Four years ago, barely-there minimalist shoes were enjoying a moment; fueled by Chris McDougall’s best-selling book Born to Run, sales of the category had grown to represent one-third of the entire running shoe market, and you couldn’t so much as jog out your front door without stepping on another convert’s Vibram-wrapped toes. Amid that fervor, two French adventure racers and former Salomon footwear execs designed a shoe — the Hoka One One — that was the trend’s antithesis.
Almost cartoonishly big, Hokas were wider, thicker and softer than traditional shoes, with huge, cushioned soles that inspired comparisons to clown shoes. In short, they looked like marketing suicide. But a funny thing happened in 2011 that vindicated the Frenchmen. Elite ultrarunners who laced up in Hokas started winning races, and later raved about how the shoes drastically reduced muscle fatigue and recovery times. Phenom Karl Meltzer dropped sponsor La Sportiva in favor of them. And Dave Mackey won five ultramarathons in Hokas, earning “Ultrarunner of the Year” honors along the way.
Since then, Hoka One Ones have gained more and more traction in the market, even as minimalist sales have dropped by half. Is this running’s next big thing? We can’t say for sure, but we do know that plenty of big shoe companies have followed in Hoka’s footsteps, rolling out their own versions this year. These seven make up the market for so-called maximalist running shoes.