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Cushion for Pushin’: Maximalist Running Shoes

June 26, 2014 Buying Guides By
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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.

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Altra Olympus


If you find Hoka’s aesthetic singular, take a look at this shoe from Altra, a company whose signature foot-shaped toe boxes let toes splay naturally. Like the Utah peak it’s named after, it dominates the surrounding terrain with a 36mm stack height that makes it one of the highest riding shoes on the market. But, for all that material, the Olympus is fairly lightweight, pointing to the fact that most maximalist shoes have taken design cues — lightest weight materials, low-drop heels — from their minimalist forerunners. Pound the pavement or tackle the trail with these go-anywhere, all-terrain beasts.

Hoka One One Conquest


When the $1 billion Deckers corporation bought Hoka, it gave them access to the company’s stabilizing Rmat suspension midsole. In the Conquest, it’s layered within the company’s classic cushy midsole foam for a firmer, more structured ride. Up top, a super-thin, no-sew upper offers excellent breathability and a glove-like fit. This excellent recovery and long-run shoe is a natural expansion of the Hoka line, ideal for runners who want protection on punishing high-mileage days but who aren’t quite ready for the insanely soft, springy feel of earlier models.

Vasque Ultra SST


Vasque poured a lot of R&D into the Ultra SST, and it shows in the shoe’s futuristic design. Its biggest innovation is ShapeShifter Technology (or “SST”), which refers to an upper stitched directly to the injection-molded EVA midsole, eliminating extra layers (not to mention weight) and bringing your foot closer to the trail than it looks. Closer to the ground means better trail feel, even as the plush midsole swallows up sharp stones and otherwise smooths over rough terrain. Though the sock-like stretch mesh upper dials in with a few cranks on the Boa quick laces, this shoe is best suited to runners with wide or high-volume feet; others will find the fit dangerously loose for technical terrain.

Brooks Transcend


Brooks makes a lot of goofy claims about this shoe: that it’s uniquely shaped outsole disperses pressure evenly so you can “glide effortlessly to the place where rainbows live”; that its curved heel adds spring to your toe-off for a “gravity-defying stride”; and that its supremely soft, cushy midsole “smartly adapts to your every stride like a foot clairvoyant”. Despite its apparent bulk, this big neutral road trainer is fast, stable and perfect for clocking big-mileage days and recovery runs. Just don’t count on rainbows.

New Balance Fresh Foam 980


This neutral trainer will make you run fast, whether you want to or not. The snug, athletic fit — similar to that of a barely cushioned racing flat — belies its plush softness and fat-tongue comfort. When you slide your foot into the form-fitting, breathable mesh upper, no-sew overlays wrap it in all the right places for an exceptionally nimble glove-like fit. There’s not a whole lot of structure here, just a squishy, single piece of fresh foam midsole laid atop a blown-rubber outsole. But at a featherweight 9.1 ounces, who really cares?

Puma FAAS 1000


Puma’s max-cushion shoe was designed as a plush, everyday lightweight trainer. FaasFoam+ and FaasFoamLite combine in the midsole and strike a nice balance between ride quality — somewhat softer than New Balance Fresh Foam but firmer than Skechers GOrun Ultra — and stability. Drawbacks include “weight-saving” cutouts in the sole that tend to collect pebbles and other road detritus, and an overwrought EverFit lace system designed to hold the shoe tightly in place.

Skechers Gorun Ultra


To anyone who recalls Skechers’s “butt-toning” Shape-Ups or the god-awful Kim Kardashian commercial they produced to sell them, it may come as a surprise that the company has become a worthy contender in the performance running shoe market. And the Gorun Ultra, for its part, is one extreme example of how innovative and, in the end, competitive the brand can be. Despite its industry-topping 40mm heel stack and unbeatably soft ride, the Gorun is lighter than almost every competitor (NB’s Fresh Foam is roughly equal), more flexible and offers chunkier, stickier traction. Take this shoe out for big, long road runs and don’t fret the miles — a fresh pair will set you back a paltry $65.

Peter Koch

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