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Hoka for triathlon?

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Hoka One One Conquest

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Is the Hoka One One brand just a fad? What does maximalist mean anyway? Shouldn't we run in less? Hoka One One (pronounced o-nay o-nay) means fly over the earth. In 2010, when Hoka was released, minimalist shoes were the rage snagging 30-40% of the market. First a little look at the minimalist shoe movement.

Many people bought minimalist shoes thinking it would correct their form and make them better, faster and injury free runners. Just putting on a lighter shoe did not change run form. While our ancestors went everywhere unshod our society is used to built up shoes with lots of support. Our foot and ankles muscles are abysmally weak. Recently Vibrams announced they were settling a class action lawsuit due to claims they had made that their Five Finger shoes would reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles. These claims were made without scientific research. But the premise behind the shoes was to get back to basics. Walk the way were were made to walk and run.

Most runners know that the shoe companies will jump on certain terms to sell their shoes. The minimalist craze came off of the book Born to Run, but research on the Indian runners had begun decades earlier. Barefoot and minimalist running is nothing new. In 1960 Ethiopian runner Abele Bikila ran for an Olympic Gold barefoot in a time of 2:15:16. There were Olympians who raced barefoot before him; they just did not medal. Minimalist shoes have been around for a long time as well. In 1953 Roger Bannister had a super light shoe crafted for him in his quest for the 4 minute mile. Racing flats are minimalist shoes. But just as quickly as the market share grew it also dropped. As runners times didn’t plummet after a shoe change and maybe the runners even found themselves injured, sales started to slack.

As the market share for minimalist shoes continues to drop the pendulum has swung the other way. Runners who had jumped on the barefoot bandwagon without first looking at their stride and bio-mechanical issues ended up injured or with tired feet. The shoe manufacturers adapt quickly and promote the benefits of a shoe with cushion that can also be light. Where pronation and motion control were big selling points in the past now the shoes companies focus on weight, cushion, ‘running on air’, run further, and their proprietary technology and materials. Research has shown the runners who wear motion control shoes actually get injured more than those in neutral shoes. Scientists look at runners with flat feet and find that foot structure changes as you add motion. There are people who can heel strike and not get injured just as there are people who can toe run and not get injured. Forcing people into a style can often create more problems. The minimalist movement was beneficial for all runners as it caused us to look at stride and the built up, protective, cushioned, and large drop shoes we were wearing.

The ‘drop’ of the shoe is how much higher the heel of the shoe is than the toe. A shoe with a 25mm thick heel and a 15mm thick forefoot will have a 10mm drop. A zero drop shoe has the same thickness under the forefoot as the heel. A zero drop shoe will take most runners time to acclimate. If you are a heel striker you will land with more force on the heel. A 4mm drop will feel pancake flat to most runners. The 8mm is a compromise from the 12+ drops and is a good place for heel strikers to start working on changing where they land. If you are striving to move away from a heel strike a great way to feel where your foot needs to be is to walk in place. As you walk your will feel that you land on your midfoot. You body weight is directly over your footfall. If you stand and walk in place it is pretty tough to strike with your heel.

So if the minimalist route did not work for folks then how will the maximalist fair? Most of the maximalist shoes have gone with the lower drop. Hoka and Altra shoes range from 6mm to 0mm (Altra). The Hoka and Altra shoes have been adopted by the ultra endurance runners. They can maintain good form, but get the benefit of cushioning on the run. Run bloggers love cutting up the shoes to show how they compare. If you cut a pair of the Hokas in half you can see the 4-6mm drop. It looks pretty flat. The room in the toe box is readily apparent as is the cushioning. Other than that it looks like any other shoe.

After running for a few years in Newtons I decided to give the Hoka brand a try. I tested a pair out at the Rock n Roll expo in San Francisco. They definitely were cushioned and my normal size felt pretty big. After doing some research and talking to a few athletes in California who were running trails and longer distances in the Hokas I decided to try a pair.

I had read that a number of the top distance runners had started running in Hokas, then mid distance athletes were trying them out, are the triathletes next? The new Hoka Conquest is going for that market with triathlon specific features such as drainage, a barefoot interior and elastic laces. The Conquest is a little lighter and has a slightly more conventional appearance than other Hoka models. The new Hoka Conquest upper is almost entirely seamless. Only the toe bumper is stitched to the upper.

