHOE
As a physiotherapist I spend a great deal of time educating injured runners that there is no one magic shoe that will stop injuries. I educate the hopeful runner that there is instead a 5 step method (the premise of my book You CAN Run Pain Free!) that when implemented will give a runner maximum protection against the onset of injury. The 5 steps are in essence akin to ‘injury insurance’.
I caution runners that putting all their faith in a shoe while neglecting their running body or their training errors is a sure-fire path to both disappointment and injury. One of my favourite running shoe maxims is ‘form before footwear’. This maxim in essence means that a runner should focus on improving their running technique and form before they go spending excessive time and energy looking for their ‘perfect pair of shoes’ that will cure all of their running ills and prevent injury.
So with my ‘form before footwear- don’t put all your faith in a shoe to prevent injury’ mantra once again broadcast let’s look at what I believe to be the benefits and potential drawbacks* of running in HOKA’s. I will unpack the scientific evidence where it exists as substantiated by research.
*Please note that my opinion of pros and cons is at this stage research based only, I am yet to run in a pair of HOKA One Ones.
THE POTENTIAL BENEFITS OF HOKAS
From conversations with runners I know wearing the HOKAS and my HOKA wearing physiotherapy clients, the most common benefits of wearing the HOKAs that I hear espoused are:
- Running in the HOKAs is reported to reduce muscle soreness and leg fatigue.
One client of mine enthusiastically reports that her quads and long standing plantar fascia problem seem to not be bothered when wearing the HOKAs. There may be some merit in this as the body’s nervous system automatically controls and sets leg tension when people run. For example when running on soft surfaces the runner’s legs are stiffened, and when running on softer surfaces e.g. the road or concrete the leg stiffness is automatically and subconsciously reduced, by a greater amount of knee bending (or flexion) on landing. Hence it may be extrapolated that with a softer shoe cushioning landing (such as the HOKAs) and the concomitant likely greater leg stiffness due to less bend on the stance phase of running, there may be less loading of the lower limbs and therefore potentially less muscle soreness.
I am not aware of any study that validates that the HOKAS reduces leg soreness however it has been well established in the scientific literature that a reduction in knee joint bending reduces knee joint loads (1). Hence the same effect likely holds for the softer landing that HOKAS produce.
- Running in HOKAS promote faster downhill running.
As a physiotherapist I promote high cadence downhill running as opposed to over-striding downhill running, for the reduced leg forces and therefore lowered injury risk sound technique results in. However some hills and descents are so steep (particularly in some trail running and ultra-events) that the adoption of an over striding gait is a necessary survival mechanism. For such steep descents using the HOKAS which will likely reduce the trauma to the quadriceps (see above) I would assume will enable faster downhill running. There is however no research available to validate my assumption in terms of the HOKAS specifically.
- Running in HOKAS reduces forefoot loading and likely Achilles tendon loads and stress.
Running shoes with rocker bottoms such as HOKAS are designed to prevent lower limb running injuries. Rocker bottom shoes have been shown to reduce excessive plantar pressure in the forefoot with walking (2). During running rocker shoes have been shown to reduce the peak plantar flexion (toes pointed) moment during the propulsion (or push off) phase of running. The result of this reduced load through the foot is a reduced load on the Achilles tendon (3). This finding has clinical relevance for runners rehabilitating or recovery from Achilles tendon pathology.
For these two reasons (reduced plantar flexion loads on the forefoot and reduced Achilles tendon loads) rocker shoes might play a role in the prevention and treatment of overuse injuries during running.
Such findings are in contrast to research findings that runners running in the’ daddy of all minimalist shoes’ the Vibram 5 fingers compared to normal runners resulted in a greater degree of forefeet bone loading and therefore stress on the forefoot (4). This additional forefoot stress can manifest in the form of running injuries such as metatarsal stress reactions and fractures and metatarsalgia.
Hence rocket bottom shoes such as the HOKAS might be of use for runners recovering from forefoot injuries as well as Achilles tendon injuries.
- Running in HOKAS allows an over-striding runner to get away with less than ideal running form.
Research validates avoiding over-striding as a sound injury prevention and rehabilitation strategy. A 2011 research paper found that when runners decreased their step length by 10% or more, reduced impact loading at the knee and hip was achieved (5).I encourage all runners to run with what I term ‘Great Technique’ (Step 2 of the You CAN Run Pain Free! 5 step method) in order to decrease injury risk and run faster. For the runner who is yet to master the first of the 5 principles of great running technique (not over-striding) the HOKAS may assist with a softer landing and absorption of the otherwise deleterious effects of the runner’s foot landing in front of their centre of mass.
Jonathan Beverly the shoe editor for Runners World was quoted as saying when running in HOKAS you’re running with the same posture as you would if you were barefoot but with all cushioning.
If you are looking for coaching on how to run with great technique check out my RUN101 Workshops HERE.
THE POTENTIAL DRAWBACKS OF HOKAS
The detractors of HOKAS claim the massive cushion on the shoe’s sole likely decreases the proprioceptive feedback that the feet give the brain. The result being that running in HOKAS would be potentially less efficient and economical compared to running in a more traditional shoe. Let’s take a closer look.
