Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Defense of Hokas...and My Analysis of "Minimalism"

In the running world, all you have to do is utter the word "minimalism" and suddenly everyone has an opinion. If I had a nickle for every Christopher McDougall/Caballo Blanco-inspired runner I've seen at the Leadville 100 clad in Vibrams (or even huaraches), I'd be a rich man and could retire today...but not as rich as McDougall himself!

Although many would say "The Book" has been a primary driving force behind the burgeoning minimalist and "barefoot" movement, the fact of the matter is that modern-day running shoes have endured many trends over the years--from light and basic to big and clunky and everything in between. When you look at what many runners especially in the 1970s and even 1980s wore (pretty low-profile racing flats but nothing like Vibrams), what folks wore in the 1990s and early 2000s (big, clunky shoes) and what's hot these days (Vibrams and barefoot running), you could easily argue that what we're experiencing now is really "minimalism 2.0 on steroids."
The Bondi B's
Amid the minimalist movement, shoe racks full of Vibrams, and market share-savvy companies like New Balance and Nike jumping on the "less is more" bandwagon, along comes Hoka One One, a European outfit that has introduced innovative--and super-expensive--shoes that appear quite bulky and heavy and are sometimes dissed as looking "clown"-like. Ah, but looks can be deceiving. As almost any proud Hoka owner would attest (I'm on my FOURTH pair of Bondi B's and will likely be a lifer), Hokas are anything but bulky, heavy and Bozo-like. Yes, they have a lot of EVA, but EVA is light, soft and protective. The uppers are pretty simple, contributing to the relative light weight of Hokas. Ultimately, what you have in Hokas is tremendous responsiveness and a surprisingly light, comfy pair of shoes suitable for all distances--from 5,000 meters to 100-mile and 24-hour races (though I prefer light-weight trainers in "sprint" races like 5Ks). In many respects, Hokas are in a category all to themselves.

No matter what Hoka lovers may say, the minimalists and barefooters out there are undeterred, and God bless them for it. Maybe they're the lucky ones and those of us who wear Hokas are the less fortunate...or even unenlightened. Many of the minimalists contend that we have been sold a bill of goods by the big shoe companies (aka "Big Shoe") that want us to believe more support is better and will help prevent injury. Alas, some of these same big shoe companies have recently begun adding minimalist products to their lines, only feeding the confusion as to what's best for the runner. We are, the minimalists say, born to run barefooted, and so why impede the natural movement of the foot with tanks like Hokas?

For whatever it's worth, here's what I think: We weren't born to run per se. We were born to be active and work hard for what we need. It could be said that running was to "prehistoric" beings a means to an end. In "prehistoric" times, when there weren't King Soopers and Safeways around every rock, we put a lot of physical effort into hunting and gathering...because our lives depended on it. Meat was a big deal; you had to work super hard to kill an animal, sometimes running dozens of miles until the exhausted animal collapsed and died. But that was only part of the effort. You had to work almost just as hard bringing the bounty back to your loved ones and defending your catch from invaders. And animals weren't just a source of food; furs and hides were used for clothing. Most of the time, you ate vegetarian fare--and it sufficed. And when you weren't eating, you worried about things like fortifying your shelter, staying warm (or cool), protecting your family and friends, finding clean water, etc. All of that required some level of activity, including running and hiking.

But our ancestors didn't run for fitness. If a "caveman" ran 20, 30 or 40 miles, it wasn't training; it was to chase down a deer, evade capture, maybe deliver a message or get back home. And those who did the running were usually the best athletes, i.e., the ones who were the most physiologically gifted. No one even knew what fitness in the modern sense was back then. Being fit was part and parcel of survival; the best athletes reigned supreme and brought home the bacon. Also, they didn't have paved roads like we do. Their pursuits took them across pastures, meadows and calderas, up and down mountains, along treacherous ridges, and over downed trees and big rocks (all of which the Jemez 50M and Hardrock 100 deliver). Well-groomed trails were rare. Their feet, unlike ours today, were conditioned from childbirth to withstand tremendous punishment and were strong in muscle and connective tissue. Our feet today are none of that, in large part because we've been wearing supportive shoes since birth, sitting down a lot, driving our cars to King Soopers for food instead of chasing down and/or picking our grub, living in relatively low-maintenance shelters, etc.

All of that said, no one really knows for sure whether minimalism today is a good or bad thing, or even the "natural way." People who run in Vibrams, New Balance's line of minimalist trail shoes, and the like swear by them. By the same token, people who run in Hokas believe their way is the best way (especially for older runners). So essentially what shoes you wear, if you even choose to wear shoes, is a matter of personal preference. Me? My preference is Hokas, thank you very much.