Before I transitioned to Newtons from the Brooks Adrenaline I worked on my run form. As a former heel striker I was finding injuries had become an issue. I worked on form and then transitioned to the Newtons. For me it was an easier transition. The lugs encouraged my forward lean. That isn’t to say I don’t still see some heel wear on my Newtons, but I am definitely more of a mid foot runner now. The Newton lugs allow you to pivot forward and use the power of your toes to drive your run. Hoka does not have lugs, but uses what they call a meta rocker midsole. From the website it “creates a unique fulcrum effect and encourages a guided foot gait cycle”. The idea behind the meta rocker is to get your foot off the ground. Research has shown that elite runners who are off the ground more are faster and use less energy.

Each Spring I lead a Couch to 5K program for the Freihofer’s Run for Women. The 12 week program meets 3 times each Monday. We offer a beginner, intermediate and advanced program. As a result by mid session I can easily be logging 10-15 miles on a Monday. I would typically also have a 5 mile morning run and a 2 mile session with my son’s run program. Add in standing and talking to each of the groups and I was on my feet a lot! By the end of the day my feet were tired at best. The idea of a super cushioned shoe was rather intriguing. I ended up ordering 2 pair. I thought my regular size felt too big so I ordered that and a size down. The larger size arrive first.

I knew they were too big, but decided to take them on a trial run anyway. I showed up with them on at the Y with some inquisitive looks - the same looks I received when I wore Newtons for the first time! Since they were big quite a few of the men could give them a try. I wore them for a 4 mile run and liked the feel. They were definitely too big, but no blisters. A few days later the smaller size arrived. I thought I would test them out for the lunchtime run. I forgot I had them on when I headed to my son’s run. We ran only on grass and trail. I had thought they might be tough to manage, but were great and very stable. We got home late and I had to head back down for the Freihofer’s run. I did another 2 runs that night for a total of 16 miles. What a difference! My legs were no where near as tired as normal and I had no issues on day one.

Some critics say you can’t feel the road with all the cushioning and that might be true, but as a self professed spaz I did just fine on grass and trail. I would have to say you do not feel the road as much, but when you are looking for cushioning that is OK.

While the Conquest are fairly light they may seem to heavy for some. According to the book Faster by Jim Gourley they are on the cusp of being too heavy. That means you might have a small degradation in speed - translate to not noticeable. That isn’t to say that I felt the shoe was a bit heavier. My view is train heavy and race light, so this works. That said I ran the Utica Boilermaker in the Hokas and did feel they were heavy. I can’t say if I was just tired, so my legs felt heavy and slow or did the shoe contribute. I had a nagging hip strain, so I decided to wear the Hokas. I loved having the cushioning on the downhill portions. I ran into a few others on the course who raved about their Hokas.

It is a different feel and different look. One thing I really like is the lacing system. The have cleverly designed eyelets for their speed laces, but also include regular laces if you need a snugger fit. I am a bit lazy, so right now my shoes have both lacing systems. If you don’t want the speed laces you have to cut them out. A product enhancement would be to make it easy to interchange lace systems.

Hokas were bought by Deckers who has a long history in the shoe business. A LUNA partner Ahnu was also bought by Deckers Corporation and has been thriving. They obviously understand their market and pay attention to trends and user demand. Hokas are not cheap with an average price of $160. That said they are garnering decent market share. Between Jan 2011 and June 2012 they went from 0-5% market share. From Feb 2013 to March 2014 they went from 5% to 12% surpassing Newton! Only Asics, Brooks and Saucony (at 18%) were ahead.

After my Boilermaker experience I will race light, but will definitely train my long days in the Hoka One One Conquest. My son who is starting cross country could just get them on his feet and was impressed with the cushy feel. He wears Nike Free to school and now trains in his father’s Newtons after trying a super like Under Armour shoe! To each his own. If you are training long then I would suggest giving the Hokas a try. They will not change your run form, but with decent form the cushioning makes long runs much easier on old joints.

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