- Running in HOKAS may be less economical.
There has been no research looking at the difference in running economy between running in a minimalist shoe, a traditional motion control shoe, or HOKAS whilst running. However a 2014 research paper discovered that running with a rocker shoe was less energy efficient than running with a minimalist or standard running shoe (6). The study reported that the mass of the rocker shoes used I the study as the likely main contributor for the increase in energy consumption during running with the rocker bottom shoe. The relationship between shoe weight and running economy has been well documented previously in studies which showed that a 100g increase in shoe weight (mass) resulted in a 1% increase in oxygen consumption (V02) (5).
The study was comprised of only 18 runners- all of which were females aged between 18yrs and 55yrs, who ran at least 5kms twice per week for the year leading into the study. The average mass of the rocker shoes was 858g per pair, 541g per pair of standard running shoes, and 321g for the minimalist shoes. The rocker shoes were modified by adding a stiffened rocker profile to the forefoot region of the standard shoe-increasing the weight of the standard shoe by 317g.
The oxygen consumption during running with rocker shoes was on average 4.5% higher than with standard shoes, and 5.6% higher than minimalist shoes. There was no difference noted in terms of ratings of perceived exertion across the three studied shoe conditions.
It is important to note that HOKA’s were not used in this study but rather the standard shoe was modified by an orthopaedic shoe technician.
- HOKAS may be dangerous for trail running.
Trail running represents a substantial greater danger than running on the road, largely due to the constant change in direction and surfaces that the trail runner encounters. A stable shoe is required so that when an unexpected rock or obstacle is encountered the runner will not roll their ankle. A low heeled shoe is generally a more stable shoe as the runner is closer to the ground and therefore their feet can ‘sense’ more allowing for the runner’s body to accommodate to the changing surface with each stride.
Due to the above I would reason that running with the high cushioned HOKAS would in my mind produce a degree of instability on trails. In saying that I am not aware of any research that supports my assumption. I also observed professional triathlete Josh Amberger run his way to victory in the 2015 edition of the Up the Buff Trail Run on the Gold Coast, while wearing HOKAS.
- HOKAS are perceived to be a heavy running shoe.
It’s natural to look at a shoe the size of the HOKAS and assume that the shoe must be heavier than its less bulky counterparts. Interestingly despite the size of the HOKAS they are actually a mid-weight running shoe. They are light given their size, but not light compared to pure minimalist shoes. You can view the weight of the HOKA range of shoes HERE.
As reported above the relationship between shoe weight and running economy has been well documented previously in studies whereby a 100g increase in shoe weight (mass) resulted in a 1% increase in oxygen consumption.
However interestingly one study revealed that the extra oxygen consumption associated with the wearing of heavier running shoes was offset by the effect of cushioning. Researchers reported that negative effects of extra shoe weight were offset by the positive effects of additional shoe cushioning (6).
- reduce muscle soreness and leg fatigue
- promote faster downhill running
- reduced forefoot loading and likely Achilles tendon loading and stress
- allows an over-striding runner to ‘get away’ with poor running form
- Running in HOKAS may be less economical
- HOKAS may be dangerous for trail running
- HOKAS are perceived to be a heavy shoe
MY CLOSING THOUGHTS
I am not affiliated with HOKA however after conducting my research I am eager to trial a pair of HOKA One Ones and will shortly be looking to purchase a pair to put them to the test*
*note: I am yet to test the HOKAs but intend to still do so-will keep everyone posted (October 2016).
Brad Beer (APAM)
Physiotherapist, Author Amazon Running & Jogging Bestseller You CAN Run Pain Free!, Founder POGO Physio
- (1) LenhartR, Thelen D, Wille C, Chumanov E, Heiderscheit B. Increasing Running Step Rate Reduces Patellofemoral Joint Forces. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: 2 August 2013
- (2) Brown D, Wertsch JJ, Harris GF et al. Effect of rocker soles on plantar pressures. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 2004: 85 (1): 81-86.
- (3) Boyer KA, Andriacchi TP. Changes in running kinematics and kinetics in response to a rockered shoe intervention. Clin Biomech 2009: 24(10): 872-876.
- (4) Bergstra, S. Kluitenberg, B. Dekker, R. Bredeweg, S. Postema, K. Van den Heuvel, E. Hijmans, J. Sobhani. S. Running with a minimalist shoe increases plantar pressure in the forefoot region of healthy female runners. J Sc & Med in Sport, 18 (4): 463-468.
- (5) Chumanov E, Heiderscheit B, Michalski, M, Christa M, Ryan M. 2011. Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43 (2): 296-302.
- (6) Sobhani S, Bredeweg, S, Dekker R, Kluitenberg B, van den Heuvel E et al. Rocker shoe, minimalist shoe, and standard running shoe: A comparison of running economy. J Sc & Med in Sport 2014: 17: 312-316.
- (7) Tung, Kryztopher D.; Franz, Jason R.; Kram, Rodger. A Test of the Metabolic Cost of Cushioning Hypothesis during Unshod and Shod Running. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: 25 July 2013