And now let's enjoy an awesome tune that always gets me fired up and ready to get 'er done.


  1. My take is that if you have good running form and want to run on punishing terrain or distances and/or with a high-impact stride without worrying about it, why not wear Hokas?

    But the bottom line for me is simply this: I run better in minimalist footwear.

    Best of all my knees, which wobble and cause tendinitis in conventional shoes (both because of the shoe and because they let me be sloppy) track straight when I have to run gently on thin soles. My feet are getting stronger. And frankly I like it more. Five Fingers in particular are a hoot.

  2. Wyatt,

    Do you do your daily training in hokas, or just use them for your longer races? What's the durability like? Thanks, Pete

  3. Peter: I wear my Hokas every day. I have a few pair I rotate. The only time I don't wear them is when I'm treadmill running (which is rare for me). They don't seem to work well with my treadmill. I wouldn't wear them this much if they weren't fairly light.


  4. I think it's difficult to generalize with shoes. I've been running for most of my life, and when I find a pair shoes that works for me, it's a glorious thing. And sometimes the slightest tweak on a new model can throw off the level of comfort that makes something your "go-to" shoe.

    The one thing that's definitely legit from Born to Run is that the running shoe devolved from a sleek, simple device in the 70s and 80s to a clutterbomb of useless technology by the mid-2000s. I mean, you can say that Hokas are the opposite of minimalist shoes, but I don't think that's the case, because they're still light. Most shoes a were coming in at 14 and 15 oz. a few years ago, and if you turn your ankle in one of those tanks, you're done.

    I think it's a great thing that there's a broad swath of good shoes in the 7-11 oz range now. It certainly make me happy.

  5. The minimal movement is only partly about what you wear. The real value to most runners lies in learning proper form to use the body's natural mechanics for shock absorption and efficiency. And, running barefoot on a limited basis is a great tool to strengthen muscles and tendons of the feet. But certainly you could accomplish that with some focused x-training. In my opinion, the minimal movement is more about those factors than what one wears. I rotate all types of shoes. Though, like mtnrunner, my body responds best to minimal shoes.

  6. I have yet to try the Hokas, because of the sticker shock, at 150 bucks at least. Do you think that you get more life out of these shoes than a
    typical running shoe? In other words, if you get 500 miles out of an 80 dollar pair of shoes, are you getting 1000 out of these 160 dollar shoes?

  7. As a beginner I just wanted to say that this site inspires me so much and is very helpful to me.

  8. Tracie: Thank you! I cannot tell you how much it means to hear from fellow runners who are inspired by this blog.

    GZ & Pete (Pete, I just realized I didn't answer your second here goes): I have gotten 550 miles out of my first two pairs of Hokas and I could probably get more. Right now I'm rotating two newer pairs of Bondi B's and they're great. Ultimately, I think the extra mileage you get out of them makes them effectively a ~$100 shoe. This spring when I really hit the trails I'm going to try the Mafates.

  9. I love my Hoka Mafates. They give me blisters which I've never had with any other shoe, but the payoff is totally worth it.

    A friend who works at a running store said the Stinson Evo coming out soon (or just barely) is the best Hoka so far. Definitely on my "to buy" list.

  10. Have been running in Mafates (muddy, gnarly, snowy, rocky, rooty PacNW trails) and Bondi Bs (road) for the past several months.

    I love them - an often overlooked aspect of these shoes is that there is only 4mm of that oh so precious metric known as drop. Joking aside, this promotes a very natural gate and helps my natural midfoot strike.

    I've worn the Bondi Bs on road runs as short as a 10k and as long as 20 miles. The Mafates have served me very well this fall and winter - my only complaint about the water proof version (and this is a problem for almost all water proof uppers) is that don't breathe well at all. They may keep the creek out of your shoe, but they keep the sweat IN the shoe.

    Can't wait for the Stinson EVOs to come out in Feb.

  11. I think everyone has this wrong including your nicely written article. (though there is some truth's in it) What you run ON is just as important as what you run IN. If you are running in those big ole clanky overpriced hoka's on a real trail in the woods you should rethink that. If your running in them on city sidewalks that are denser than ASPHALT you might be ok. If you are running on a sidewalk or asphalt all the time in your minimalist shoes you might want to rethink that especially if you get hurt once and just can't figure out why? Don't get wrapped around what others do.. find what works for you and take everything into consideration but make what you run on a priority in your choice of shoe. Hoka's are a waist of oil and your money at that price though... CRAZY!!!